The Cognitive Perspective

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The relevance of cognition for personality is obvious to the most casual observer. Not only do cognitive factors mediate behavior, but even common knowledge of human cognition mediates behavior. Children, for example, wait until their parents are "in the right mood" to ask permission or request a new toy. Spouses learn to avoid sensitive subjects and actions that might be misinterpreted by their significant other. Job applicants work hard to make the right first impression, hoping that the momentum of professionalism and competence exuded during a brief interview will be interpreted as a traitlike personality feature and sweep them into employment. Presenters warm up an audience with humor, hoping, "If they like me, they'll like what I have to say." Advertisers saturate ads with subliminal messages intended to motivate the audience at an unconscious level. Diplomats counsel patience, hoping that "cooler heads" will prevail. As these examples illustrate, the casual use of knowledge about human cognition—metacognitive knowledge—is routine, automatic, implicit, spontaneous, nonconscious, and, moreover, expected. For example, the applicant who is inappropriately dressed is believed to be secretly saying, "This job is not really important to me."

Although we rarely become conscious of our own mental processes, the foundations of the cognitive perspective are deep. Ultimately, they return to epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, how knowledge is acquired, and its limits. The Latin origin of the term cognitive, cognitare, means "to have known." Questions such as, "How do we learn?," "What can we learn?," and "How are sensation and perception related?" connect the study of cognition to human development and to everyday life. Other questions, such as, "How can we best verify our judgments?," carry the relevance of cognition on into scientific methodology and the philosophy of science. In fact, because you will never think or perceive anything that does not require a mental representation of some kind, the study of cognition becomes connected to just about every field of human inquiry and every aspect of life, no matter how mundane, all the way from simple sensation to mystical experience. Although ideas are not reality, ideas are all the mind will ever know. Using ideas, we represent the world, ourselves, others, and the future. Ideas let us get things into our heads and perform operations on them, selecting some features for further analysis, discarding others, and altering the significance of still others. No wonder, then, that strong proponents of cognitive psychology have proposed that cognition be regarded as an integrative model for personality.

Origins of the Cognitive Approach

Cognitive psychology began in the 1950s as a reaction against behaviorism. Many experimental psychologists felt that by banishing mental content from investigation, psychologists had effectively banished the study of the human mind. Moreover, problems were coming into the foreground that behaviorism would find paradigm-shattering. Each featured some complex, sequential organization of behavior nearly impossible to explain in terms of the simple stimulus-response bonds. For psychologists, the classic clash of cognitive and behavioral ideas came in connection with the question, "How is language acquired?" In his 1957 work, Skinner attempted to explain speaking through standard behavioral principles. Speech was simply a shaped response chain operating in conformity with the laws of reinforcement, all under stimulus control. Good productions were reinforced, becoming more frequent; poor productions were not reinforced and thus became extinct over time. Because the environment controls what is reinforced and what is not, true novelty, or freedom of thought, was ruled out from the very beginning.

Chomsky (1959) gave Skinner (1957) a devastating review. As a linguist, Chomsky believed that language was just too complex to be learned behaviorally. Instead, language was regarded as possessing both a surface structure, the actual words spoken, and what he called a "deep structure," a grammatical code through which ambiguities in the surface structure are untangled. Chomsky also pointed to real-world examples: During the critical period for language learning, children sometimes learn five or six new words a day, a feat that cannot be explained through reinforcement. Chomsky thus not only put mental mechanisms squarely into Skinner's black box, but also made them central to the understanding of language, presumably a uniquely human faculty.

Other developments occurred outside cognitive psychology that were essential to the emergence of computers (see Gardner, 1985, for a thorough discussion) and, therefore, to the development of cognitive science and of information processing as a metaphor for the mind. In 1936, Alan Turing showed that any problem that was in principle computable could be carried out using a series of binary operations, the ones and zeros of the modern computer. Building on Turing's work, the mathematician John von Neumann sketched out the architectural structure of modern computer systems. In the late 1930s, Claude Shannon developed information theory, which allowed information to be thought of in terms of its own fundamental units, binary digits, or bits, quite apart from the physical matrix in which it was contained. By the mid-1950s, Newell and Simon had developed a computer program that could manipulate logical symbols and derive mathematical proofs. Later, they would develop the General Problem Solver, able to break large problems down into smaller ones and then assess which approaches might move closer to the solution, or goal state. Parallels between the operation of computers and the operation of the mind were becoming obvious.

