Bandura, A. (2006). Autobiography. M. G. Lindzey & W. M. Runyan (Eds.), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. IX). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
It is not uncommon for Theorists often exempt themselves from the theories they develop to explain how other folks behave. The road I have traveled is very much in keeping with the agentic perspective towards human self-development, adaptation and change which underpins social cognitive theory. I grew up in Mundare, a tiny Canadian hamlet in North Alberta. In a venturesome move, my parents emigrated as teenagers from Eastern Europe, my father from Poland and my mother from Ukraine. My father worked laying track for the trans-Canada railroad, my mother worked in the general store in town. After they garnered sufficient savings they bought a homestead. Converting land manually that was heavily wooded and strewn with boulders into a tillable farm with virtually no mechanization was an arduous undertaking.
In addition to creating a workable farm, my father supervised the layout and construction of the road system in this newly opened homestead district. The beginning of this pioneer life was a tough struggle. In the first year, a layer of the thatched roof on the house my father built had to be dismantled and fed to the cattle because of a severe drought. Through laborious effort my father added further sections to the farm. Before long he was sporting a model-T Ford, an odd cultural novelty at the time.
In social cognitive theory I distinguish among three types of environments: the imposed, selected, and constructed environments. Life in this austere homestead area placed a premium on agentic capabilities to construct most of one's life environment with meager resources, and no agricultural subsidies or insurance coverage against widespread crop destruction by unmerciful hail storms, early frosts, and severe droughts. Constructionism was a vital lifestyle not an abstract psychological theory to be debated in arcane language in learned circles.
Not all was arduous labor, however. These folks worked hard in the early building of the Canadian nation but they also knew how to party. They had many saints and religious events requiring festive celebrations. My mother was a superb cook and my father played a sprightly violin. As another mark of constructional initiative, the folks in this area operated stealth liquor-distilling systems that helped to lubricate their communal festivities. This required considerable ingenuity to escape the ever vigilant Royal Canadian mounted police. For example, one innovative farmer sectioned a portion of the boiler in his steam engine for his fermented mash so he could distill the potent brew while performing the farming activities. This is a graphic early example of “multi-tasking.”
We were a close-knit family. I was the youngest with five older sisters. Our family lost a young daughter to the flu pandemic in 1918. My mother walked from home to home helping to nurse back to health those who were fortunate to survive. We also lost a son in a hunting mishap with one of his friends. The Great Depression took a toll on my father's fun-loving spirit when he lost a section of land he had cultivated so laboriously. It pained him to see somebody else farming it.
My parents had no schooling but they placed a high value on the education they missed. My father taught himself to read three languages and served as a member of the school board in the district where we lived. My parents sold a portion of the farm to purchase a dray, freight delivery business and a livery stable in Mundare to be closer to school. All of the supplies for this town were brought in by rail so our drayage service delivered the incoming supplies to the various businesses. The town had a huge mill where farmers from the region brought their grain to be milled into flour. We provided a no room-service bunkhouse, where the farmers could bed down for the night usually after an extended visit to the local beer parlor. We also operated a large livery stable where the farmers parked their horses. During the summer months my father worked on the farm and I would pitch in with the harvesting of the crops, while my mother operated the businesses in town.
The only school in town, which housed first grade through high school, was woefully short of teachers and educational resources. Because two teachers had to teach the entire high school curriculum, they tried their best but were not always fully informed in key subject areas. We once pilfered the answer book for the trigonometry course and brought it to an abrupt halt. We had to take charge of our own learning. Self-directed learning was an essential means of academic self-development not a theoretical abstraction. The paucity of educational resources turned out to be an enabling factor that has served me well rather than an insurmountable handicapping one. The content of courses is perishable, but self-regulatory skills have lasting functional value whatever the pursuit might be.
