Saturday, May 28, 2016

Reading with STA:C in mind: Albert Bandura’s “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency” (1st of 2 posts) — strong overlaps with STA:C’s action component

This post, overdue by a year, discusses a writing by Albert Bandura, the Stanford-based psychologist renowned for his work on the importance of human agency, particularly “self-efficacy”. The post pertains to the action part of my nascent framework about people’s space-time-action orientations and their effects on cognition and culture (STA:C).

This write-up has become longer, the more I have worked on it. So I’m breaking into two, maybe three parts.

Frankly, I have not enjoyed reading or writing for this post. But doing it is requisite for what’s next: an upcoming post to offer a revised updated briefing-style overview of STA:C.

Doing literature reviews to verify STA:C: Lefebvre, Zimbardo & Boyd, now Bandura

Years ago, after writing two background posts about STA:C (here & here), plus a post or two about applying it to terrorist mindsets (e.g., here), I decided in 2014 to do a series based on literature reviews as a way to make progress on STA:C. The first examined a classic about social space: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. The second focused on a recent book about time perspectives: Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd’s The Time Paradox. That meant a third was still needed about people’s action orientations — their sense of agency. This belated post meets that need.

This series is not about the writings individually, but about an over-arching purpose that serves STA:C — to show that each expert writing, besides dwelling on its avowed focus on space, or time, or action orientations, inevitably turns to say something about all three. My proposition is that a major expert writing cannot avoid doing so.

Thus my reviews are meant to help confirm, for STA:C’s sake, that people’s space-time-action orientations function as a bundle — as an interrelated set of cognitive-knowledge elements that no mind or culture can do without. This cognitive triplex underpins the distinctive nature of every mind and every culture.

In other words, the theorists reviewed in my series — Lefebvre, Zimbardo, and now Bandura — appear to be writing about their singular specialty: space, time, or action. But, from a STA:C perspective, these experts are studying only one part or another of a systematic mental and cultural complex that is truly comprised of all three orientations. They’re doing it narrowly and unknowingly by emphasizing their specialization in just one of the three orientations. Does it resemble the parable of the blind mean and the elephant?

While each of these three cognitive/cultural domains are usually analyzed separately, STA:C says to examine them together. The more we learn about analyzing people’s space-time-action orientations, the more we shall realize that all three are so thoroughly interlaced in our minds and cultures that they comprise a cognitive module. And if I’m right, the unfolding of that realization will matter not only across academic disciplines, but also to real-world analysts and strategists of all stripes. Figure out people’s space-time-action beliefs as a bundle and you can figure out better than ever why people think and behave the ways they do.

In that sense, my objective with this post isn’t simply to post about Bandura, but to do needed background work for revising a 2014 post (here) that depicted STA in six briefing-style slides. It left largely blank a slide about Bandura, because I’d not finished this post at the time. Now, I can reissue it next as an updated depiction of space-time-action cognition/culture analysis (now, STA:C).

Selecting a Bandura writing to focus on

When I went looking for a writing about people’s action orientations, I was initially drawn to Albert Bandura’s Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (1997), for it discussed psychological efficacy in a manner that matched what I think action means in the STA:C framework. Other option were grand theories of social action — e.g., by sociologists Talcott Parsons, Anthony Giddens, or Manuel Castells. They engage space and time factors; but they also use broader definitions of action than I think is best for developing STA:C at this point. Another option was a history of the Western concept of “progress” and its dependence on innovations in thinking about space, time, and action (as discussed here). Or a writing, perhaps by an anthropologist, about differences between Western and Asian modes of thought. But for now, I’d rather look into a writing of a more theoretical and psychological bent — namely, Bandura’s book.

Bandura’s book is commendable. It is his masterwork on self-efficacy. And it lays out at length the ideas he first expressed in his seminal paper, “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change” (1977), and builds on his magisterial Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (1986). But I became daunted by the book’s unwieldy size, academic prose, and emphasis on matters of little interest to me (e.g., phobias, addictions). So I turned to another hard-copy book he edited: Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies (1995). His lead chapter summarizes his key ideas and observations. But then I dithered for a year, partly because of my increasing need for digital texts to ease copying and pasting quotes.

Now, still weary but ready to make a new effort, I have re-examined other overviews and come across an article — “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency” (2006) — that offers a recent summary and can be accessed digitally. It contains many key points — even identical passages — that appear in his Self-Efficacy book and other summaries/overviews. So I’ve opted to rely on that paper as the basis for this post. Yet, partly because that paper focuses on “agency” more than “self-efficacy”, I supplement my effort with a few gleanings from some of his other oft-quoted writings.

Unless otherwise indicated, then, all quotes in this post (and the next) are from this 2006 paper.

After all, my goal is not to survey Bandura’s work thoroughly, but rather just to verify that, when he goes about analyzing people’s action (agency, efficacy) orientations, this leading expert must and does say a lot about people’s space and time orientations as well.

