Long-running TV and radio programs founded on social psychology are helping people around the world make positive changes in their lives, from encouraging literacy to raising the status of women in societies where they are marginalized, said renowned social cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura, PhD, at a presidential invited address at APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu. Bandura also received APA's Lifetime Achievement Award at the convention.

Bandura's social learning theory--which emphasizes how modeling and enhancing people's sense of efficacy can help them improve their lives--is at the heart of numerous serial dramas now airing in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And research is finding the dramas' gripping storylines and realistic characters are proving influential by encouraging people to adopt family planning methods, seek literacy programs, improve women's status and protect against AIDS infection.

"These dramatic productions are not fanciful stories," said Bandura, APA president in 1973 and the David Starr Jordan Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. "They portray people's everyday lives, help them see a better future and provide them with strategies and incentives that enable them to take the steps to realize it."

These dramas, incorporating Bandura's theory, involve a global effort, partnering television producers, writers, demographers and communication researchers in creating programs that change personal lifestyles and society.

The messages appear to inspire action: In Mexico, for example, nearly 1 million people enrolled in a study program to learn to read after watching a drama that promoted national literacy by showing people of different ages struggling to read and then becoming literate and managing their lives more effectively.

According to Bandura, the television programs spark such behavioral and social changes using four guiding principles:

  • Contrasting role models with positive and negative models exhibiting beneficial or detrimental lifestyles and transitional models changing from detrimental to beneficial styles of behavior.

  • Vicarious motivators that serve as incentives to change by showing the benefits of the positive lifestyles and the costs of the detrimental ones.

  • Attentional and emotional involvement within the programs to sustain viewers' attention.

  • Environmental supports with each program that contain an epilogue providing contact information for relevant community services and support groups.

For example, using these principles, a series of dramas targeted the high fertility rate in Tanzania, which is expected to nearly double its 36-million population in 25 years and has a fertility rate of 5.6 children per woman. After the dramas aired, researchers found that the greater exposure marital partners had to the dramas, the more they discussed the need to control family size and adopted family planning methods.

To help guide such productions, the drama producers study a region's culture and values to identify major social problems and obstacles to overcoming them. Writers and producers use this information to develop realistic characters and plots grounded in respect for human dignity and equity, which are codified in United Nations covenants.

"Global problems produce a sense of paralysis in people that they cannot do anything about them," Bandura said. "Our global applications illustrate how a collective effort combining the expertise of different players can have a worldwide impact on seemingly insurmountable problems."

Further Reading

Additional information on Bandura's work with these long-running TV dramas can be found in the October 2002 issue of the Monitor (Vol. 33, No. 9).