During summer vacations in high school, my parents encouraged me to seek experiences beyond the confines of this hamlet. I worked in a furniture manufacturing plant in Edmonton. The carpentry skills I acquired helped to support me through college in part-time work. During another high school summer break, I ventured to the Yukon, where I worked in one of the base camps. They maintained the Alaska highway from sinking into the infirm muskeg by continuously resurfacing it with gravel. The camp contained an interesting mix of characters fleeing creditors, probationary officers, the military, and angry ex-wives demanding alimony payments. Alcohol was their prime nutrient. They were brewing their own. One early morning they left jubilantly to distill their fermented mash only to return profoundly despondent. The grizzly bears had partied on their alcoholic mash. We were faced with animated grizzlies stumbling drunkenly in our camp. Fortunately, they were too uncoordinated to do much damage. Life amidst this frontier, drinking, and gambling subculture elevated the survival value of personal resourcefulness and initiative. It provided me with a uniquely broad perspective on life.
In search of a benign climate, I enrolled in the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Being short of the coin of the realm, I worked in a woodwork plant in the afternoons and took a heavy course load in the mornings. I graduated in three years with the University Bolacan Award in psychology. There was an element of fortuity to my entry into psychology. I was in a carpool with pre-meds and engineers who enrolled in classes at an unmercifully early hour. So while waiting for my English class I flipped through a course catalogue that happened to have been left on a table in the library. I noticed an introductory psychology course that would be an early time filler. I enrolled in it and found my future profession.
When it came time to apply for graduate study I went to my academic advisor and asked, “Where are the stone tablets of psychology?” He replied unhesitantly, “University of Iowa, of course.” This was the heyday of theoretical and experimental analyses of learning, which was the phenomenon of central interest, with the Hullian approach being the dominant theory at the time. Clark Hull had passed on his theoretical baton to his illustrious protégé, Kenneth Spence, who presided masterfully over the psychology department at Iowa. So I set my sight on the theoretical epicenter for graduate study. As I was about to leave, my advisor explained that previous applicants had found the doctoral program at Iowa to be a taxing experience. His portrayal made it clear that resilience and a tough hide would be handy survival resources.
As a Canadian, I did not qualify for fellowships because of the citizenship requirement. Arthur Benton set up a fluid financial aid system that kept me supplied with the coin of the realm until he could arrange more stable funding. I dusted off my carpentry skills for construction projects at Arthur's home during this interim aid program. When Judson Brown departed for his summer consultancy at the Lackland Air Force Base, I was the keeper of his house and amiable hound. I wrote to my undergraduate advisor and informed him that the psychology department at Iowa was, indeed, an intellectually demanding place. But it was also a highly supportive one. I explained that my experience at Iowa reminded me of Mark Twain, when he said of Wagner's music, “It is not as bad as it sounds!”
Unlike the all too common doctoral programs run on an eclectic cafeteria style, Iowa conducted a theoretically intense program that had a strong impact on our professional careers. It was here that we had the benefit of models of intense dedication to theoretical analyses coupled with intricately designed experiments to settle disputes between rival theories. Strong commitment to theoretical analysis and respect of incisive experimentation became the hallmark of an Iowa graduate. Diverse programs of research, conducted by Kenneth Spence, Judson Brown, and Isador Farber, addressed the determinants and mechanisms governing learning, motivation, and clinical phenomena from the perspective of Hullian theory. Gustov Bergman, a relocated member of the positivist Vienna Circle, provided the philosophical foundation for this line of theorizing. Arthur Benton, who directed the clinical training program, added a cognitive neuroscience dimension long before it became in vogue.
This was the era of contests between alternative grand theories. Do contingent experiences build and strengthen habits, as the Hullians contended, or create expectancies, as the Tolmanians argued? Was reinforcement necessary for learning? Experiments were designed to challenge basic tenets of the contending theories. The leading theorists differed in their conceptual orientations, but they subscribed to methodological reductionism. Elementary processes were explored mainly with animals on the assumption that the rudimentary processes verified in animal experimentation would explain psychosocial phenomena at higher levels of complexity.
Although we were products of the same doctoral program, we did not worship at the same theoretical altar. This was strikingly illustrated at a meeting called by the National Institute of Health to discuss new developments in theorizing in the field of learning. Of the seven invitees, five were Iowa doctorates. Shep White went the cognitive route, Sid Bijou and Jacob Gewirtz went the operant conditioning route, Howard Kindler represented the Hullian perspective and I conceptualized learning within a social cognitive theoretical framework. We left Iowa with the values and tools to be productive scientists whatever future theoretical course our scholarly pursuits took.
