Do you support the use of the death penalty as a punishment for crimes by the state?
Okay, maybe that wasn’t the most comfortable opening line to read in an article. Even before I became a law student, asking people about their position on the death penalty was just beating a dead horse. It’s a controversial topic, sure. But it’s such a common controversial topic that it doesn’t really feel too controversial now, does it?
That being said, take a moment to think about your own position on it. Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those preachy “you should/n’t support the death penalty” pieces. Just think about it for a moment.
Many of you might find that you are pro-death penalty “but only for heinous crimes.” Something about knowing another person is capable of wanton murder, rape, or brutal abuse of others ignites a dark fury in even the kindest people.
It only takes a few steps for “heinous crimes” to turn into “deserving of death” and later, the assumption that people capable of doing something so cruel could only be evil by nature. It’s difficult to wrap our heads around how we can share a human identity with someone who is, to us, less than human.
But between 1961 to 1963, one Canadian-American psychologist figured out the mechanisms behind making an evil person.
All it took for reciprocal determinism to be developed was one clown-shaped doll.
The Bobo Doll Experiment
The scene is set in 1961 in the nursery school of one of the most prominent universities in the United States, Stanford University. Albert Bandura, a Canadian-American professor, places a number of 3-feet to 5-feet tall dolls in three different rooms. Each of the inflatable dolls was designed to look like cartoon clowns in an attempt to appeal to children. Today, their creepy clown emoji faces would come off as disquieting rather than delightful, but it was a different era.
The subject of this study was a group of preschoolers, small children with cherub-like faces and happy little smiles. One group of kids were made to watch non-aggressive behavior towards the doll. An adult would either play with or completely ignore the doll. In another group, it was just the kids and the doll.
The third group is where things get spicy. A stone-faced adult walks into the room and beats up the doll. No matter how many times it bounces back up, the adult beats it back down, exhibiting unrestrained violent behavior towards the doll.
What’s the point in punching dolls that get up anyway? The bobo doll experiment, as it came to be known, wasn’t about destroying the dolls. It was about uncovering the ways we learn, internalize, and model behavior we see in the world around us. The experiment works because the other children who didn’t see aggressive behavior towards the doll either ignored it or played nicely with it.
For the kids who saw the doll get brutalized, though, nothing was off limits. In this video documenting the experiment, you can see a boy punching the doll several times until he gets frustrated that it doesn’t break. He then picks up a hammer and slams it into the doll’s face.
It would seem that a small child, though admittedly not a murderer, is capable of violence that could cause serious bodily harm. It might look innocent because it’s a doll. But imagine for a moment that it wasn’t a child and it wasn’t a doll. Think of a grown man swinging a hammer as hard as he can into the face of another person. Not so cute now, eh?
Now consider that a study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that incarcerated men were more likely to have been abused either physically, sexually, or both before they reach the age of 18. Another study by the U.S Department of Justice suggests that a chunk of this abuse starts before the would-be criminals even turn 12.
The shocking results of Albert Bandura’s bobo doll experiment confirmed the existence of what he called “reciprocal determinism,” the central concept that underpinned his groundbreaking Social Learning Theory.
Reciprocal Determinism: Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory
We keep talking about reciprocal determinism, but what is it in the first place? Reciprocal determinism is the model, a type of framework of concepts, that contextualizes the factors that perform a complex interplay of learning, reward, and punishment that result in the behaviors people display.
Unlike theories before it, reciprocal determinism didn’t think your desire to sleep with your parents were the source of your neuroses (the way Freud’s psychodynamic theory does) nor did it assume that you were just a passive subject that reacted to changes in the environment, responding only to punishment and reward (like B.F Skinner’s behaviorist school of thought.)
To reciprocal determinism, you learn from your environment, including the behaviors you see in your society. The way you think, feel, and react to this environmental input shapes the way you act.
The way you act reshapes your environment, and so on and so forth. The model frames people not as static beings that remained separate from each other and their environment, apart from the occasional trauma, but as a force that acts on the world that, in turn, acts on it.
The behavioral factors in reciprocal determinism are the easiest to grasp. It involves a subject, a stimulus, and a reward or punishment depending on how the subject responds to that stimulus.
Think of kids who are picky eaters. They only want to eat mac and cheese, Twinkies, or some other assortment of processed food that’s designed to mess with your brain chemistry. But tonight is not that kid’s night because dinner is a plate of stir-fried vegetables. Mom and Dad (or Dad and Dad/Mom and Mom) insist that they eat their veggies or they’re not getting dessert.
