The Cognitive Perspective

In the histrionic personality, cognition and defense merge to support a single protective purpose (see Shapiro, 1965). As opposed to compulsives, whose memory and description of the surrounding world is precise, highly detailed, technical, or even encyclopedic, the cognition of histrionics is notoriously vague, diffuse, global, impressionistic, scattered, and flighty. Rather than compare and contrast perspectives to illuminate all sides of an issue, histrionics seek to minimize cognitive complexity whenever possible. In fact, histrionics cannot really be said to appraise anything, because appraisal naturally requires conscious awareness of the various dimensions on which the evaluation occurs. Their cognitive-defensive filter actively protects them from anything too precise, factual, concrete, abstract, reasoned, logical, systematic, philosophical, or existential. The factual or concrete is too boring. The abstract or reasoned is too tedious. The philosophical is too long and tiresome. The existential is too deep and too threatening.

Instead, histrionics perceive the world through the single channel of their own colorful and dramatic, but imprecise, hyperemotional impressions. When asked for a description, for example, they may respond in overdramatized emotion words: "I just love it!"; "Isn't she cute!"; "I can't stand her!"; "I felt like I would die!" (Shapiro, 1965).

Their attention flits about here and there, pulled by sensory stimulation and fleeting internal associations. Anything that occupies the focus leaves only a temporary imprint and few memory traces. Rarely does anything get processed to any significant depth. As such, well-developed schemata for classifying and ordering the world or for comparing future possibilities to past experiences are limited. Yvonne's description of the pain she feels fits this classic histrionic pattern. She states that she lies in bed all day and yet apparently finds time to dance. She says she feels "like I will absolutely die!" but somehow lives to party on.

Histrionics, in fact, do not ponder, concentrate, contemplate, reflect, conduct controlled experiments, or give sage advice. In fact, they often seem to lack a basic curiosity about the world around them. Instead, they prefer to ignore fine discriminations and parse the world in terms of cognitive categories that are broad, overgeneralized, and loosely boundaried. In part, their capriciousness reflects an avoidance of potentially disruptive unconscious images and urges, especially those that might bring to awareness their deeply hidden dependency needs and sexual manipulations. By ignoring the details of their world and relationships, they reinforce the mechanism of repression. By allowing their cognitive structures to remain loose and poorly formed, they not only allow themselves a measure of distractibility when life becomes too upsetting but also support a tendency to dissociate defensively under more intense stress.

The cognitive characteristics of histrionics are easily observed in everyday life, and they sometimes appear on conventional tests of intelligence. Most of us, when faced with a difficult problem, formulate several strategies and learn something from each failure until the problem is solved. If the answer is already known, we may even reconstruct the solution by working backwards. Big problems can be dissolved into smaller parts, each of which is tackled individually. More difficult problems may require pencil and paper, consultation with others, or even library research. Whatever the exact route, typically a person tries various approaches and gradually uncovers the root of the problem.

In contrast, histrionics often simply give up and report, "This is too hard." Faced with an entire series of puzzles, they may become irritated or express fatigue. Concentration may seem tedious, boring, or incongruent with their self-image. Historically, the need to solve problems has proven unnecessary for histrionics; their modus operandi is to relieve themselves of such burdens by eliciting the aid of others. They may also give up due to insufficient background knowledge. Given their impressionistic style, histrionics frequently fail to accumulate a reservoir of facts about the world around them. Their "crystallized intelligence" (Cattell, 1971) should grow more slowly than for others simply because they fail to process the world to any depth, failing to connect facts and storing little about the world that is definite (Shapiro, 1965). Consequently, situations necessitating substantial acquired knowledge are avoided, thereby limiting their exposure to any significant intellectual challenges.

The final consequence of an impressionistic cognitive style is lack of knowledge about their own identity. Most persons see the self as a substance. The belief that each person has a soul echoes this view, for presumably, the soul contains the timeless essence of a human being. Social psychologists, however, hold that our beliefs about ourselves are formed in much the same way as those about the external world. Like scientists, we form theories, make connections among ideas, and draw conclusions. Some such beliefs are consensually shared; others are purely personal constructs (Kelly, 1955). Someone who repeatedly experiences feelings of attraction to members of the same sex, for example, may eventually conclude that he or she is homosexual. Thus, the self is a construct, much like any other scientific construct, and the process of self-development is as much a process of discovery as of choice. Like any other construct, the connections between the theory of self and adjacent ideas and experiences that inform and define it can be either more dense or more sparse. Some people, for example, know themselves absolutely, whereas others have only feeble notions.

Because the impressionistic, unfocused, global style of histrionics makes for a very poor scientist, they seldom develop a well-formed, qualified, principled sense of identity, complete with long-term goals and a detailed life plan. Instead, their impressions of self resemble their impressions of the surrounding world, being global, vacuous, and superficial. We would expect neither Yvonne nor Monique to spontaneously launch into a thorough and precise description of herself, how she is similar to yet different from her mother and father, how they have influenced her life choices and the goals she has set for herself, and what she sees as the primary challenges to her personal growth and identity in the next five years.

Contemporary cognitive therapy focuses as much on the contents of cognition, mainly the central beliefs of each personality disorder, as on cognitive style. Writing in Beck et al., Fleming (1990, p. 215) emphasizes that, like dependent and depressive personalities, histrionics believe, "I am inadequate and unable to handle life on my own." However, unlike depressives, who dwell on their own personal inefficacy, or dependents, who seek an instrumental surrogate, histrionics actively seek out ways that others can be persuaded to care for them. Like dependents, histrionics see others as holding the keys to the quality of life. However, whereas the helpless dependent is at the mercy of external forces, histrionics take the initiative in soliciting attention and praise to draw potential caretakers more closely to themselves. Rather than take control of their lives directly, they seek to control those who control their destiny. As Fleming further argues, this strategy has its own implications. Histrionics go out of their way to make themselves desirable, and they feel devastated when not desired or simply ignored. After all, working hard without success says much more than failing without putting in much effort.

Writing in the same volume, Beck et al. (1990) paint a similar picture. Histrionics see themselves, according to Beck, as glamorous and impressive. As such, they feel justified in being the center of attention and form strong bonds with others who indulge them and play the part of the admiring audience. Whereas the same is true of narcissists, histrionics do not remain aloof and superior to others, but instead engage them directly in ways that solicit a continuous flow of praise and appreciation. Like most personality disorders, the core beliefs of histrionics are intensely negative. In fact, those schemas lead to compensatory beliefs, which literally insulate individuals from what they believe to be the dismal truth. Histrionic core beliefs are variants of, "I am basically unattractive," and "I need others to admire me in order to be happy"; compensatory beliefs include, "I am very lovable, entertaining, and interesting," and "People are there to admire me and do my bidding" (p. 50). Conditional beliefs flow from core beliefs and include notions such as, "Unless I captivate people, I am nothing," "If I can't captivate people, they will abandon me," and "If I can't captivate people, I am helpless" (p. 50). Beck et al. also emphasize an important instrumental belief that connects the cognitive contents of histrionics to their effusive emotional displays: "I can go by my feelings" (p. 51). Rather than delay expression, then, histrionics act on their emotions, even when reflection would serve them better, crying when they feel sad or throwing a tantrum when angry.

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