Smashing Interviews Magazine

Compelling People — Interesting Lives



October 2016



Albert Bandura Interview: The Greatest Living Psychologist on Trump's "Atrocious Statements" and Humanity's "Pervasive Moral Paradox"

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Image attributed to Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, has received both the APS William James Fellow Award and the APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award and is considered one of the most influential psychological scientists in the world. His groundbreaking research on self-efficacy demonstrated that individuals’ beliefs about their own capabilities affects their choices, motivations and even well-being and health. Self-efficacy theory has had broad implications for everything from HIV prevention to classroom teaching strategies.

In a series of now-famous experiments, Bandura used an inflatable clown doll named Bobo to demonstrate that learning depends on more than simply rewards and punishment. After watching an adult aggressively pummel a Bobo doll, children modeled the same aggressive behavior, and children who watched a nonaggressive adult did not adopt the same degree of violent behavior toward the doll.

“It’s really a central issue nationally and also even globally. People adopt moral standards which serve as guides and restraints to conduct. They adhere to the standards because it brings them self-satisfaction and a sense of self-worth. They refrain from violating them because it will bring self-condemnation, and these self-sanctions keep behavior in line with moral standards.”

President Obama presented eminent psychological scientist Albert Bandura with the National Medal of Science in a ceremony held at the White House on May 19, 2016. Bandura’s latest book is Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, which discusses how otherwise considerate human beings do cruel things and still manage to live in peace with themselves.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Professor Bandura, you dedicated your book, Moral Disengagement, to your wife, Virginia, and you say, “Her humanitarian commitment to the betterment of people’s lives is very much in keeping with the moral issues this book addresses.” Let’s start by talking about how you and Virginia met.

Albert Bandura: Well, my wife and I both had very similar backgrounds. I came from a small rural town in Alberta, population 400. My parents migrated from Eastern Europe, my father from Poland, my mother from Ukraine. They had no formal education and were really the pioneers of the Canadian nation.

In my case, there were very limited educational resources. We had grades first through high school in one schoolhouse. There were only about three teachers teaching the entire high school curriculum. Ginny’s parents were farmers in a small rural town in North Dakota. The common pattern, in my case, would be to work on the farms, and in the case of Ginny, it would be some job that would be sort of available for women.

Ginny, during the war, got on the train and bravely went to Washington, DC and worked in the Surgeon General’s office as a stenographer. She had her tuition paid through a fellowship program with the School of Nursing, so she enrolled in a program in nursing at the University of Iowa. I was a graduate student pursuing doctoral work at Iowa, too. She completed her work, then she was appointed as an instructor in the Obstetrics Department, and we met by fortuity.

One of my friends was late in getting to the golf course, so they bumped us to a later time. There were two women ahead of us, and they were slowing down, and we were speeding up. Before long, we became a joyful foursome, and I met my wife-to-be in the sand trap (laughs). When I got my PhD, we got married and came to Stanford.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And Ginny was involved in humanitarian causes?

Albert Bandura: She was very active in social programs and not only working as a nurse, but also very heavily involved in a lot of humanitarian programs. We had a very serious issue in the Bay Area because the San Francisco Airport desperately needed a couple more runways. They were planning to fill more of the bay for the runways, and it was decided to pave over the ponds and marshlands for housing and industrial purposes. That would have changed the climate in the Bay Area by a few degrees. Ginny was part of a conservation group in Palo Alto that really became organized to start to mobilize the community to oppose this move, and they succeeded in the state government under regional control, which will then prevent this irresponsible filling of the bay.

Another problem that came up was that the city of San Francisco decided that it was not cost effective to continue to use the cable cars, and they were going to rip out cable car lines and destroy the city’s icon (laughs). Ginny, and other groups in the Bay Area, mobilized millions of people and put an end to that plan. She was very much involved in a whole bunch of issues, ones that not only changed people’s lives, but changed the quality of the environment in which we live.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ginny sounds like a very special person. What is moral disengagement?

Albert Bandura: It’s really a central issue nationally and also even globally. People adopt moral standards which serve as guides and restraints to conduct. They adhere to the standards because it brings them self-satisfaction and a sense of self-worth. They refrain from violating them because it will bring self-condemnation, and these self-sanctions keep behavior in line with moral standards.

But, that’s not how it works anymore, and what we’re facing is this pervasive moral paradox in which individuals in all walks of life, and also in all major social systems, are committing inhumanities that may violate their moral standards, but they still retain a positive self-regard and live in peace with themselves. This moral paradox is achieved by different mechanisms of moral disengagement which can strip morality from inhumane conduct and disavow conduct for it.

What I do in my latest book is to really document the pervasiveness of this new kind of selective disengagement of morality. It doesn’t make any difference whether we’re talking about the entertainment industry, the gun industry, the tobacco industry, the finance industry, capital punishment, terrorism, military counterterrorism and the most important one, which is environmental sustainability, because that is the most urgent problem facing humankind in this century.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Climate change?