Now you have a subject, a stimulus, a reward, and the two researchers.
Where does the punishment come in? Let’s imagine the parents are Asian or Latino. My fellow people of color, you know where this is going. The parents have a slipper. This hypothetical child will either eat the vegetables and get their dessert or not eat the vegetables, not get dessert, and end up with a sharp thwack to their backside.
Maybe this form of punishment and reward will work for the child, maybe it won’t. But if it does, they might use it for their own child 20 years after that dining room incident. Now, both the learned behavior and a method for teaching it are completely internalized in the adult’s mind.
But that part of reciprocal determinism is just one among three and, frankly, not different in any way from B.F Skinner and Pavlov’s findings on behaviorism.
The environmental factors in reciprocal determinism are where you start to see why Social Learning Theory was a pioneer of Cognitive Behavioral Theory, the basis of CBT therapy. Both the hyper-effective therapy method and Bandura’s theory hinge on the discovery that the social scenarios we see alter what behaviors we learn and determines how we can change those behaviors.
Let’s go back to our hypothetical picky eater. Their sibling is known to their parents as a non-picky eater. What they don’t know is that the other sibling would also like to be picky and eat nothing but mac and cheese all day. But they’ve seen their sibling get reprimanded enough that they never try to refuse to eat their vegetables in the first place. The social aspect of reciprocal determinism makes it so that you don’t have to be rewarded or punished directly to know that your response to a stimulus can result in either.
Reciprocal determinism gets even more distinct from typical behaviorist theories of the time when you take personal factors into account. As much as social environment and modeled behaviors teach young children to grow up to be violent criminals, it also acknowledges that the way people feel and think about the world around them, as well as their own personal values, form a significant part of their life path.
For example, let’s look at Bandura himself. Albert Bandura initially started studying psychology because to him, it was just an easy class. But as the classes went on, he would find himself getting increasingly invested until he dedicated himself to psychology to the point that he would become one of the most cited authors in the field.
Neither the stimulus, the behavior of coming to class, or the reward of an easy grade changed. All that happened for Bandura to turn from a psychology scoffer to a psychology expert was his own change in interest.
In this way, reciprocal determinism explains why some people who come from terrible backgrounds, ones that seem set up for failure and a life of incarceration, rise above the odds and become your stereotypical success story — complete with a well paying white collar job in a respected field like law, medicine, or engineering, a house in the suburbs, and a happy family of four.
But reciprocal determinism is more than just bobo dolls, reformed students, and therapy room solutions. The next time you do jury duty, think of how reciprocal determinism shows up in courts of law.
Reciprocal Determinism and Criminal Law
Law can get philosophical and psychological. Fast.
Until now, the complex mass that is us, our environment, and our inner selves make it difficult to completely separate where who we truly are ends and the self that is created by factors we can’t control begin.
But say we do track each one down and try to find a benevolent explanation for why all these “bad people” do bad things. Follow this approach enough and you can find an excuse for just about everybody. Do we then let criminals go free just because they were, at one point, victims of genetics, economics, or abuse?
The classical school of thought in criminal law forms the basis of why societies punish anti-social behaviors that are detrimental to the stability of the group. Like the personal aspect of reciprocal determinism, the classical school’s position is that because people have the capacity to make rational, empathetic decisions, committing a crime means a person chose to do so. This could be because they intended to cause harm or they weren’t careful enough to not cause harm. Either way, something reprehensible happened and it’s up to the courts to determine a punishment that’s “appropriate to the nature of the crime.” In short, behaviorism.
Unlike the classical school of thought, but still like reciprocal determinism, positivist theory thinks of criminal behavior as pathology. The criminal in question is, at least partly, excused because they’re victims of circumstance. Maybe they started out as a good kid but a series of interactions between them, their environment, and socioeconomic factors that they can’t control raised them to become felons. Because of this, positivism takes the position that reform trumps punishment.
According to a study on the effects of education on crime, each additional year of schooling reduces the likelihood of participating in criminal behavior from as low as 5% for drug sales to as high as 9% and 10% for violent crimes and property crimes, respectively.
Crime scenes are messy and so are people. But no matter how psychology develops in the future or how our courts think of crime, one thing is clear: Albert Bandura has left an indelible mark on both.
Remembering Albert Bandura
Albert Bandura was arguably the most influential social psychologist to study aggression in humans. He’s best known for his bobo doll experiments and for creating the concept of self-efficacy.
Though his famous studies were about violence, he died peacefully in his sleep on July 26, 2021, at 95 years old after making significant contributions to the field of psychology.