Readers interested in Bandura’s work will find an enormous archive online at the University of Kentucky (here). It contains decades of Bandura’s writings (including what I review here), as well as numerous discussions and applications by other scholars. This curated resource also includes methodologies (questionnaires, indicators, indexes, scales) for measuring a person’s sense of efficacy.

What action means in the STA:C framework: a reminder

First, a reminder of what the action orientation means in my proposed framework about the space-time-action elements of consciousness, cognition, and culture. To reiterate what I wrote in an earlier post (here), action refers to the basic beliefs that people hold about whether and how they can affect and perhaps alter their environment, what instruments and alternatives they have for doing so, and what are deemed proper actions. Thus this orientation reflects people's notions about cause-effect and ends-means relationships.

Perhaps, in particular situations, people’s action orientations cannot be fully abstracted from their space and time orientations. Yet, this is a distinct realm of cognition about the abilities and prospects — the power, efficacy, will, capacity — that an actor thinks he or she has for affecting a situation, independently of one’s space and time orientations.

For example, the action orientation may get at differences between two actors who share similar hopes about the future and critiques of the present, but differ over whether and how a system can be changed and their hopes attained, perhaps because they differ as to what actions are legitimate, or because one feels a sense of power and the other does not.

STA:C’s social action element thus concerns a matter that often arises in analyses of history, philosophy, and anthropology, not to mention psychology: whether people can master and guide their destiny, or whether they are subject to an inevitable, even preordained place and fate about which they can do little to nothing — indeed, whether one's life is the stuff of lawful or random forces.

This view from STA:C seems mighty close to Bandura’s view of agency and efficacy, now that I have read some of his writings.

Bandura’s focus on agency and self-efficacy (STA:C’s action component)

Bandura’s paper focuses on the importance of agency, meaning the ability “to influence intentionally one’s functioning and life circumstances.” (164) Agency is important because “malleability and agentic capability are the hallmark of human nature.” (173) Indeed, developing an “agentic self” is one of life’s most meaningful endeavors. Agency is good to have because it means a person “can generate a wider array of options”:
“The cultivation of agentic capabilities adds concrete substance to abstract metaphysical discourses about freedom and determinism. People who develop their competencies, self-regulatory skills, and enabling beliefs in their efficacy can generate a wider array of options that expand their freedom of action, and are more successful in realizing desired futures, than those with less developed agentic resources.” (166)
Efficacy as the essence of agency: In saying so, Bandura clarifies that personal efficacy beliefs are the “foundation of human agency”:
“Among the mechanisms of human agency, none is more central or pervasive than belief of personal efficacy (Bandura, 1997). This core belief is the foundation of human agency. Unless people believe they can produce desired effects by their actions, they have little incentive to act, or to persevere in the face of difficulties. Whatever other factors serve as guides and motivators, they are rooted in the core belief that one has the power to effect changes by one’s actions.” (170)
He also clarifies that efficacy beliefs comprise a “key personal resource” that influences myriad key aspects of how people approach and go through life:
“Belief in one’s efficacy is a key personal resource in personal development and change (Bandura, 1997). It operates through its impact on cognitive, motivational, affective, and decisional processes. Efficacy beliefs affect whether individuals think optimistically or pessimistically, in self-enhancing or self-debilitating ways. Such beliefs affect people’s goals and aspirations, how well they motivate themselves, and their perseverance in the face of difficulties and adversity. Efficacy beliefs also shape people’s outcome expectations — whether they expect their efforts to produce favorable outcomes or adverse ones. In addition, efficacy beliefs determine how opportunities and impediments are viewed. People of low efficacy are easily convinced of the futility of effort in the face of difficulties.” (170-171)
Thus he goes on to conclude that “efficacy beliefs contribute significantly to level of motivation, emotional well-being, and performance accomplishments.” So much so, that “In short, we are an agentic species that can alter evolutionary heritages and shape the future.” (171, 173)

Other oft-quoted Bandura writings state similarly that self-efficacy means “belief in one's capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations” (Bandura, 1995, p. 2). Self-efficacy corresponds to “people's judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances” (1986, p. 391?). He often refers to “control” as an aspect of agency or efficacy.