Today, cognitive science—an emerging discipline that synthesizes cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and various branches of philosophy—is the latest in a series of revolutions instrumental in overturning our "species narcissism," the idea that humans are somehow special beings anointed to play some pivotal role in cosmic affairs. First, Copernicus proved that the earth was not the center of the universe. Cosmic events work accordingly to their own laws, revolving neither around the earth nor around the humans on it; astrology is not a science, and comets are not omens that forebode catastrophe. You could still believe, however, that humans were unique in the capacity to reason. Then came Darwin, who showed that the same processes responsible for the diversity of plant and animal life also explained the existence of human beings. The difference between human and animal was now one of degree rather than kind. Intelligence was not uniquely human, but the product of simple biological law. You could still believe, however, that humans were at least self-aware. Then came Freud, who argued that conscious awareness resembles the ripples on the surface of the ocean; the true determinative forces of behavior lay elsewhere, in the unconscious.

Cognitive science extends these earlier discoveries by arguing that the biological foundations of thought are simply a special instance of more general principles that, once decoded, might allow intelligence and self-awareness to be enabled in any physical matrix, perhaps a sophisticated computer. Each might have special biases depending on its architecture, but in principle, the difference between an artificially intelligent computer of the far future and a human being would resemble the difference between Ford and Chrysler: two different brands of the same thing. If the trend holds, we might conclude that every genuine scientific revolution must trivialize some aspect of human narcissism; otherwise, it cannot be a revolution at all.

Cognitive Styles

The cognitive perspective is perhaps best appreciated by considering the deficiencies of alternative models. As an information processor, the mind actively gathers and selects information about the world, self, and others, at both conscious and nonconscious levels. Additionally, it takes into account past probabilities and future circumstances in developing plans that further its own self-generated goals and eventually takes action, judges outcomes, and profits from experience. In contrast, the commonsense view is that the mind works like a sophisticated tape recorder. If so, everything that you have ever experienced should be preserved unaltered, somewhere inside your brain. The boundary between conscious and unconscious plays a protective function: The amount of information is vast; you cannot be allowed to have complete access to all your memories, for you would easily be overwhelmed. With a good tape recorder, every internal representation would perfectly parallel objective reality. No distinction would exist among sensation, perception, and interpretation; to perceive would be simply to sense. In philosophy, this commonsense view is known as realism.

In contrast, the cognitive perspective emphasizes that the mind is actively and constantly developing "construals" of the world, self, others, and the future. Some of these have far-reaching implications. The belief that "I am a worthwhile person" or "Other people are out to get me," for example, is formed on the basis of repeated experiences and has long-term consequences for psychological functioning. If the mind were not a good recorder simply because its representational abilities were too limited, cognition would be irrelevant to personality. Everyone would have the same map of reality; some people would just be a little more out of focus than others. The concept of an intelligence quotient, the idea that intelligence can be assessed on a single dimension, is really a throwback to this inaccurate view.

For students of personality, it is here that matters get interesting: What does the individual select as worthy of attention? Why it is selected? How is the stimulus interpreted? Avoidant personalities, for example, believe that the self is defective and shameful; as such, they are hypersensitive to cues of disapproval and embarrassment. Anything that might be interpreted as pointing to deficiencies in the self is abstracted from the background of ongoing communications as proof of their defects, ultimately leading to recoil from almost all social engagement. Paranoid personalities transform innocent remarks into criticism. Narcissistic personalities need to believe in their superiority and, thus, are extraordinarily alert to slights about their talent or intelligence. The conclusion is that the tape recorder model fails because the mind distorts whatever it touches.

