Cognitive Social Theories

Table of Contents

A loose confederacy of theories could be labeled cognitive social, the earliest of which arose in reaction to the disregard of cognition in
Behaviorism. The concern of these theories is with specific thoughts rather than with general Intelligence.

Early Theories

There are two early cognitive social theories, those of Bandura and Mischel. Bandura pioneered the study of observational learning (or vicarious conditioning). He believed that, rather than operating in a mechanistic way, reinforcement provides information about future reinforcement. Such information can be gleaned by watching models' behavior rather than by behaving in a particular way and experiencing the consequences oneself. Note how this definition of reinforcement differs from that of Skinner, for whom one had to experience reinforcement personally to increase a target behavior. Note also that for Bandura, thinking is not an irrelevant activity that occurs within a "black box," but rather is an important object of study in its own right.

A number of points distinguish the cognitive social approach from other approaches, including the following.

    Cognitive Focus--Remember Skinner and the "black box"? This approach is nothing like that. For example, memory of past reinforcements is an important variable mediating stimulus and response.

    Social-Interpersonal Focus--Remember Skinner and the generalization from pigeons and rats to all organisms (including humans)? This approach is nothing like that. Instead, the focus is on human behavior in particular situations, and the most important situational variable is other people.

    Belief in Human Freedom and Choice--Remember Skinner and the call to go "beyond freedom and dignity" to scientific understanding and control of human behavior? This approach is nothing like that. Instead, there is a belief in human choice from a number of possible behaviors. The environment does not only influence the person--the person also influences the environment. (This is called reciprocal determination.)

Five kinds of cognitive social learning variables can be distinguished (Mischel, 1993):
    Encoding Strategies: How do you see it?
    Expectancies: What will happen?
    Values: What is it worth? What are your goals?
    Plans: How can you achieve it?
    Competencies: What can you do?

Although these cognitive variables obviously have an impact on social relations, a question of keen interest is whether they can be reduced to general intelligence. For example, are competencies part of the "positive manifold"--that is, are they positively correlated with all other cognitive abilities? If so, then perhaps theorists would be better off focusing on general intelligence rather than on each individual cognitive social learning variable.

Cognition and Emotion

Higgins' Theory

Higgins (1987) proposed that each person has multiple mental representations of the self, and that a discrepancy between any pair of these representations has emotional consequences. The three big categories of representations are actual, ideal, and ought self. The actual self is who one really is. The ideal self is who one would like to be. The ought self is who one feels it is one's duty to be.

The actual, ideal, and ought selves can be further divided according to whether they are held by oneself or by others. For example, there is an actual/own self, an ideal/own self, and an ideal/other self. An actual/own:ideal/own discrepancy (for example) results in dejection, whereas an actual/own:ideal/other discrepancy results in shame.

Higgins' (1987) theory is an elaborate way of subdividing personality. Higgins' division of personality into six components might be compared to Freud's division into three (id, ego, and superego).

Seligman's Theory

Seligman's theory of learned helplessness was originally applied to dogs tested in a shuttle box with a divider separating two sides. Dogs who were shocked on one side eventually jumped over to the other, and, finding that they were not shocked there, learned the jumping response. However, dogs who were initially shocked uncontrollably failed to learn the jumping response, even if they did happen to jump over randomly once or twice.

The phenomenon of learned helplessness bears much in common with depression in humans. The theory was reformulated (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978) in order to take account of explanatory style--that is, the way people explain negative events to themselves. People who have a pessimistic explanatory style explain negative events as stable, global, and internal. Such people are hypothesized to be more predisposed to depression than people with an optimistic explanatory style, who explain negative events as unstable, specific, and external.

The reformulated learned helplessness model (Abramson et al., 1978) bears a striking similarity to the negative cognitive triad in Beck's cognitive theory of depression (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979).

Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale (1978) 

Beck, Rush, Shaw, and Emery (1979)

internal attributionsnegative thoughts about the self
global attributions             negative thoughts about the world
stable attributionsnegative thoughts about the future
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Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford.

Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94, 319-340.

Mischel, W. (1993). Introduction to personality (5th ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 32-48.

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Last modified October 2005

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