Ways of acquiring and exercising agency: A critic of determinism, Bandura pioneered theorizing in the field of psychology about how people both shape and are shaped by their environments — arguing that there is a constant interplay between agency and structure, and that “people are producers as well as products of social systems” (1999, p. 21). Bandura’s key contribution in this regard is his concept of “triadic reciprocal causation” among personal, environmental, and behavioral determinants (170). Accordingly,
“People do not operate as autonomous agents. Nor is their behavior wholly determined by situational influences. Rather, human functioning is a product of a reciprocal interplay of intrapersonal, behavioral, and environmental determinants.” (Bandura, 1986, p. 165)
This analytic concept reflects that people are not passive participants in life, but bear personal responsibility for their actions and the influence they have, a theme he further develops under a concept of “moral agency” (to be discussed in Part 2):
“In the triadic interplay of intrapersonal, behavioral, and environmental events, individuals insert personal influence into the cycle of causation by their choices and actions. Because they play a part in the course of events, they are at least partially accountable for their contribution to those happenings.” (172)
Then, as people think and act, what becomes crucial for their sense of agency are “mastery experiences”. His 2006 paper barely alludes to this, but other writings (esp. 1986) treat them as “the most influential source of self-efficacy information” (Pajares, 1997, p. 22). As Bandura notes in one handy listing of what to look for in measuring people’s sense of efficacy,
“And finally, powerful mastery experiences that provide striking testimony to one’s capacity to effect personal changes can produce a transformational restructuring of efficacy beliefs that is manifested across diverse realms of functioning. Extraordinary personal feats serve as transforming experiences.” (Bandura, 2006a, p. 308)
I’d be remiss if I did not mention Bandura’s ideas about “triadic reciprocal causality” and about “mastery experiences”. But I don’t see much bearing on STA:C right now.

Against this background, what I mainly want to mention for STA:C’s sake is his distinction among three ways of exercising of agency: direct personal agency, proxy agency (exercised indirectly, often by somebody else), and collective agency (say, by a group). As he says, the three ways often occur in mixes. Accordingly,
“Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency: individual, proxy, and collective. Everyday functioning requires an agentic blend of these three forms of agency.” (165)
This appears to be a key typology in his work. But from a STA:C perspective, I have doubts about it. For its content appears to be more spatial than agentic in nature — as I elaborate in closing remarks below.

While his emphasis is on personal agency and how that affects a person’s life, he constantly returns to the importance of collective agency too: “People’s conjoint belief in their collective capability to achieve given attainments is a key ingredient of collective agency.” (165) Indeed, a people’s sense of collective agency — its presence, absence, other characteristics — often has profound effects on the performance capabilities of their social systems and cultures (to be discussed in my next post).

Historical and developmental origins of a sense of agency: A sense of agency does not spring from unidentifiable sources — it is learned. As many scholars have pointed out, it is rooted in turning points in mankind’s cultural and philosophical history. And once people believe in human agency, it is generated through early childhood cognitive development as well. Bandura refers to both origins.

In discussing agency’s historical background, Bandura is sketchy and selective, barely noting the many ways whereby human agency has arisen and evolved across the ages. For example, there’s no discussion about early tool making and tool use as inspirations for agency — a matter other scholars have emphasized. Nonetheless, Bandura keenly stresses that agency stemmed from people’s ancient development of language and symbol-processing capacities, followed later by overcoming early theological views that people’s lives were set by divine design. Thus, perhaps especially since the Enlightenment period, people have evolved into a “sentient agentic species … unique in their power to shape their life circumstances and the course of their lives” (164).

Throughout, Bandura decries doctrines of determinism and favors a kind of potentialism (my term, not his). Yet, he insists that, while the rise of “free will” ideas helped, agency involves more than that: “It is not a matter of ‘‘free will,’’ which is a throwback to medieval theology, but, in acting as an agent, an individual makes causal contributions to the course of events.” (165) Although he says little about past technologies, he dwells on modern information and communications technologies — the Internet in particular — as enablers of agency (to be discussed in Part 2).

Presumably because Bandura is far more the psychologist than an historian, he does better at discussing the origins of personal agency in early childhood. Thus infants construct an “agentic self” as they learn to perceive cause-effect relationships, to differentiate themselves from others as individuals and realize “they can make things happen … as agents of their actions”:
“The newborn arrives without any sense of selfhood and personal agency. The self must be socially constructed through transactional experiences with the environment. The developmental progression of a sense of personal agency moves from perceiving causal relations between environmental events, through understanding causation via action, and finally to recognizing oneself as the agent of the actions. … As infants begin to develop some behavioral capabilities, they not only observe but also directly experience that their actions make things happen. …
“Development of a sense of personal agency requires more than simply producing effects by actions. Infants acquire a sense of personal agency when they recognize that they can make things happen and they regard themselves as agents of their actions. This additional understanding extends the perception of agency from action causality to personal causality. The differentiation of oneself from others is the product of a more general process of the construction of an agentic self. … The self becomes differentiated from others through rudimentary dissimilar experiences.” (169)

Challenge of measuring people’s sense of agency and self-efficacy

I remain on the lookout for measurement methodologies — questionnaires, indexes, scales — that may serve to operationalize STA:C. Lefebvre’s book offered no such thing for space. And from what I’ve seen, nor do writings by today’s experts on space — indeed, they seem less inclined than experts on time and agency to design methodologies. In contrast, Zimbardo’s work has led to a widely used methodology for assessing people’s time perspectives (as I discuss here). Bandura’s work fits somewhere in between.