Kenneth Spense micromanaged virtually every aspect of the department. From time to time we added a bit of levity and countercontrol to this otherwise intense doctoral program. On one occasion when one of the beasties drew its final breath in its mazed world, we deposited it in a makeshift rodent coffin adorned with reverential wreathes on the department bulletin board with the sign, “This rat ran according to Tolman's theory.” Kenneth was not at all amused by our ceremonial burial.
Gustov Bergman had a colorful animated lecturing style. He would wonder throughout the class chain-smoking with cigarette ash floating down on the students seated below. He stuffed his pocket with wooden matches and would light them with a flourish on his thigh. His lectures took on an emotive quality when he addressed theories he held in low regard, which were quite a few. Gestalt theory was high on this list. He sought to demystify the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He characterized the “whole” as reflecting emergent properties that are the product not only of the aggregate properties of the constituent elements but their interactive effects as well. It is reported that on one occasion, while announcing in dramatic crescendo that “If the whole is greater than the sum of the parts then the whole is a ghost.” Gustov set himself on fire while vigorously slapping his match-laden pocket. The student, over whom he was hovering at the time, sounded the alarm “Professor Bergman, you are on fire.” “You're damn right I am,” he exclaimed, thinking the student was speaking figuratively.
Blissfully oblivious to power differentials, at the end of each academic year we hosted the annual Regression Dinner, during which we made ceremonial offerings to the faculty. For example, to the faculty member who taught the psychotherapy course from a non-directive perspective we offered a broom handle topped with hands pointing in every direction. In recognition of his membership in the positivist Vienna Circle, we offered Gustov a circle of baloney. In accepting our offering, he remarked that this was operationism at its material best. My graduate peers were mainly World War II veterans pursuing their education on the GI bill. Their combat experiences under General Patton and other tough commanders undoubtedly contributed to the boldness of our cohort.
Given a lean cash flow, I opted for the fast-track academic pace I adopted for my baccalaureate degree and completed the doctoral program in three years. I left Iowa with more than a degree, however. There is much that we do designedly to exercise some measure of control over our self-development and life circumstances. But there is a lot of fortuity in the courses lives take. Indeed, some of the most important determinants of life paths occur through the most trivial of circumstances. People are often inaugurated into new life trajectories, marital partnerships, occupational careers through fortuitous circumstances. A seemingly insignificant fortuitous event can set in motion constellations of influences that alter the course of lives. These branching processes alter the linear progression, continuity, and gradualism of life-course trajectories.
I previously described how a fortuitous event got me into psychology. At Iowa I met my future wife, Virginia Varns, who was on the teaching staff in the School of Nursing, through a fortuitous event. My friend and I were quite late getting to the golf course one Sunday, so we were bumped to a later starting time. There were two women ahead of us. They were slowing down. We were speeding up. Before long we became a genial foursome. I met my wife in a sand trap! The golf connection had a trivial origin. The University of British Columbia required two physical education courses for graduation. I selected outdoor physical ed imagining it to be a communion with mother nature at a leisurely pace. Upon being instructed, in the first session, to run around the track to the point of exhaustion just short of cardiac arrest, I opted for archery as more to my liking. To fulfill the second requirement, I selected indoor physical ed, where unexpectedly they not only made us run around but climb ropes to dizzying heights. Upon my speedy descent I promptly switched to a more benign form of exertion – golf. Were it not for the bothersome physical ed requirement and tardiness in getting to the golf links our lives would have taken entirely different courses.
Some years later I delivered a presidential address at the Western Psychological Convention on the psychology of chance encounters and life paths (Bandura, 1982). At the convention the following year an editor of one of the publishing houses explained that he had entered the lecture hall as it was rapidly filling up and seized an empty chair near the entrance. In the coming week he will be marrying the woman who happened to be seated next to him. With only a momentary change in time of entry, seating constellations would have altered and this intersect would not have occurred. A marital partnership was thus fortuitously formed at a talk devoted to fortuitous determinants of life paths!
