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Feb
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Albert Bandura on social learning, the origins of morality, and the impact of technological change on human nature

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"Technology has changed the speed and the scope of social influence and has really transformed our realities. Social cognitive theory is very compatible with that. Other learning theories were linked to learning by direct experience, but when I look around today, I see that most of our learning is by social modeling and through indirect experiences. Errors can be very costly and you can’t afford to develop our values, our competences, our political systems, our religious systems through trial and error. Modeling shortcuts this process. (…)

With new technologies, we’re essentially transcending our physical environment and more and more of our values and attitudes and behavior are now shaped in the symbolic environment – the symbolic environment is the big one rather than the actual one. The changes are so rapid that there are more and more areas of life now in which the cyber world is really essential. One model can affect millions of people worldwide, it can shape their experiences and behaviors. We don’t have to rely on trial and error.

There’s a new challenge now: When I was growing up, we didn’t have all this technology, so we were heavily involved in personal relationships. Now the cyber world is available, and it’s hard to maintain a balance in the priorities of life. (…)

The internet can provide you with fantastic globalized information – but the problem is this: It undermines our ability for self-regulation or self-management. The first way to undermine productivity is temporizing, namely we’re going to put off what we need to do until tomorrow, when we have the illusion that we’ll have more time. So we’re dragging the stuff with us. But the really big way is detouring, and wireless devices are now giving an infinite detour. They create the illusion of business. I talked to the author of a beststeller and I asked him about his writing style. He said: ‘Well, I have to check my e-mails and then I get down to serious writing, but then I get back to the e-mails.’ The challenge of the cyber world is establishing a balance between our digital life and life in the real world. (…)

The origins of morality

Originally our behavior was pretty much shaped by control, by the external consequences of our lives. So the question is: How did we acquire some standards? There are about three or four ways. One: We evaluate reactions to our behavior. We behave in certain ways, in good ways, in bad ways, and then we receive feedback. We begin to adopt standards from how the social environment reacts to our behavior. Two: We see others behaving in certain ways and we are either self-critical or self-approving. Three: We have precepts that tell us what is good and bad. And once we have certain self-sanctions, we have two other potent factors that can influence our behavior: People will behave in certain ways because they want to avoid legal sanctions to their behavior or the social sanctions in their environment. (…)

Many of our theories of morality are abstract. But the primary concern about the acquisition of morality and about the modes of moral reasoning is only one half of the story, the less interesting half. We adopt standards, but we have about eight mechanisms by which we selectively disengage from those standards. So the challenge to explain is not why do people behave in accordance with these standards, but how is it that people can behave cruelly and still feel good about themselves. Our problem is good people doing bad things – and not evil people doing bad things. (…)

Everyday people can behave very badly. In the book I’m writing on that topic I have a long chapter on moralist disengagement in the media, in the gun industry, in the tobacco industry, in the corporate world, in the finance industry – there’s fantastic data from the last few years – in terrorism and as an impediment to environmental sustainability. That’s probably the most important area of moralist disengagement. We have about forty or fifty years, and if we don’t get our act together, we’ll have a very hard time. It’s going to be awfully crowded on earth and a good part of our cities will be under water. And what are we doing? We don’t have the luxury of time anymore. (…)

Human nature is capable of vindicating behavior. It isn’t that people are bad by nature. But they have a very playful and rewarding lifestyle, filled with gadgets and air conditioning, and they don’t want to give it up. (…)

Q: ‘The story of men is a story about violence, love, power, victory and defeat’ – that’s how poets talk about the course of history. But from an analystic point of view…

A. Bandura: That’s not true for all societies. We assume that aggression is inbred, but some societies are remarkably pacifistic. And we can also see large variations within a society. But the most striking example might be the transformation from warrior societies into peaceful societies. Switzerland is one example. Sweden is another: Those vikings were out mugging everyone and people would pray for protection: “Save our souls from the fury of the Norsemen!” And now, if you look at that society, it’s hard to find child abuse or domestic violence. Sweden has become a mediator of peace.

Q: In German, there’s the term “Schicksalsgemeinschaft,” which translates as “community of fate”: It posits that a nation is bound together by history. Do you think that’s what defines a society: A common history? Or is it religion, or the language we speak?

A. Bandura: All of the above. We put a lot of emphasis on biological evolution, but what we don’t emphasize is that cultures evolve, too. These changes are transmitted from one generation to another. A few decades ago, the role of women was to be housewives and it was considered sinful to co-habit without being married. If you look at the role of women today, there’s a fantastic transformation in a short period of time; change is accelerated. Homogenization is important, picking things from different cultures, cuisines, music traditions, forms of behavior, and so on. But we have also polarization: Bin Laden’s hate of the West, for example. And there’s hybridization as well. (…)

And society is changing, too. Now it’s considered completely normal to live with your partner without being married. In California, it was only about 40 years ago that homosexuality was treated as a disease. Then people protested, and eventually they got the state to change the diagnostic category to sexual orientation rather than a disease. Psychiatry, under public pressure, changed the diagnostic system. (…)

Q: It’s quite interesting to compare Russia and China. Russia has a free internet, so the reaction to protests is very different than in China. If social networks become increasingly global, do you foresee something like a global set of values as well?

A. Bandura: Yes, but there is another factor here, namely the tremendous power of multinational corporations. They now shape global culture. A lot of these global forces are undermining the collective African society, for example. The society does no longer have much control over the economy. In order to restore some power in leverage, societies are going to be organized in unions. We will see more partnerships around the world. (…)

The revolutionary tendency of technology has increased our sense of agency. If I have access to all global knowledge, I would have fantastic capacities to educate myself. (…) The important thing in psychology is that we need a theory of human agency, rather than arguing that we’re controlled by neural networks. In every aspect of our lives we now have a greater capacity for exercicing agency. (…)

Q: But at the same time globalization removes us from the forces that shape our environment.

A. Bandura: The problems are powerful transnational forces. They can undermine the capacity to run our own society: Because of what happens in Iran, gas prices might soon hit five dollars per gallon in the US. That’s where the pressure comes from for systems and societies to form blocks or build up leverage to protect the quality of life of their citizens. But we can see that a global culture is emerging. One example is the transformation of the status of women. Oppressive regimes see that women are able to drive cars, and they cannot continue to deny that right to them. We’re really changing norms. Thanks to the ubiquity of television, we’re motivating them and showing them that they have the capability to initiate change. It’s about agency: Change is deeply rooted in the belief that my actions can have an effect in the world.”

Albert Bandura, a psychologist who is the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. For almost six decades, he has been responsible for contributions to many fields of psychology, including social cognitive theory, therapy and personality psychology, and was also influential in the transition between behaviorism and cognitive psychology, "We have transcended our biology, The European, 18.02.2013. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

See also:

‘Human beings are learning machines,’ says philosopher (nature vs. nurture), Lapidarium notes
What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality: ‘Morality is a form of decision-making, and is based on emotions, not logic’