Albert Bandura: If we continue on the pace we’re on, we’re going to have a planet that’s very hot, and you won’t be spending much time outside. We’ll have stunted population growth, accelerated extinction of biodiversity, and then we’ll have most of our low-lying coastal areas really underwater as we get the sea rising. Florida and the gulf region’s going to be underwater if we get the rising sea levels. This is really going to be changing the nature of our planet, and we’re not going to be becoming a very inhabitable one for our future generations.

That’s the scope of the issue, and in this book, I document in great detail each of these organizations and social systems, the way in which we are engaging in a lot of inhumane and destructive behavior, but still feeling good about ourselves because we are stripping morality from it and disallowing responsibility for it.

We have to make it harder for people to remove humanity from their conduct. It’s very hard to get people to behave inhumanely toward people who have been humanized. This comes through in these killings, the way in which we divide people along social, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic lines, and then we have the in-group and the out-group, and we attribute all kinds of negative attributes to the out group-members, the ones we don’t identify with, which essentially impairs any sense of humanity toward them.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you say to people denouncing global warming?

Albert Bandura: It’s really totally irresponsible. I mean, we have only about 40 or 50 years. We had 20 annual meetings of the UN. They were supposed to be doing the foundation for the Paris meeting where all the nations were going to commit themselves to a certain level of reduction of emissions, and they did absolutely nothing in 20 years. Then, we got to Paris, and what we got was not any binding commitments, but we got pledges with no system of monitoring whether these countries were going to live up to their pledges.

The United States is an embarrassment because they’ve never been able to pass a climate treaty in our Senate. That’s why we did not commit ourselves to the Kyoto accord. We became an embarrassment in these annual meetings, so the United States was then elected the fossil of the day (laughs).

Poor Obama was trying to get a commitment to his executive authority, and that’s what he did. Now, the Congress is planning to sue him. The preliminary judgment of the court was that they can sue him. He pledged 28% reduction primarily in putting a tamp on the coal industry. Then, to have a presidential campaign where some say global warming is a hoax. If the United States isn’t going to deliver, why should any other country do so? It’s not only local, but it’s global, with global consequences.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is the learned aggressive behavior from watching television what your famous Bobo doll study proved when children watched and copied the adults’ aggressive behaviors?

Albert Bandura: Yes. Very much so. After the study, it was clear that much of our learning was occurring through social modeling, and I decided to include a condition in which the modeling was through a simulated TV modeling. At that time, the parents were getting very much concerned because the networks were working under a false assumption that it was necessary to have a lot of gratuitous violence to deliver viewers to advertisers. So, what you had were families sitting in the comfort of their homes viewing every imaginable form of human cruelty being perpetrated.

At that time, there were a lot of Senate hearings and concern about the facts of this massive exposure to violence. There was a common belief at catharsis that if you view violence, it drains aggressive impulse and reduces your likelihood to aggression. My experiments proved otherwise, namely, the children were modeling this style of behavior, and it was pretty prevalent. It was in those Bobo doll experiments where I was really refuting the catharsis hypothesis and providing support that we now have a reality in which we’re spending much of our time in the cyber world, and the symbolic environment is gaining a tremendous increase in power that can influence millions of people throughout the world to global modeling, and people were transcending their media environment.

For example, compare the research that was done on the importance of peer relationships. In those days before the advent of the revolutionary advances in communication, that would be relationships in school and in your immediate environment. Now with social media, consider the peer relationships of today. You’ve really got to do a lot of research not to find there is a peer role in adolescents in this cyber world we’re living in.

I wrote a piece for Look magazine on the social influence of television, but the Television Information Office, a subsidiary of the National Association of Broadcasters, sent a large packet of material to its sponsor stations explaining why my research on social modeling should be disregarded. They didn’t like me, and they tried to find a way to raise doubts about my scholarship. They sent out information to TV stations trying to discredit my research. TV Guide ran a series of editorials in which they were critical of my research with headlines like, “The Man in the Eye of the Hurricane,” saying that the “Bandura School Has Taken Over Washington,” and criticized the Surgeon General’s office for acting, “as if Rome were burning and Dr. Bandura were a fire extinguisher.”

Then, they put out a movie called The Storyteller in which they essentially whitewashed the violence that they were including in their movies and television shows. They had a person representing me, and I was going through some pretty harsh interrogation and didn’t come out looking very good. That was my baptism into public policy.

The biggest battles of moral disengagement are fought around the issue of if it does harm because if it doesn’t, there’s no moral issue. So, all these social systems that are doing things that are harmful or producing products that are harmful they go to great lengths to try to minimize, deny or dispute the mounting evidence. In the case of the environmental issues, we have the people that are denying that global warming is produced by human activity. If you take that position, there’s no need for you to change any of your environmental destruction practices. When the evidence mounts about harmful effects, then the industries and social systems go on to a campaign to create doubt about the data. That was the experience I had with regard to gratuitous violence and its affects.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What about moral disengagement and the tobacco industry?