Fortuitous influences are ignored in the causal structure of the social sciences even though they play an important role in life courses. The physical sciences acknowledge indeterminacy at the quantum level in the physical world. Fortuitous events introduce an element of indeterminacy in the behavioral sciences. The separate paths in a chance encounter have their own determinants, but they are causally unconnected until their intersection, at which point the encounter creates a unique confluence of influences that have causal impact. Fortuitous occurrences may be unforeseeable, but having occurred, the conditions they create enter as contributing factors in causal processes in the same way as prearranged ones do. I took the fortuitous character of life seriously, provided a preliminary conceptual scheme for predicting the psychosocial impact of such events through the interaction of personal and environmental properties, and specified ways in which people can capitalize agentically on fortuitous opportunities (Bandura, 1982; 1998).
Fortuity does not mean uncontrollability of its effects. People can make chance happen by pursuing an active life that increases the number and type of fortuitous encounters they will experience. Chance favors the inquisitive and venturesome, who go places, do things, and explore new activities. People also make chance work for them by cultivating their interests, enabling beliefs and competencies. These personal resources enable them to make the most of opportunities that arise unexpectedly. Pasteur put it well when he noted that, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” Even that distinguished lay philosopher, Groucho Marx, insightfully observed that people can influence how they play the hand that fortuity deals them, “You have to be in the right place at the right time, but when it comes, you better have something on the ball.” Self-development gives people a hand in shaping the courses their lives take.
After receiving my doctorate, I completed a year internship at the Wichita Guidance Center. I was attracted to this program for two main reasons. The Center was directed by a psychologist, Joseph Brewer, which, I reasoned, would damper excessive medicalization of common problems of living. This was a time when the field of clinical psychology was heavily intrapsychically oriented under the reign of psychoanalytic theory. The Center was embedded in a diverse network of community services. The societal connectedness provided a broader perspective on how people live their lives. It was a year well spent.
I joined the faculty at Stanford University in 1953, where I recently completed a half century of academic service and am still saddled up for active duty into the second half. As I reflect on this transforming journey it feels like a surreal Odyssey from a remote hamlet in Northern Alberta to the balmy palms of Stanford in a brief six years. As a visiting faculty member at Stanford in 1906, William James aptly described this wonderous place as near “utopian,” where, “there couldn't be imagined a better environment for an intellectual man to teach and work” with the added benefit of “Perfection of weather” (James, 1920). This place got even better with time. I was blessed with illustrious colleagues, gifted students, considerable freedom to go wherever one's curiosity might lead, and a university ethos that approaches scholarship, not as a matter of publish or perish, but with puzzlement that the pursuit of knowledge should require coercion. My first faculty meeting with the renowned assemblage of former APA presidents – Bob Sears, Jack Hilgard, Quinn McNemar, Calvin Stone, and Paul Farnsworth – was a rather awesome experience. I had been weaned on their textbooks so they were larger than life.
My appointment was for one year as an acting instructor. Halfway through the academic term, I went to Bob Sears, the Chair of the Department, and explained that I was considering an offer in Santa Rosa, near the bucolic wine region, combining clinical work in a community service center with part-time teaching at the Santa Rosa Junior College. In his forceful response, Bob explained that I will be receiving a three-year assistant professorship and that, in the interim, he will place me under self-protective “house arrest” to forestall an irrational decision.
During this time, Stanford was in the early throes of launching an expansive transformational change under the adroit leadership of our Provost, Fred Terman. He was the son of Lewis Terman, who created the Stanford-Binet test and launched the productive longitudinal study into the life courses of intellectually gifted children. Flushed with ample reserves and discretionary funds from an ambitious fund-raising campaign, Fred put into overdrive his theory of “steeples of excellence.” He instructed search committees in every division of the University to go for the best. Renowned faculty, he argued, would attract promising young faculty members, excellent graduate students, and plentiful research grants. He would wander into search committee meetings to be greeted, all too often, with recitals of why the foremost scholar in a given field would not be moveable. Fred would remind the faculty that they were charged with finding the best candidate and it was his responsibility to figure out how to attract them to Stanford.