Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory Applied to Violence Against Women

I recently wrote a paper for my Advanced Theories of Personality course to apply a personality theory to a current social issue. I chose Bandura's theory in regards to violence against women. It made a lot of sense after hearing the lecture on it and connected so well in my mind. I also thought some of you might enjoy reading it so I decided to share. Enjoy! -Indy

Violence against women is defined as an act or threat of physical, sexual, or mental harm towards women. This is a global problem that spans all countries, races, classes, and cultures, and it is not as rare as people might think. A ten-country study found that up to 71% of women reported physical violence, sexual violence, or both (World Health Organization, 2005). In the United States, it is estimated that women are the victims of about 4.8 million instances of intimate partner violence (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2009). This problem is not isolated to adult women, as one in five high school girls have also been the victims of physical or sexual intimate partner violence (CDC, 2008a). The CDC (2008b) also found that 10.6% of women are the victims of rape, up to 25% of which are college age and 60.4% of which occurred before the age of 18. Those statistics do not include the unknown number of incidents that are not reported. What could possibly be the cause of such a widespread form of violence? Albert Bandura might argue that this behavior is caused by a combination of learning, cognitive, and environmental factors.

Bandura stated that behaviors can be learned by observation alone without having to perform that behavior first. Observational learning requires paying attention to a model’s behavior and retaining those observations, having a motivation to reproduce the behavior, and the act of reproducing that behavior. This process of modeling is more likely to occur if the observer puts more value on the outcome, the model is similar to or of higher status than the observer, or there is an opportunity to use the behavior. Consider a child who witnesses or experiences violence in the home. Children lack power compared to their parents and are likely to consider them important in their lives. Witnessing violence is a traumatizing experience and the memory of it is likely to remain vivid. It is common that perpetrators were witnesses or victims of violence as children (CDC, 2009). This demonstrates how children might learn about violent behaviors but does not explain why a child would reproduce that behavior as an adult.

Bandura also stated that people pay attention to the consequences, good or bad, of the behavior they observe. They then evaluate those consequences in order to guide their own behavior. If an observed behavior could bring about a desired consequence it is more likely the person will perform that action, thereby reinforcing that behavior and completing the process of enactive learning. While children witnessing violence maintain vivid and traumatizing memories of abuse, they also maintain and think about what resulted from the violence. Violence is often used in order to maintain control and in a relationship. If the victim of violence complies with demands as a result of the violence, the behavior is reinforced for the perpetrator as well as the observer. If the observer finds themselves in a similar situation they will evaluate that situation, their possible actions, and the possible consequences of those actions and act accordingly. The three factors of environment, behavior, and person or cognition interact and influence each other. Bandura referred to that constant process as triadic reciprocal causation. A person can control their behavior and guide their cognitions but it is not always possible for them to control their environment. Behavior can be encouraged and normalized due to observational learning and if a person has not learned that non-violent actions are possible in those situations, they are likely to continue reproducing that violent behavior.

However, that does not mean that violence is automatic or has to remain cyclical. Bandura believes that behavior is the result of human agency or the ability for people to maintain a degree of control over their lives. The concept of human agency takes into account the intention of behavior, forethought of consequences, ability to adjust behavior to changes, and self-reflection of motivations, actions, and consequences. In order for a person to control their behavior they require self-efficacy or the belief that they are capable of controlling their behavior. Self-efficacy is raised due to past successful experiences, observing successful social models, receiving believable social persuasion, and favorable physical and emotional states. For example, a violent person can adjust their repertoire to include non-violent actions by observing non-violent methods, attempting and successfully reproducing non-violent behavior, receiving encouragement to behave in a non-violent way, and reducing anger, anxiety, and other negative feelings.

