Reciprocal determinism is a model of human behavior. The model states that there are three factors that influence how people act: person factors, environment factors, and behavior factors.
The term “reciprocal” means that each factor affects the others, and vice versa. So, factor A effects factor B, and in return, factor B also affects factor A.
This is kind of like when a person is nice to someone, then that person will be nice to them in return. That is what is meant by reciprocal.
When there are three factors involved, then it simply means that all three factors influence each other.
Definition of Reciprocal Determinism
The model of reciprocal determinism was first proposed by a famous psychologist, Albert Bandura (1977). The theory is described in his book Social Learning Theory.
Reciprocal determinism is sometimes called triadic determinism because there are three factors (“triad” means three).
As Bandura states in the beginning pages of this famous book:
“Social learning theory approaches the explanation of human behavior in terms of a continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental determinants. Both people and their environments are reciprocal determinants of each other” (p. vii).
The reason the model is considered so important in psychology is because it points out that people affect and change the environment, and then that changed environment affects people.
So, the direction of influence goes both ways.
This was a new way of thinking about human behavior in psychology at the time. A lot of scholars at the time followed the thinking of B. F. Skinner (1965), which believed that rewards and punishments shape human behavior.
That line of thinking is called behaviorism. It was very popular, and still is today. It is absolutely true that rewards and punishments can affect what people do.
However, scholars such as Bandura believed that people were more complicated.
Key Concept: Triadic Reciprocal Causation
So, let’s talk about each factor in more detail.
- Person factors refer to an individual’s personality characteristics. This includes their attitudes and values, expectations, and characteristics like being friendly or impolite, confident or timid (often shaped by language, see: linguistic determinism).
- Behavior factors refer to how the person acts. If a person has an outgoing personality, then they will be talkative. If they lack confidence in academics, then they may not try very hard in certain subjects.
- Environment factors refer to the situation. Some classroom environments are supportive and encouraging, while a sports environment might be tough and intimidating.
Here is an example: Some people are very outgoing and talkative (extroverts) and some are quiet and shy (introverts). This person factor will affect how a person acts.
Extroverts will talk to everybody and introverts will be more inclined to listen. That is the behavior factor. When the extrovert talks to other people it creates a friendly social environment. Those people will act friendly in return. When they act friendly, it encourages the extravert to talk even more.
So, in this example, the individual’s personality affects their behavior. Then, their behavior affects the environment. That environment then affects the individual.
Reciprocal Determinism Examples
- A Teacher’s Expectations Affects Student Performance: A teacher creates a positive classroom by constantly telling his students that they can do well (environment factor). The students then approach their assignments with confidence and determination (behavior factor). They end up doing well on the exam. This shows how the teacher’s behavior creates a type of environment. That environment then shapes the students’ behavior.
- Poor Leadership Style: A new manager feels superior (personal factor) because they are the manager. They talk to their staff in a rude tone (behavior factor), which makes the staff less productive (environment factor). The low productivity makes the boss upset and talk to the staff in an even less pleasant tone of voice (behavior factor). Here we see how the boss’s personality affects their actions towards the staff, which affects productivity, which in return affects the boss again.
- Doing Well in Art Class: A student really enjoys art (person factor) so they listen (behavior factor) to the teacher’s suggestions (environment factor). The teacher appreciates the student’s attentiveness and devotes a little extra time to helping them (behavior factor). The student’s actions affect how the teacher acts towards them.
- Wanting Attention: A young child want’s more attention from the teacher so they act-out during class (behavior factor). The teacher reprimands the student (environment factor). Even though the reprimand is negative, it still gives the child the attention they want, so they act-out again to receive more attention (behavior factor). In this example, the child’s behavior affects the teacher’s behavior, which in return makes the child repeat their behavior.
- Coaching Confidence: A coach acts confident (behavior factor) that her team can win the championship. This makes the team feel inspired and motivated, so they play hard during the game (environment factor). Ultimately, they win the championship. Here we see how the coach’s behavior creates confidence in the team and a winning outcome.
- Lack of Confidence and Test Performance: A student lacks confidence when it comes to chemistry (person factor), so, they don’t try very hard (behavior factor). This then leads to a bad grade (environment factor). The bad grade reinforces the student’s lack of confidence (person factor). This example illustrates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of how a person’s expectations shape the environment to match those expectations.
- One Spouse Criticizes the Other: After a bad day of work, one spouse comes home in a bad mood (person factor) and makes a critical remark to their partner (behavior factor). The remark puts the partner in a bad mood (environment factor) and they respond by criticizing their partner in return (behavior factor). This illustrates how actions are bidirectional. One action creates a return action.
- Temperament of Babies and Maternal Bonding: Some babies cry a lot and are very fussy (behavior factor). This makes it difficult for the mother to form a strong positive emotional bond with the baby (environment factor). The lack of emotional bonding makes the baby feel less secure, which leads to them crying even more (behavior factor). In this example, the behavior of the baby creates an unresponsive environment in the form of the mother’s behavior. This emotionally cold environment then affects the behavior of the baby. The baby and the environment are two factors that have reciprocating influences.
- Confidence in Dating: A young man approaches a girl he likes with confidence (behavior factor). The girl finds the confidence attractive and responds favorably with a smile (environment factor). This makes the young man even more confident (person factor). The behavior of the young man is rewarded by the environment he has created.
- Strict Parents Create High Expectations: Two parents create a household environment that is strict and demanding (environment factor). Their children learn that they must try hard (behavior factor) to do well in school. As they do well, their parents see the benefits of being strict, so they continue to raise their standards (behavior factor). This example shows how the environment can shape the behavior of the children, which then shapes the behavior of the parents.
Related Concept: Social Learning Theory
Social Learning Theory says that people learn by observing others. The theory was developed by psychologist Albert Bandura (1977) and identifies four primary factors in learning: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.
In order for learning to occur, a person must be paying attention. If not, then the actions of the person being watched will not be stored in their mind (retention).
Next, being able to do that behavior (reproduce) may not be possible if the person does not have the skills or motivation to do it.
Each of these factors are at work in reciprocal determinism. So, even if a teacher creates an environment that is encouraging, some students may still not be able to do the assignments well because they lack the skills (person factor).
Other students may have the skills (behavior factor), but not want to try because they don’t like the subject (person factor).
The basic idea behind reciprocal determinism is that different factors affect each other. The environment can affect the attitudes and motivation of people, and then their reactions help shape the environment.
Albert Bandura created the theory of reciprocal determinism and identified three main factors. The person factor is about the individual’s attitudes and characteristics. The behavior factor has to do with their actions. And the environment factor has to do with the actions of others in that environment.
Each factor affects the others, and vice versa. We can see examples of reciprocal determinism in just about any aspect of life. It describes what happens in classrooms, work settings, marriage, and relations between parents and their children.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. United Kingdom, Prentice Hall.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press. Sims, H. P., & Manz, C. C. (1984). Observing leader behavior: Toward reciprocal determinism in leadership theory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69(2), 222–232.