Bandura is definitely interested in seeing measurement methodologies designed — e.g., see his “Guide for Constructing Self-Efficacy Scales” (2006a). Many of his colleagues are likewise interested — e.g., see discussions by Frank Pajares in his “Current Directions in Self-efficacy Research” (1997), and by Brian Francis Redmond in his periodically updated write-up about “Self-Efficacy and Social Cognitive Theories” (2016). There’s also an attempt called “The General Self-Efficacy Scale” (GSE) that consists of 10 questions. But careful caveats and qualifications figure throughout.

Bandura’s views about “the centrality of efficacy beliefs in people’s lives” mean that “sound assessment of this factor is crucial to understanding and predicting human behavior” (2006a, p. 319). Yet he is very cautious about generalizing. What must be measured is the “perceived capability to produce given attainments” — i.e., confidence about what a person can and will do (2006a, p. 318). But as Bandura knows, most people’s sense of efficacy varies from one situation to another:
“Efficacy beliefs differ in generality, strength, and level. People may judge themselves efficacious across a wide range of activity domains or only in certain domains of functioning.” (2006a, p. 313).
As a result, he decries trying to concoct all-purpose measures, and advises coming up with scales that are tailored to particular domains and situations:
“There is no all-purpose measure of perceived self-efficacy. The “one measure fits all” approach usually has limited explanatory and predictive value because most of the items in an all-purpose test may have little or no relevance to the domain of functioning. Moreover, in an effort to serve all purposes, items in such a measure are usually cast in general terms divorced from the situational demands and circumstances. This leaves much ambiguity about exactly what is being measured or the level of task and situational demands that must be managed. Scales of perceived self-efficacy must be tailored to the particular domain of functioning that is the object of interest.” (2006a, pp. 307-308)
I suppose that’s right. But it does not augur well for eventually coming up with a methodology for STA:C.

Transitional wrap-up comments apropos STA:C

Before examining Bandura’s incorporation of space and time orientations, I have a few wrap-up comments regarding what’s above:

1. It’s clear that Bandura’s view of agency and efficacy overlaps closely with my view of STA:C’s action component. His writings thus help confirm that the STA:C framework is on the right track.

2. His typology about three kinds of agency — direct, proxy, and collective— is sensible. But something feels off, missing, incomplete. Yes, those are three ways people exercise agency. But from a STA:C standpoint, they look more spatial than agentic in nature, for they presume that one’s environment — one’s space — contains other actors. So this typology, which seems more central to his concept than any other typology I spot, does not capture the essence of agency. The typology captures who exercises agency, but not what it actually consists of. That essence, I presume, would be more about the material and immaterial substances of power, control, influence, and/or the like — e.g., about distinctions between hard and soft power, or between physical, emotional, and ideational agency, or maybe something else I can’t quite see yet in his work. As I recall, he makes such distinctions now and then in discussing one topic or another, but they don’t get surfaced and highlighted in a systematic typological way (unless I’ve not read enough of his work).

3. Notice that Bandura finds the cognitive and cultural roots of human agency in particular historical turning-points, and then in early childhood development. As I’ve noted in my other posts in this series, Lefebvre writing about space (here), as well as Zimbardo & Boyd writing about time (here), do much the same in discussing the roots of the cognitive orientations they examine. This may be worth more investigation than I can do, in order to help show that all three STA:C orientations have co-evolved, co-developed together. Writings about the concept of progress, such as Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress (1994), cover some of this ground. So do studies about the formation of spatial, temporal, and to a lesser extent, agentic perspectives during childhood — e.g., long ago by Jean Piaget, and lately by Walter Mischel in his current best-seller The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success (2015), not to mention Bandura’s Stanford colleague Carol Dweck in her Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006) about adult development. But from a STA:C standpoint, much more could and should be done.

4. It might be useful to go through some scales that Bandura and his colleagues have used for measuring agency and efficacy. So that I can find out, for STA:C’s sake, whether and how many of the measures that are presumed to measure agency are actually measuring space or time orientations. Just as I found that many questions in Zimbardo’s time-perspective tests were more about space and action/agency orientations. But I presently lack eagerness to do so for this post, partly because, unlike the case with Zimbardo, Bandura and his colleagues have not generated a core questionnaire and scale, and also because the scales they have generated are domain-specific for topics of little interest to me (e.g., educational performance). What would motivate me is a methodology that might apply to assessing the agentic beliefs of people who become jihadi terrorists, or national-security strategists.


UPDATED — June 10, 2016: In addition to a few citation corrections, I added a quote up front (from Bandura, 2006, p. 164), expanded the paragraph about measurement methodologies, and slightly emended closing comment #2.

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