Contributions of the Social-Cognitive Approach
Like the trait approach theorists, social-cognitive theorists have taken a considerable interest in relatively stable personality traits, as revealed by studies of attributional style and delay of gratification. How, then, do social-cognitive theorists differ from trait theo-rists? There are two answers. One has to do with the role of the situation. By now, theo-rists from all perspectives agree that both traits and situations matter, but even so, social-cognitive theorists are more likely than trait theorists to stress the role of the sit-uation and how the individual understands and deals with it. Thus, Mischel found that delay of gratification is an index of a surprisingly stable personal attribute, but he was quick to point out that this index is strongly affected by the way the situation was set up (was the reward visible?) and how it was construed (did the child think about eating the reward?). The second answer concerns the origins of personality. Unlike trait theorists, who tend to emphasize the genetic basis of personality, social-cognitive theorists typi-cally place greater emphasis on the role played by learning in shaping personality.
Like the psychodynamic theorists, social-cognitive theorists want to dig deeper than the surface of personality in order to understand the psychological processes that sup-port behavior and mental processes. In doing so, social-cognitive theorists are often addressing problems such as delay of gratification that come straight out of Freud’s playbook, and the psychological processes that these two types of theorists are inter-ested in overlap considerably, particularly if we include the ego psychologists, with their emphasis on an adaptive, active ego, and the object relations theorists with their emphasis on social reinforcement. Note, however, the differences. Theorists from the social-cognitive and psychodynamic approaches go about their work using starkly different languages and methods and holding up quite different views of the role of conscious processes. Social-cognitive theorists emphasize cognitive processes such as construal and beliefs, and prioritize tightly controlled experiments. In contrast, psycho-dynamic theorists emphasize unconscious impulses and defenses, and rely on insights drawn from clinical work with patients.
The parallels between the social-cognitive approach and the humanistic approach are similarly instructive. The positive outlook of the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers resonates with social-cognitive theorists such as Bandura. Both are optimistic about the individual’s capacity to overcome difficult circumstances and to show extraor-dinary resilience in the face of trying times. This optimism hinges for both schools of thought on the conviction that we are not just passively shaped by the swirl of life around us, but also actively seek to shape our world. Despite this shared optimism about the human capacity for growth and change, the traditions differ. The humanistic theorist describes the growth in terms of a self that is actualized to varying degrees, while the social-cognitive theorist draws attention to a malleable set of processes that guide how the individual acts and, ultimately, who he is.
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