Albert Bandura: The tobacco industry calls the research scientific malpractice and sees no moral justification for producing a product which annually kills half a million people in the United States alone. Their main justification was freedom, like, “We don’t want big government infringing in our habits.” That worked fine until a Japanese scientist discovered second-hand smoke. It wasn’t a private matter any longer. You were now effecting the health of your co-workers, your family, your children and so on. They went to great lengths to try to discredit him and his research.

When I was coding moral disengagement in these different industries, I asked my coders to code anytime they ran across moral disengagement, like some member within the industry who was raising questions about this. I found only a few cases. One was a scientist who was working in one of these institutes that is funded by the tobacco industry. He said, “We shouldn’t be doing this.” He’s a very dignified and revered researcher. I don’t know what happened to him (laughs).

Ultimately, society judges the worth of theories by the information it can provide as to how to produce change. For example, if you have a science of aerodynamics, in which they confine their research to wind tunnels, and they had a whole bunch of aeronautical principles, but could never build an airplane that would fly, someone would raise questions about that (laughs). I always felt that we have a responsibility to apply our research on individual and social change. In my research, one reason it had this long survival and was widely accepted is that it was readily applicable. For example, in the Bobo doll experiment.

In physical and biological sciences, we often have findings on research that was conducted for its own sake, but then it had unimaginable social implications. We don’t have those in social science, but 30 years after I had done the Bobo doll experiment, I received a telephone call from Miguel Sabido in Mexico that said he had read the research and had extracted half a dozen principles, primarily social modeling and self-efficacy and that he had developed long-running serial dramas in Mexico based on this knowledge. He came over and showed how he was applying this to promote national literacy and also to bring down the soaring population growth in Mexico.

In the book, I have a long section of how the long-running serial dramas are now being used in Africa, Asia and Latin America to promote literacy in these countries, to raise the status of women in societies in which they’re denied aspiration and their freedom and dignity, how to promote planned child bearing both to curtail the recurring poverty and also to try to bring down the soaring population growth, then to curb the AIDS epidemic and to promote environmentally sustainable practices. That’s why my theory has always been used in this way for human betterment.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever seen a political contest like we have going on now?

Albert Bandura: No. No. No. There’s no discussion of issues. The thing that’s really puzzling is how Trump has survived because he’s violated every social scientific prediction and also the predictions of the gurus mainly. He would make some atrocious statement, and the conclusion would be that would do him in. Instead, it would bring his supporters to their feet cheering him. So, what happens is he would make, not only these atrocious statements, but blatant falsehoods, and his poll numbers would just go up.

The phenomenon here is there’s a lot of angry people, and these are mainly blue-collar and lower-level middle class people who have lost their jobs through automation and through outsourcing, and some have lost their homes, pensions and their jobs through the financial crisis. They see these banks that were responsible for it being bailed out without anyone going to jail. They’re angry as hell, and they say, “I don’t care what kind of crazy things Trump says. He’s going to make America great again. We’re going to have jobs.”

Trump has the support, and he’s devised a very significant use of social media. He’d make an atrocious or a blatant falsehood, and then he’d get criticized for it. He immediately goes on Twitter with a counterattack, then that becomes the subject of the next day’s media. Trump has completely dominated the media through this strategy and got all this attention without buying more ads and so on. Clinton has so many handicaps and problems. Her problem is that she has the right ideas, but has difficulty inspiring people in terms of getting them fired up as Sanders did.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some critics have called Donald Trump a narcissist.

Albert Bandura: Well, he’s totally self-centered. I mean, he was standing up there and asked, “Don’t you agree that this is my hair?” They applaud, and he says, “You agree that this is my hair?” That’s absolutely crazy (laughs). You can’t be more narcissistic when opening an oration with, “Don’t you agree this is my hair?” (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you working on any projects now?

Albert Bandura: Oh yeah. I decided I’m going to quit the teaching part at Stanford (after 57 years), but I still continue on my research. I’ve been around for a long time, and I enjoy getting these emails from high school students who are mentoring in AP Psychology classes. I got one the other day that asked, “Professor Bandura, are you still alive?” I said, “We have email on the other side, but we don’t have Facebook.” (laughs)

Anyway, it has been a fantastic career here. I follow what I preach … mainly you stay young by self-renewal and by taking on new challenges. I published this book at age 90, and I don’t feel any different than I did as a graduate student. I took on this massive book, Moral Disengagement, and I’d get up each morning and look in The New York Times to find out who had died (laughs). It has been a fantastic journey, and now I’ve got to think about what I’m going to do next.

I have to find my new challenge, and it has to be a big one. I usually point out that it’s not the miles traveled, but the amount of tread you still have left that’s important. The last time I checked, I still had too much tread left to bring this odyssey to a halt (laughs).

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