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The Oxford Dictionary defines “Personality” as ” the distinctive character or qualities of a person, often as distinct from others; personal existence or identity; the condition of being a person.” People differ from each other but why they differ is an important part of the study of personality. Personality may be seen as the sum total of ways in which an individual reacts and interacts with others (Mischel and Shoda, 2004, p. 252).

Study of personality includes multiple approaches to the question of who we are, how and why we are similar and different to other individuals. Research ranges from analysis of genetic codes and study of biological systems to the study of cognitive abilities, emotional and sexual, social, ethnic and cultural bases of thought, feelings and behavior.

Many psychological theories have been proposed over the years to explain human behavior. The view of human nature embodied in such theories and the casual processes they postulate have considerable import. What theorists believe people to be determines which aspects of human functioning they explore most thoroughly and which they leave unexamined. The conceptions of human nature in which psychological theories are rooted are more than a theoretical issue. As knowledge gained through inquiry is applied, the conceptions guiding the social practices have even vaster implications. They affect which human potentialities are cultivated, which are underdeveloped, and whether efforts at change are directed mainly at psychosocial, biological or sociostructural factors.

The recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in self-referent phenomena. Self-processes have come to pervade diverse domains of psychology because most external influences affect human functioning through intermediary self-processes rather than directly. The self-system thus lies at the very heart of casual processes. To cite but a few examples, personal factors are very much involved in regulating attentional processes, schematic

processing of experiences, memory representation and reconstruction, cognitively based motivation, emotion activation, psychobiologic functioning and the efficacy with which cognitive and behavioral competencies are executed in the transactions of everyday life (Burger, 1993, p. 63).

Comparing the behavioral and social-cognitive perspectives of personality, one might note that behavioral perspective focuses on the relation between objects, people or events in the environment (stimuli) and the person’s response to these objects or events. It takes the view that human and animal behavior can be understood entirely without reference to internal states such as thoughts or feelings, in other words, environmental events control behavior, and human conduct follows laws of behavior in the same way as the law of gravity can explain why things fall down instead of up. For behaviorists, the study of behavioral perspectives of personality is needed to conform to the rigorous scientific standards as used in the natural sciences.

Therefore one had to study measurable behaviors. This means studying what can be seen, what can be measured with instruments, can be measured in an experimental situation. Therefore behavioral advocates had to ignore the conscious thoughts of the person because only the person has access to their own thoughts, therefore these thoughts cannot be measured in an objective manner, they are purely subjective. These subjective thoughts (accounts) cannot be independently verified (Carver and Sheier, 2000, p. 27).

B.F. Skinner observed that the behavior of animals and people could be controlled by environmental conditions that either increase the likelihood of the behavior being repeated (through reinforcement) or decrease the likelihood of a repetition of the behavior (through punishment). He developed a theory around the notion of reinforcing behavior. He believed that behavioral perspective can be understood as a learned response to environmental events, and that behaviors are selected on the basis of their consequences (Engler, 2000, p. 45).

 So, if I am “approved of” because I use a particular perfume then I am likely to continue to use that perfume. However, if I am avoided because of the particular perfume then I will stop using it, to avoid the punishment of people not wanting to be in my company.

The reinforcement is the approval; the punishment is my knowledge that people do not approve of the perfume. A better example might be to look at the work place. If a worker is rewarded for high productivity then he is likely to continue with the high productivity. However, if having given high productivity, the worker is passed over when promotions are taking place, and then he is likely to reduce productivity.

While this perspective has been very helpful in understanding the personality’s behavior, it can only give us a limited understanding. It ignores mental processes altogether and we all know that the mind (thinking, emotions, motivations) has a substantial influence on what we decide to do, how we decide to act. At least, we do not like to consider that human beings simply respond to what happens to them from the outside as it were. We like to think that we have some free will, or some control over our behavior, that is the main difference between the behavioral and social-cognitive perspectives of personality and the main weakness of the behavioral perspective (Omstein, 1993, p. 24).

Social-cognitive perspective of personality accepts and expands on conditioning principles.  Social-cognitive theories build on behavioral theories and show that people’s cognitive processes influence and are influenced by behavioral associations.  Conditioning theories assume direct connection between behavior and learning whereas cognitive theories allow for the learning process to be modified by cognitions

Social-cognitive theories include study of:

–        motivation

–        emotion

–        cognitions

–        social-reinforcers

–        self-reinforcers

–        vicarious emotional arousal

–        vicarious reinforcement

–        semantic generalization

–        rule-based learning

Social-cognitive theories arose in an attempt to retain behaviorism’s empirical rigor and some of its basic principles whilst trying to expand beyond what behaviorism could explain and predict. Three important aspects that behaviorism ignores are motivation, emotion and cognition (Phares, 1991, p. 67).

