Reciprocal Determinism is an essential part of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Reciprocal determinism describes the dynamic interlocking interaction between behavior, environments, and personal factors. Bandura opposed current “unidirectional causal models emphasizing either environmental or internal determinants of behavior” (1978).
Theories of behavior preceding surrounding reciprocal determinism provided a new approach to studying behavior in the face of the growing dissatisfaction with the deterministic flavor of the other psychological approaches of the time, namely Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical approach and John Watson and B.F. Skinner’s behavioralist view.
“Bandura’s theory represented an important shift from the behavioral perspective to a more social-cognitive approach to understanding behavior.”~Kendra Cherry
The cognitive revolution was gaining steam during the 70’s. Cognitive behavior therapy and Albert Ellis’s rational emotive behavior therapy were gaining popularity. Basically, cognitive determinism shared many concepts with the popular theories of the time without branding any of them correct. Cognitive determinism theorizes that cognitive personal factors can influence the traditional deterministic elements of the environment, and subsequent behaviors, influence both the environment and personal factors.
The Unidirectional Model of Behavior
The unidirectional model suggests that behavior is a product of environmental triggers. An event occurs in our environment, leading to emotions and thoughts, and concluding with a behavior.
Albert Ellis’s ABC model fits this unidirectional representation. In Ellis’s model ‘A’ is the activating event (environment); ‘B’ is the underlying belief (personal factor); and ‘C’ is the consequence (behavior). Ellis does break from simple cause and affect, suggesting beliefs and triggering events may influence each other, ultimately leading to a consequential behavior.
Bandura contends such a unidirectional model of behavior, or even Ellis’s bidirectional model, is over-simplified, missing the key interlocking elements.
Bandura’s model is more representative of the dynamic impact of the different forces involved in behavior. Each element influences the other, which in turn requires a new response, and each response changes the other two factors.
Three Components of Reciprocal Determinism
Bandura’s model presents three key components of reciprocal determinism:
Behavior factors refers to actions taken (big or small) that lead to a reward or punishment.
Environmental factors are the external elements, creating the context of a behavioral reaction. The most significant environmental factors are from social interactions.
Simplicity and Reciprocal Determinism
We want a simple reason behind behavior. Emphatically, we point to a single convenient cause and anoint it key for the happening of a notable event. We find security in identifying a cause. With an identifiable cause, we gain control, experiencing empowerment over undesirable consequences.
In a White House news conference this morning, a confrontational interaction between the press secretary and a reporter regarding the cause of the frightening wave of lawless smash and grabs, occurring across our nation. The reporter critically and sarcastically asked, “so, you believe these criminals violently smashing store counters, and running off with their stolen loot, are committing these horrendous crimes because of the pandemic?”
The press secretary quickly responded, “yes.”
One side arguing that an all-powerful environment is the cause, while the other, completely ignoring environments and suggesting a personal cause—they are criminals.
Limited sets of determinants will undermine efforts for change. Neither ominous environmental forces nor rotten personal character are solely responsible for criminal behaviors. The answers are much more complex. Improved environments develop healthier personal traits and improved personal traits improve environments.
Bandura explains, “personal and environmental factors do not function as independent determinants; rather they determine each other” (1978). He pointedly reminds that this reciprocal interaction isn’t singular but continuous. Bandura wrote that “from the social learning perspective, psychological functioning involves a continuous reciprocal interaction between behavioral, cognitive, and environmental influences” (1978).
Epigenetics and Reciprocal Determinism
The recent discoveries in epigenetics provides an insightful look into reciprocal determination. According to epigenetic studies, environmental conditions impact gene expression through altering of the processing of proteins. Genes adapt and change to the environment, in turn impacting the environment. The altered environment then influences more changes in gene expression.
An Example of Reciprocal Determination
Newborns radically change home environments. A baby that suffers from heightened sensory experiences, may cry at the countless small encroachments that unsettle their homeostatic balance. The child’s sensitivity to environmental stimulants is a personal factor. The small events, such as a door closing, is an environmental factor. The child responds by crying (behavioral response).
However, the determinants of behavior have just begun. The crying baby creates a new home environment. Mature caregivers may adapt by attuning to the child’s upset and work with the child to sooth its discomfort. Consequently. this environment helps the child develop healthy personal factors to regulate its easily stimulated system. The child then can apply these learned skills to other social activities, assisting with developmental exposures and helpful connections.
In contrast, another child may be born with similar sensory sensitivities. However, the child’s parents struggle with their own emotions. The door slams, the child cries, a quick failed attempt to sooth is followed by frustration and inconsolable crying. The caregiver responds with anxiety and anger. This child develops different personal factors to adapt to the toxic or hostile environment. These adaptations may impact future relationships, emotions, and self-efficacy.
Adaptations can radically change future environments by changing personal factors, and both changing behaviors.
A Few Words on Reciprocal Determinism by Flourishing Life Society
Bandura’s work was movement towards complexity. Our over simplified views prevent overwhelm but also limit the necessary creative solutions to effect change. The simple example of a child crying also simplifies reality. The cry is a single behavior, sensory experience is a single personal factor, and a frustrated parent is single reaction. Parents are imperfect. Many may respond appropriate at times and fail at other times. Perhaps, the struggling parent offers plenty of love throughout the day but crashes into despair at night.
Other family members bring blessings and curses to the child’s environment. Poverty leaves a nasty mark on developing children. The impacts of personal biology, learned regulatory skills, and social interactions continuously work together to creating who we are today and the person we will become.
Bandura, A. (1978). The self system in reciprocal determinism. American Psychologist, 33(4), 344-358.
Carter, P. (2019) What is Reciprocal Determinism & What Are its Three Components? Published 8-22-2019. Accessed 12-2-2021.
Cherry, K. (2021). What Is Reciprocal Determinism? Verywellmind. Published 5-2-2021. Accessed 12-2-2021.