What is the Bandura curve?
Ever tackled a new challenge, maybe dieting, new work skills or a sport? We all have, and if we’re honest, we’ve all reached a point where our improvement seems to plateau. In this article, you’ll discover a proven strategy for when this happens – and its connection with the Bandura curve, named after Albert Bandura, an acclaimed psychology professor at Stanford University.
But first, please indulge me as I recall my schoolboy passion for cricket – and bowling in particular. I was accurate but incredibly slow. My pals complained and stood back when I bowled. Determined to get better, I practised hard during the Easter holidays until I was ready to demonstrate my improved technique.
What’s that got to do with a now-octogenarian Canadian psychologist? More on that later, but first a word about Bandura’s research into the relationship between our expectations and beliefs, and how well we perform tasks. Can you see the connection with my school cricket career? You will, I promise…
Surprising relationships between predictions and outcomes
Bandura set people simple tasks and asked them to predict their success. He noted how their performance accurately reflected their expectations on challenges ranging from tossing paper balls into waste-baskets to encountering boa constrictors!
Interestingly, he also noticed that when subjects did better than they predicted, they explained their success as beginner's luck – often resulting in their next attempt being less successful. He also noticed how, if someone predicted a high score, and then did worse than expected, they’d tell themselves they could do better – and usually did.
Raised expectations help performance
Research shows that when tackling new tasks most people start with low expectations. Bandura observed that raised expectations helped the subjects’ performance. He achieved this with four techniques:
- Verbal persuasion: simply saying ‘you can do it!’
- Expert modelling: modelling subject experts.
- Vicarious learning: watching someone improve who has the same, or nearly the same, level of performance as you.
- Enactive mastery: achieving mastery through practice.
To illustrate this, imagine a child’s first steps. First, it sits, then crawls, then stands, then falls. Eventually, on seeing a favourite toy, it takes a step or two towards it, then falls over. Those first hesitant steps take a while to arrive, but by the time baby can take them, progress is easier. And of course, though they have a new skill, their little legs still haven’t the necessary strength.
When we can see ourselves improving, we start taking responsibility. Then we take responsibility in other areas of life, like a successful slimmer who takes more sleep, feels more refreshed than for a long time in the morning, and consequently feels better at work.
Introducing the Bandura curve
Bandura discovered that with any new skill the relationship between time and improvement can be plotted as a curve – the Bandura curve. For dieters the curve shows falling weight; for snooker players, rising break scores; and for business people, increasing performance. What’s more, the curve relates to the continuum between a complete novice’s unconscious incompetence and an experienced person’s unconscious competence – the learning ladder.
The challenge of the plateau
Bandura saw that when we learn new skills or lose weight a point comes where our rate of progress plateaus. Suddenly, you’re not losing so much weight, or your snooker improvement stays the same. It’s disappointing and disheartening, and with expectations running ahead of ability self-doubt sets in. And with self-doubt comes lower self-image, feelings of unworthiness and entry to the realm of imposter syndrome.
New skills are eventually required to progress further in any discipline. Whether it’s business, snooker or slimming, reaching the limits of old skills means something new is required. At first, as we practise the new skill, performance falls. But with practice comes improvement and an interest in statistics about the likelihood of eventual success. It’s time to revisit Bandura’s four techniques.
Whether it's business, snooker or slimming, reaching the limits of old skills means something new is required.
The best techniques for overcoming the plateau
At this stage, research shows that just telling someone ‘you can do it!’, or expert modelling, are the least effective of the four techniques. In practice, when the Bandura Curve plateaus, it’s vicarious learning and enactive mastery that have the greatest impact on performance, self-esteem and confidence.
At this stage, it’s vital not to lower expectations (‘because I can’t achieve it.’). That’s because with maintained expectations the plateau will eventually shift forward. It’s all about lifting yourself and getting back on track. As the old adage goes, the darkest hour comes just before the dawn.
If something’s worth doing…
Now recall your school days and how well-meaning parents and teachers said that anything worth doing is worth doing well. With respect, the evidence is that nobody starts as an expert; actually, if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing poorly… at first. Besides, initial expectations of poor performance remove lots of unhelpful anxiety.
Now, let’s return to my school cricket and the day I demonstrated my new, hard-practised, bowling expertise. With the first bowl, I almost took the batsman’s head off. Why? Because all through the holidays I’d practised with tennis balls – and cricket balls, of course, are much heavier!
Things change – including the right tools
My point is that things change. Try to use techniques from 1980s marketing books and, like me and my tennis ball, you’ll be on the wrong footing. Make no mistake, whether it’s the Bandura curve or techniques such as NLP or hypnotherapy, the right tools are essential if you want to move forward.