Albert Bandura, one of the most famous psychologists of all time, has just received the National Medal of Science. According to a 2002 study, Bandura is the most eminent living psychologist and the fourth most cited of all time.

His famous Bobo doll experiments in 1961 and 1963 are some of the most influential psychological studies ever, as their findings have been replicated by numerous studies since. In the study, one group of children watched as adults threw Hulk Hogan-style smackdowns on an inflatable clown doll and used kid-friendly verbal aggression against the doll. Another group of children were not exposed to the clown punching. The children who were exposed to the violent adults were much more likely to imitate the behavior, by kicking, punching, and pummeling the doll. The results confirmed Bandura’s theory of social learning: that we learn through observing, imitating, and modeling. Before this experiment, psychologists believed witnessing violence would “purge” one of their aggressive instincts. Bandura proved them wrong. He reran the experiment in 1963, this time with children watching filmed violence instead. The results were the same — children imitated the aggressive behavior. This research blazed the trail for studying how kids react to violent media.

Bandura’s theories evolved in later decades, as he began to see humans as self-regulating and not at the mercy of external forces. His studies ranged from the late 1970s to 2004, and showed that self-efficacy, or the belief that we have control over our experiences and reactions, could ease the symptoms of phobias and traumas. The idea that we are not just reactive organisms, but that we have the power to self-regulate, to choose, to control, was revolutionary. When we believe things are out of our control, we feel helpless. When we believe there are things we can control, we are empowered. This theory doesn’t undermine the Bobo experiment. We may want to act aggressively when we witness violence; it may even be our go-to reaction. But we have a choice, we have the power to self-reflect, to pause and decide how to respond. That’s a very powerful insight.

Bandura has received 16 honorary degrees, and has been graced with dozens of awards and honors throughout his illustrious career. In 1974, he was named president of the American Psychological Association. Now at 90, he is still teaching and researching at Stanford University, and has one more award for his immeasurable contributions to the field of psychology.


PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ochs Archive