Swimming against the tide of gene pools and helplessness

From: Chris Rasch (crasch@openknowledge.org)
Date: Mon Feb 19 2001 - 13:15:32 MST

Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939;
e-mail: kathleen.otoole@stanford.edu
Stanford University News Service

Swimming against the tide of gene pools
and helplessness

Despite the bad news you hear, the world is full of
resilient people who lick drug and alcohol
addiction on their own, benefit from stress and
hard work, survive traumatic childhoods and
extend their lives through health-enhancing

This optimistic message comes from Albert
Bandura, the David Starr Jordan Professor of
Social Science in the Psychology Department,
whose work on "social cognitive theory" has won
him many honors, the latest of which was being
named honorary president of the Canadian
Psychological Association this month. Bandura
has chosen to "swim against the mainstream of
negativity in the profession" in recent talks to
professional associations, because, he said, "our
theories grossly overpredict pathology."

Take, for example, nicotine, alcohol or other drug
addictions, Bandura said. In formal treatment
programs and research studies, professionals "see
the hard core cases. We have dreary relapse curves
for these programs, and so we have all these
theories about how every puff of a cigarette affects
the brain, and claims that long-term addiction
produces a brain disease," he said in a recent
interview. "But 40 million people have quit
smoking on their own, so you have to ask yourself,
where is the brain disease and how did they uproot
it single-handedly? The mass of successful
self-changers is the elephant that no one sees."

Similarly, Bandura said, "if you look at our
theories of social pathology and then at the dismal
conditions in which children grow up in our
ghettos, you would predict that all of them would
be on drugs or psychological basket cases. Yet if
you use criteria like gainful employment, forming
partnerships and life without crime, you will find
that most of those kids make it. Their parents are
fantastically proactive in promoting their
children's competencies as well as in shielding
them from dangers." These parents, he said, are
modeling for their children a "proactive mastery"
of their environment, rather than the "reactive
risk model" of professional psychology.

Medicine is another area where negativity prevails.
Our conception of health emphasizes "disease
prevention, not health enhancement," he said,
even though "it is just as meaningful to speak of
levels of vitality as of degrees of impairment."
Evidence shows that "by exercising control over a
few healthy habits, people can live longer,
healthier lives and slow the process of aging." Yet
national efforts to control escalating health costs
"do little to reduce the demand for medical
services by enabling people to stay healthy."

A large part of Bandura's research has been
focused on documenting how people, by regulating
their own motivations and activities, produce the
experiences that play a major role in their
well-being. In his 1997 book, Self-Efficacy: The
Exercise of Control, Bandura explains that
individuals need to develop beliefs in their ability
to produce desired results, which usually entails
their working to develop competencies needed for
mastery and self-renewal. "People who believe
they have the power to exercise some measure of
control over their lives are healthier, more
effective and more successful than those who lack
faith in their ability to effect changes in their

Another way to build people's sense of personal
efficacy is to provide them with successful models
who transmit knowledge, skills and inspiration.
Bandura has helped develop clinical treatment
programs using this approach, but more recently,
he became an adviser to Click Health, a company
that markets computer games that try to increase
people's efficacy in dealing with health problems.
A game for children with diabetes, for example,
features two diabetic elephant characters who go
on a treasure hunt and survive in a jungle by
picking the right foods, regularly checking their
blood glucose level and taking insulin shots. In a
study at Stanford Medical Center, children who
used the game were four times less likely to require
urgent-care visits during the six-month study
period than those who played another game.

Negative warnings are a more common approach
to health issues. Bandura illustrates this with the
example of stress, which is routinely portrayed in
journals and the popular press as bad for one's
health. Among other things, stress is said to
undermine a person's immune system. But in
research with others, Bandura found that stress
aroused while people were actively acquiring the
ability to cope with and master new situations
enhanced components of their immune systems.
"Stress experienced while acquiring coping
efficacy has different effects than stress aroused in
aversive situations with no prospect of ever
gaining any self-protective control," he said.

Neglecting the positive side of people's emotional
lives has other implications, Bandura said. Books
and articles, for example, often frame women's
recent entry into the workplace as a social problem
that undermines families. "There are countless
studies on the negative spillover of job pressures
on family life but few on how job satisfaction
enhances the quality of family life," he said. A few
studies that have looked for positive spillover have
found that women's personal well-being and
health is enhanced by their sense of efficacy in
handling dual roles.

Bandura traces the roots of negative bias to
prevailing theories in psychology and biology that
underestimate humans as active agents in their
own lives. Theorists saw the mind as a "passive
black box" and later, as a linear-processing
computer. Such theories treat people as
"automatons undergoing actions, devoid of any
conscious regulation, phenomenological life or
personal identity," he said. "It is the height of
irony that a science of human functioning should
strip people of the very capabilities that make
them unique in their power to shape their
environment and their own destiny. "

Biological theories that espouse "one-sided
evolutionism" also have contributed to the
negative bias, he said. They emphasize the
constraints on people's behavior based on their
evolved biological structures, without
acknowledging the other side of the co-evolution
process: "People are not just reactive products of
selection pressure. Through their construction of
ever more complex environments, people are
producers of new selection pressures in the
co-evolution process. In the case of complex
human behavior, nature operates as a potentialist
rather than a determinist," he said.

Because humans have an unparalleled capacity to
become many things, Bandura said, societies are
wise to cultivate "generalizable competencies,
instill a robust sense of efficacy, create equitable
opportunity structures, provide aidful resources,
allow room for self-directedness."

He urged his fellow psychologists to "venture forth
to agentically humanize our psychology and
psychologize biology, forswear Prozac, and may

the efficacy force be with you."

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