Putting the Power of Television to Good Use

"Do as I say, not as I do." Dr. Albert Bandura's research suggests that "doing" is more powerful than "saying" when it comes to battling social ills like HIV transmission, illiteracy, overpopulation, and gender discrimination.


Dr. Bandura's social learning theory says that people learn behaviors, emotional reactions, and attitudes from role models whom they wish to emulate. The earliest studies to support this theory are fondly called the "Bobo Doll Studies." In these studies, preschool children watched a film in which an adult pummeled, kicked, threw, and hammered a 3.5 feet tall, inflatable Bobo the Clown doll. One-third of the children saw a film that ended with the adult aggressor being rewarded, one-third saw a film that ended with the adult aggressor being punished, and one-third saw a no-consequence version of the film. All the children were then turned loose in a playroom filled with attractive toys, including a Bobo doll. Children who saw rewarded or inconsequential aggression were more likely to beat up the Bobo doll than were children who saw punished aggression. These results showed that whether or not the children acted aggressively depended on their observations of another person's experiences with reward and punishment, and not on their own, personal experiences.

Using social learning theory, researchers have created long-running serial dramas aimed at reducing the spread of HIV, slowing population growth, preventing unwanted pregnancies, promoting literacy, and empowering women. These television programs, aired around the world, feature attractive characters whose positive behaviors bring about good outcomes, unsavory characters whose negative behaviors result in adverse effects, and transitional models who start out negatively but change into good role models over time. Through these characters, positive actions and their consequences are subtly modeled, rather than explicitly stated. The programs also connect viewers with social networks and organizations that can help them improve their lives.


Billions of people around the world spend large portions of their lives watching television. Billions of people are also affected by AIDS, overpopulation, illiteracy, and gender discrimination. Dr. Bandura's research combines the power of television and the promise of psychological theory to address these social problems.

Practical Application

Several organizations apply social learning theory in their educational entertainment programs. For example, the nonprofit group Populations Communications International (PCI) airs serial dramas in countries as diverse as Bolivia, China, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania. PCI also uses controlled studies to monitor the success of these programs in changing audience's behaviors. Their numbers are promising: In Mexico and Kenya, for example, serialized dramas that highlighted family planning heralded 32% and 58% increases in new contraceptive users. And in Tanzania, a serialized drama that addressed the spread of AIDS was associated with a reduction in reported numbers of sexual partners.

Cited Research

Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 1, 589-595.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (2002). Environmental sustainability by sociocognitive deceleration of population growth. In P. Schmuck, & W. Schultz (Eds.). The Psychology of Sustainable Development. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.

Additional Sources

Fabrikant, G., & Stolberg, S. G. (October 9, 2002). Advertising: Viacom is planning a multimedia campaign against AIDS. The New York Times, p. C4.

McNeil, D. G. (October 9, 2002). Global war on AIDS runs short of vital weapon: Donated condoms. The New York Times International, p. A10.

Smith, D. (2002). The theory heard 'round the world. Monitor on Psychology, p. 30-32.

American Psychological Association, May 28, 2003