Furthermore, it came to be realized that so many of the things that reinforce our behavior are not related to physical needs but to psychological needs.  Social reinforces such as acceptance, hugs, approval, interest, praise, attention etc are extremely important in making people continue to perform a particular behavior. In this sense the perspective became very socially oriented.

People also often reward themselves for “good behavior” with a new CD or even just internal praise or potentially you punish yourself with no new CD or self-blame. In this way, this perspective sees internal states of being of real importance in the learning process (Weiner, 1986, p. 89).

Social-cognitive theorists claim that they way that people think, plan, perceive and believe is an important part of learning. They also point out that many experiments are carried out on animals and that therefore the laws of learning they discover, whilst having some relevance to humans, are not complete or complex enough to account for more complex human behavior and learning (compare with the behavioral perspective).

Social-cognitive theorists also claim that behaviorism ignores the social dimensions of learning, treating us as though we are individual animals. In humans, however, many reinforcements are social in nature. In behaviorist experiments, the animal cannot choose its environment and the environment doesn’t changes as a result of the animal’s presence – as it does with humans. Thus, the difference between the behavioral and social-cognitive perspectives of personality is obvious (Ryckman, 2000, p. 71).

Another elaboration concerns self reinforcement – we reward and punish ourselves – so there are internal versus environmental sources of reinforcement.

Social Reinforcement: A particularly powerful form of reinforcement which shapes human personality and behavior is social e.g. approval, touch, smiling, encouragement, etc.

Self Reinforcement: Refers to both the act of giving one’s self actual real life rewards for certain acts (e.g. If I study for one hour, I can have that piece of cake.), as well as giving oneself internal positive self-talk and feelings, etc. in response to a desired behavior (or likewise negative self-talk in response to non-desired behavior)

Vicarious Emotional Arousal: The experience of empathy when observing someone else’s situation creates an opportunity for emotional conditioning based on the actual behavioral conditioning of the person being observed.

Vicarious Reinforcement: Observing other people’s behaviors being rewarded or punished leads to vicarious reinforcement of those behaviors in an observer, e.g. seeing people who train hard win gold medals at the olympics reinforces physical exercise in observers.

Semantic Generalization: Learning is not restricted to specific situations where semantic links or generalizations can be made to similar situations.  e.g. having an unpleasant experience going to a football match may also make someone less likely to attend a cricket match

Rule-based Learning: People learn sets of principles or rules, which can be applied across situations (e.g. overregularisation or overgeneralization).

The social-cognitive perspective of personality completes a return to the material focused on by introspectionists, that is, the actual content of mind.  The new cognitive psychology evolves most directly from social learning theory and extensions of behavioral theory.  It also has clear links to humanistic psychology in its focus on the “information stored about the self” and in suggesting considerable capacity for change in personality and mental health by altering thinking patterns (Ryckman, 2000, p. 73).

The social-cognitive perspective, in contrast to behavioral, has evolved hand in hand in the development of computers over since the mid-1950’s and according to many in psychology has become the most significant paradigm in psychology.  Essentially, the social-cognitive perspective of personality is the idea that people are who they are because of the way they think, including how information is attended to, perceived, analyzed, interpreted, encoded and retrieved.  People tend to have habitual thinking patterns, which are characterized as personality.  Your personality, then, would be your characteristic cognitive patterns.

The social-cognitive perspective is that personality is a person’s mental organization.  In order to cope with all the information you receive from the world, including sensory information, you need to cope with, integrate and organize all the information the world throws at you.

From this point of view, you are:

  1. What you THINK
  2. The way you PROCESS INFORMATION (including attending to, perceiving, interpreting, encoding and retrieving of information);
  3. The way you SELF-REGULATE via cognitive monitoring and adjusting thoughts and behaviors.  We are HOMEOSTATIC psychobiological creatures who try to self-regulate in order to progress towards GOALS (Rowan and Cooper, 1999, p. 45).

