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What Is Reciprocal Determinism in Psychology?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Reciprocal determinism is a key term developed by Albert Bandura, best known for his psychological work in the area of social cognitive theory. The term refers to a model Bandura posits that demonstrates individual interaction environment. It incorporates some ideas of behaviorism, but emphasizes the notion that environment is not the only thing that influences behavior. Instead people are influenced by their own self-beliefs, thoughts, ideas and also the environment, but in addition, they influence through their behavior and attitudes the way the environment works; there is back and forth communication between the internal self, action, and the external world.

Discussion of reciprocal determinism often uses a visual aid, drawn form as a triangle. At the triangle’s top is the word, behavior, and the two corners of the triangles are described as personal and environmental factors. Arrows go back and forth between each word, showing that no one of these three things is solely influenced by another factor, and influence runs both ways. This visual depiction reiterates the basic concept that humans are shaped by their environment and shape it.

It may be difficult to understand reciprocal determinism without examples, and these are easy to find. A man might enter counseling because he cannot hold a job, his finances are poor, and he feels like a failure. One of his contentions could be that he hates work, but someone taking reciprocal determinism into account might wonder why that is.

If the man’s inability to hold a job has been due to poor work habits and his hatred of work, he may very well have influenced employers to not retain him as an employee. If his attitude at work was terrible, chances are that no manager or boss made that any easier and the situation would gradually worsen until the man was fired. Since outside or external stimuli can influence behavior, each job could get worse, and the man’s attitude would continue to be awful, influencing managers to dislike him. Behavior, environment (like socioeconomic status), and the man would suffer.

Fortunately, the human can study himself and get help through things like vocational counseling or psychotherapy to determine how to change the way he thinks and feels about work. Since he can change personal factors, he can also change his environment. This is a thoughtful process and the back and forth continues, which means if the man ends up having a terrible manager in his next job, it might be easy to slip back into negative influencing behaviors.

Essentially then, reciprocal determinism posits that there is a real possibility of change that exists within the person, given appropriate help, but that a person will always be influenced by outside factors too. Behavior is a complex matter that requires multiple areas of attack if it would be changed. This is possible, nevertheless, with well-designed programs that account for the importance of the person in changing the environment, and that are realistic about the environment changing the person.

Reciprocal Determinism Psychology Definition

Albert Bandura was a social-cognitive psychologist renowned for his work developing the social learning theory of which reciprocal determinism is a central concept. Reciprocal determinism, which Bandura also referred to as triadic reciprocal causation, comprises three behavioral factors which mutually influence one another. The impact can cycle continuously, or it can end abruptly. This cycle is comprised of the following determinants:

  • The individual, including their thoughts and feelings (these aspects originate from cognitive, affective and biological events)
  • The individual's behavior (including their cognitive skills, attitudes and so on)
  • The individual's environment

Before Bandura came along, behaviorists, such as B. F. Skinner, emphasized that the environment controls individual behavior almost entirely. Bandura's theory for understanding behavior launched a shift in the psychological world to a more social-cognitive approach.

Bandura suggested that a bidirectional relationship exists between individuals, their behaviors and their environment. No longer is it assumed that people are merely passive recipients of environmental influences or at the mercy of whatever occurs around them. According to reciprocal determinism, people are undoubtedly affected by environmental experiences. However, by implementing their own decisions and behaviors, they have the power to change their situation and circumstances.

Additionally, Bandura said that after the environment influences the individual's thinking, their subsequent behavior will, in turn, affect the environment. It is an ongoing process in which the environment influences individuals' feelings and thoughts; these thoughts and feelings influence their behavior, and then, the person's behavior affects the environment. Therefore, personal factors and the social climate can impact an individual's behavior, which goes on to control the personal element and social setting. Because the environment can affect the individual, though, the individual's behavior can be conditioned by using consequences.

Which Statement Summarizes the Main Idea of Reciprocal Determinism?

The main idea of reciprocal determinism (aka triadic reciprocal causation) can be summarized in one statement. Albert Bandura, who coined the term, expressed it like this: "Individuals are neither powerless objects controlled by environmental forces nor entirely free agents who can do whatever they choose."

Reciprocal determinism explores the role that an individual's behavior has in their environment. This theory states that you can transform an individual's behavior when you allow the individual to think through and choose options based on the stimuli in the current environment, as well as through external social events. Not only is a person's behavior influenced by their thinking (i.e., cognitive processes), but it is also influenced by social stimuli and other environmental factors. While individuals are affected by various elements of their environment and their experiences with them, through their decisions and actions, they unquestionably can significantly impact their condition for better or worse, changing it a little or a lot.

Reciprocal Determinism Example

If you have ever wondered what prompts human behavior and how that affects subsequent events (i.e., consequences), the concept of reciprocal determinism provides an explanation. Simply put, the environment influences an individual's thinking. Then, the individual's subsequent behavior impacts the environment.

Determinism purports that the actions, behavior and choices someone employs result from incidents that transpired in the past. While people are greatly influenced by their past experiences, these occurrences are not the only things that affect their behavior. Reciprocal determinism is a theory that the actions and reactions go both ways; the environment influences the person's behavior, and the person's behavior impacts the environment.

Here is an example of how reciprocal determinism can have an adverse result:

A man does not like anything about his job (the company, his boss and co-workers, the work itself, etc.); this is the personal factor. However, his current financial situation won't allow him to quit his job. As a result of his unhappiness, he will not do his job well; this is the behavior portion of the theory. His attitude and behavior influence the environment because it causes his co-workers to be unhappy and stressed. What was once a tolerable job for his co-workers is a miserable experience. Now, the work environment is worse, making the man even more unhappy, and the cycle snowballs into a progressively worse situation.

Reciprocal determinism can also work to produce a positive result:

A girl who is new to a school is self-conscious around her peers she does not know yet (the personal aspect). Then, another girl notices her loneliness, befriends her, and introduces her to their classmates (the environmental factor). As a result, the girl is happy, and the other kids are delighted with their new friend (the behavioral aspect), making for a more fun environment.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By arod2b42 — On Dec 23, 2010

In developmental theories, children are sometimes seen as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, in terms of set patterns. There is also the necessary addendum of genetic psychological factors which often determines what kind of role someone will play in a society and what traits they will have. At one end of the spectrum, children may be born with high autonomy, in which case they may have difficulty retaining set social patterns, but will possibly end up setting new patterns via their own innovation.

By TrogJoe19 — On Dec 22, 2010

According to Bandura social learning theory, people retain behavior patterns from observing others, and are enabled to pass on these patterns to others. There is a third factor, however: a person's capability of retaining these processes. This sheds light on an interesting concept: there are certain people in a group who are good at mimicking and keeping a set patterns, and certain people who are not. The people who are not are often either the trend-setters or the outcasts, depending on their position.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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