What Is Reciprocal Determinism?

This theory explores the role our behavior plays in our environment

children at school
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According to psychologist Albert Bandura, reciprocal determinism is a model composed of three factors that influence behavior: the environment, the individual, and the behavior itself. According to this theory, an individual's behavior influences and is influenced by both the social world and personal characteristics.

Behavior Component

For example, a child who doesn't like school may act out in class, resulting in negative attention from classmates and teachers. The teachers are forced to alter the school environment for this child (and theoretically others like him).

Reciprocal determinism is the idea that behavior is controlled or determined by the individual, through cognitive processes, and by the environment, through external social stimulus events. So in the case of our troubled student, his dislike of school is being reinforced (and perhaps magnified) by the actions of his teachers and classmates, which he's perpetuating by continuing to act out.

Environmental Component

The environmental component is made up of the physical surroundings around the individual that contain potentially reinforcing stimuli, including people who are present (or absent). The environment influences the intensity and frequency of the behavior, just as the behavior itself can have an impact on the environment. So if our student gets yelled at by a teacher for talking in class, it not only has an effect on him but on the classroom environment for the rest of the students, not to mention the teacher.

Individual Component

The individual component includes all the characteristics that have been rewarded in the past. Personality and cognitive factors play an important part in how a person behaves, including all of the individual's expectations, beliefs, and unique personality characteristics. If our student knows that the teacher is more likely to give him something he wants if he waits until close to the end of the school day to act out, obviously he'll tailor his behavior.

So all the factors in our troubled student example affect each other: the child doesn't like school, he acts out, his teachers and classmates react to his behavior, reinforcing his dislike of school and creating a hostile environment.

The behavior itself is something that may or may not be reinforced at any given time or situation.

Another Example

Of course, the situation doesn't have to be a negative one. If our student is a shy girl who usually keeps to herself (the individual/cognitive component), and enters a room on the first day of class to find that all of the other students are already present (the environment), she might try to slip into the back of the class to avoid becoming the center of attention (the behavioral component).

But if another student at the front of the room boisterously greets our shy girl and invites her to sit down in an adjacent seat, the environment has introduced a new reinforcing stimulus (the friendly student) that could lead to a change in our shy girl's normal routine and a change in her behavior.

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Article Sources
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  • Shaffer SR. Social and Personality Development. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2009.