The social-cognitive perspective is also often known as the information-processing model, with the computer serving as a convenient metaphor. This metaphor could hardly be given to the behavioral perspective as it ignores the conscious thoughts of the person. Basically, the computer’s program is equivalent to the ways a human processes information.  In cognitive psychology, these “programs” include methods for attending, perceiving, representing, encoding, retrieving, and decision-making and problem solving (Funder, 2001, p. 57).

A particular strength of social-cognitive theory is that it is readily compatible with all the other perspectives, thus there are also many hybrid cognitive theories. Among the weaknesses the appropriate question appears: Are computers and robots adequate models for human behavior? The human mind is unlike a computer in that people are aware and experience emotions. But, according to the behavioral perspective, it doesn’t match the animal’s mind as it’s much more complicated.

As for the weaknesses of the behavioral perspective of personality, it doesn’t grapple with personhood and sense of personal self, but this theoretical direction is testable with increasing validity & efficacy.

The social-cognitive perspective of personality captures active nature of human thought, but ignores unconscious. This perspective has many useful applications  (e.g., behavior therapy is focused and effective for a variety of behavior problems: cognitive behavior therapy methods are popular)(Wood and Bandura, 1989, p. 69).

One of the essential underlying questions about theories based on animal research in laboratories is: does human behavior fit in among this forced choice paradigm? Experiments using animals usually have one or maybe two possible solutions and the animal essentially just has to make a choice between two variables i.e. go left or right, press the left or right button etc. But is this how we make choices? Is the possible list of solutions to a problem limited to one or two choices?

Social-cognitive theories are commonly misconstrued as atomistic without an overreaching “personality”. The umbrella term “personality” represents a complex of interacting attributes not a self-contained entity describable by a few terms creating the illusion of a high-order structure. Personality is multifaceted, richly contextualized, and conditionally expressed in the diverse transactions of everyday life. The totality of individual’s cognitive, behavioral and affective proclivities is not limited to few static descriptive categories (Wood and Bandura, 1989, p. 75).

Social-cognitive theory acknowledges the influential role of evolutionary factors in human adaptation and change, but rejects one-sides evolutionism in which social behavior is the product of evolved biology. In the bidirectional view of evolutionary processes, evolutionary pressures fostered changes in biological structures and upright posture conducive to the development and use of tools, which enabled an organism to manipulate, alter and construct new environmental conditions. Environmental innovations of increasing complexity, in turn, created new selection pressures for the evolution of specialized biological systems for functional consciousness, thought, language and symbolic communication (Zimmerman and Rappaport, 1990, p. 189).

All too often, the multicausality of human behavior is framed in terms of partitioning behavioral variance into percent nature and percent nurture (the behavioral and social-cognitive perspectives of personality). This casual dualism is mistaken for several reasons. It disregards the interdependence of nature and nurture. Socially constructed nurture has a hand in shaping nature. It also fails to address fundamental issues concerning the operational nature of human nature. Human evolution provides bodily structures and biological potentialities not behavioral dictates. Psychosocial influences operate through these biological resources in the construction and regulation of human behavior acting in the service of diverse purposes (Wood and Bandura, 1989, p. 79).

Having evolved, the advanced biological capacities can be used to create diverse cultures – aggressive ones, pacific ones, egalitarian ones or autocratic ones. The biology sets constraints that vary in nature, degree and strength across different spheres of functioning, but in most domains of human functioning biology permits a broad range of cultural possibilities.In fact, the major explanatory battle between these two perspectives is not between nature and nurture as commonly portrayed, but whether nature operates as a determinist or as potentialist.

Burger, J. M. (1993). Personality (3rd ed.) Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2000). Perspectives on Personality (4th ed.) Needham Heights, MA: Simon & Schuster.

Engler, B. (2000). Personality theories: An introduction. Houghton Chifflin: Boston, MA.

Funder, D. C. (2001). The Personality Puzzle (2nd ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (2004). Introduction to Personality. Psychological Review, 102, 246-268.

Ornstein, R. (1993). The Roots of the Self: Unraveling the mystery of who we are. New York: Harper Collins.

Phares, J. E. (1991). Introduction to Personality (3rd ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

Rowan, J., & Cooper, M. (1999).  The plural self: Multiplicity in everyday life.  Sage: London.

Ryckman, R.M. (2000). Theories of personality.  Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Wood, R. E., & Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory of organizational management. Academy of Management Review,14, 361-384.

Zimmerman, B.J. & Rappaport, J. (1990). Self-regulating academic learning and achievement: The emergence of a social cognitive perspective. Educational Psychology Review, 2, 173-201.

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