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He's Focusing on the Positive

Courtesy News Service/Linda Cicero

THE GLASS IS HALF FULL: Bandura says that today's mental health theories "overpredict pathologies."

We are a society of depressed, violent, overweight, addicted enablers. At least that's what you might conclude by listening to many of today's pessimistic health researchers, says Albert Bandura. Famous for his work on "social cognitive theory," Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology, has become a leading voice against what he calls "the negativity in the profession."

Stanford: The prevailing wisdom seems to be that biology or early experiences form us for life, but you disagree. Why?

Bandura: My view is that human beings aren't just reactive organisms. Our patterns of behavior and social norms are changing. It's not nature versus nurture. They are intertwined. The real question is: does biology have culture on a tight leash or a loose leash? I'm arguing for a loose leash. In other words, individuals who are tall have the potential to be successful basketball players, but they are not preordained to basketball pursuits. We all have the potential for violent behavior -- to stab, shoot, kill -- but most of us don't act on it.

Why are some people who grow up in poverty or surrounded by violence able to become healthy, functioning adults?

It's not only some; it's the vast majority. Sometimes our theories greatly overpredict pathologies. If you looked at the conditions under which people in the ghetto grow up, you'd think that most of these kids should be into crime and drugs, but they aren't. How did they make it? Because of the tremendous effort and self-sacrifice on the part of their parents. Many went out of the way to find opportunities for their kids.

You have theorized that people need to believe that they can succeed in producing a desired result. Why does this self-confidence matter?

My book Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997) focuses on people's beliefs as the foundation of human motivation and achievement. Unless you believe that your action can produce change, you probably won't try. You need the core belief that you have the power to effect change. Much of the work I have done centers on how you restore people's belief, their sense of efficacy.

What about your own life? How do you use these approaches?

You have to apply these techniques to yourself in a way that contributes to your life. I am 75 years old, and I have been at Stanford for 46 years. I jog on the track and have good control over my eating habits, and I welcome the research that shows the benefit of red wine. That gives me justification to hit the cabernet.

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