It is easier to outline the path towards higher self-efficacy than to actually raise it but part of self-efficacy is understanding the amount of effort that is necessary to perform the desired behaviors. People with high levels of self-efficacy eventually increase their ability to self-regulate, reducing the disparity between accomplishments and goals and raising those goals. Self-regulation is the result of observing our own behavior, evaluating it, and our own reactions to our behavior. There are violent offender rehabilitation programs available but the success rate is dismal due to short duration of treatment, often as little as six weeks, and the unwillingness on the part of the offender to change their violent behavior. Rehabilitation would be more successful if offenders were treated for underlying problems in order to relieve negative emotions that may be impairing their openness to observe and learn from positive modeling. Rehabilitation rates would also benefit from increased duration of the programs since personal changes and observational and enactive learning can take a long time, often years.

Bandura, Ross, and Ross conducted a study in 1963 that offered evidence that modeled violence can result in further violence, rather than acting as a catharsis for aggressive tendencies. The original study involved modeling recorded adult violence against an inflatable clown known as a Bobo doll. Bandura and his colleagues went on to conduct studies involving recorded violence by a child, recorded violence with the aggressor wearing a cat costume, and violence by live adult models. They discovered that all children exposed to aggression increased their own aggressive behavior but more so after observing a live model. It was shown that boys were more aggressive than girls and that the effect was more powerful with a male model. In addition, boys were noted to have come up with new aggressive behaviors than the ones that were modeled.

Since then there have been numerous studies done using Bandura’s social cognitive theory to explain and modify behavior. This may be due to the benefit that it uses the same principles to explain and understand behavior as it does to change it. This factor offers very practical, specific guidelines to follow. In addition, it can be applied to a wide range of behaviors including basic, seemingly autonomic ones like driving a car to more complex behaviors such as violence against women. The present article only focused on children as witnesses to violent behavior as a cause of future violence against women but Bandura’s theory can be applied to other causes such as violence against women in media, pornography use, and rape culture. Since the theory is capable of generating more hypotheses to test and there is an innumerable amount of behavior realms to explore, there is an increase in the probability of falsifying the theory. Finally, Bandura’s theory takes a rather optimistic view of human behavior and personality. As a result, changing behavior may seem easier than it really is which may discourage people if immediate results are not achieved. But it does honestly offer the opportunity to understand and reduce the instances of violence against women.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008a). Intimate partner violence: Dating violence fact sheet. Retrieved December 1, 2009 from http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/intimatepartnerviolence/datingviolence.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008b). Sexual violence facts at a glance. Retrieved December 1, 2009 from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/SV-DataSheet-a.pdf

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Understanding intimate partner violence fact sheet. Retrieved December 1, 2009 from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/IPV_factsheet-a.pdf

World Health Organization. (2005). WHO multi-country study on women's health and domestic violence against women: Initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women’s responses. Retrieved December 1, 2009, from http://www.who.int/gender/violence/who_multicountry_study/en/index.html


  1. Indy,

    This is a good paper and some great ideas. One of the keys here is that change can occur. A therapy which has offered a great deal of promise in this same area is DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy). Using some of these same ideals and principles DBT can be a great tool for getting individuals to their goals. However (sadly, there is always a "however") that individual needs to put a much work and effort into changing their life. Work and change must always rest on the shoulders of the person seeking change, they must feel invested in this change and be willing to take a relatively harsh self inventory.

    The founder of DBT therapy is Marsha Linehan.

  2. Hey Renee,

    Yeah, a lot of the time people expect treatment to work for them rather than them working for treatment. They are often looking for a miraculous change, which is unfortunate. I have heard of DBT but I haven't learned much about it at this point in my studies. I will probably learn more once I take the course on therapy techniques. Oddly enough, when I was applying to grad schools I applied to the University of Washington-Seattle. I was checking out the staff there and I remember looking into Dr. Linehan's work. I didn't make the connection between her and DBT until you mentioned it, though.

  3. If this is the area you are interested in the University of Iowa is also a great school.

  4. I'll have to keep that in mind when I start looking for doctoral programs in a few years.