When cognitive distortions cohere as a pattern, they may be thought of as cognitive styles. Different personalities process consensual reality in different ways. The scattered style of the histrionic, for example, serves an adaptive function. Histrionics are simply not given to deep, existential reflection. Depressive personalities may ruminate about the human situation to no end, but not the histrionic. Instead, their thoughts flutter from one thing to the next. Nothing is processed to any depth, insulating the individual against anxiety, and particularly worry, where the object of concern is held constantly in mind and examined again and again from every angle. Instead, the histrionic forgets problems simply by moving on to something lovely, entertaining, and stimulating. Compulsives, whom Leary (1957) aptly regarded as the "hypernormal personality," live in constant fear of making a mistake, which might lead to condemnation from authority figures, including those internalized in their own superego. In consequence, the compulsive becomes, in the words of Piaget (1954), much more of an assimilator than an accommoda-tor. Because compulsives cannot risk disapproval, they must do what is approved and expected; it is far better to be a mundane conformer than to be criticized for an apparently ingenious idea that somehow proves flawed in the final analysis. Compulsives thus tend to pursue a conservative course, mulling over the possibilities again and again, justifying them from all sides before acting. They make excellent critics, but not good innovators. The self-confidence of the narcissist is better suited to discovery. Each of the personality disorders has its own style of cognitive processing, discussed in detail in each of the personality chapters in this book.

Cognitive Therapy

Although cognitive psychology would seem to be the natural foundation for theory and research on the role of cognitive constructs in the personality disorders, this has not been the case. Instead, theoretical speculation and research have come mostly from those involved in cognitive therapy. Ideally, every applied science should grow from some pure science foundation, just as engineering grows naturally out of physics. In contrast, cognitive therapy, much like the rest of psychotherapy, has developed almost independently of any pure science foundation. Beck is without a doubt one of the most seminal figures in the history of therapy. Almost every book about cognitive therapy written by Beck or his associates includes a paragraph stating that cognitive therapy began in the mid-1950s when Beck was seeking experimental support for the notion that depressed subjects have a masochistic need for suffering, the main psychodynamic model of depression at the time. Beck's own research showed that depressed subjects greatly desired success, however, leading him to pursue a cognitive direction. No mention is made in this tale of the broader cognitive revolution that was occurring simultaneously or that it influenced Beck's thinking. Such events often occur in the applied social sciences.

Cognitive therapists hold that behavior can be explained by examining the contents of internal mental structures called schemata. Historically, schemata derive from work by Bartlett (1932) and Piaget (1926). Although the term has been defined in different ways, its meaning is obviously related to scheme and schematic. Both suggest a generic plan of action that might be elaborated to suit the particulars of a given situation. Schemata are assumed to mediate cognitive processing at every level, from sensation to paradigms and on to action plans that the organism can use to affect the world. Moreover, they are always available for mental operations. They can be changed or elaborated through new learning, but their very reason for being is to produce meaning from raw input. Like a cognitive filter, they are ever ready to be applied to create an interpretable world. Everything put through the filter is automatically processed. As such, their primary advantage lies in allowing experience to be processed with great efficiency. Given a variety of schemata that code for interpersonal conduct, for example, the individual does not have to invent new hypotheses for interacting with every new acquaintance.

The information-processing economy that schemata afford, however, also comes at a cost. Because schemata necessarily exist between the raw data of sensation and the meaningful world of subjective experience, they introduce interpretive biases that preempt other construals, possibly distorting consensual reality. Like scientific paradigms, schemata have a kind of conceptual priority that dictates the construction of the world. They decrease cognitive load but also inhibit the development of other approaches and an appreciation for other perspectives. In fact, information that is highly incongruent with schematic expectations may not be perceived at all. Paranoid, antisocial, and sadistic personalities, for example, anticipate hostility and easily overlook gestures of assistance and support. All suffer from a form of social neglect. The schematic structures required to process the full range of interactions are either absent or underdeveloped, giving these disorders an irascible, callous, or hard-hearted nature. Perception, it would seem, is half presumption, and the personality disorders are very presumptuous indeed.

Aaron Beck and his associates have been particularly successful in developing cognitive therapies for a wide range of Axis I disorders, especially depression (Beck, 1976; Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979). Because most mental disorders have cognitive symptoms, cognitive therapy provides an important avenue for treatment. In more recent years, Beck, Freeman, and associates (1990) applied the cognitive perspective to the personality disorders, describing the schemata, or core beliefs, that shape the experience and behavior of such individuals. Like other beliefs, these schemata are always available and always working to produce order from sensation. As such, they operate at a nonconscious level and give rise to "automatic thoughts," which influence emotion and behavior. In the paranoid personality, for example, core beliefs such as, "People are malicious and deceptive" (p. 47) lead, in actual interpersonal situations, to automatic thoughts such as, "He is trying to fool me," and "I cannot afford to believe him," which naturally leads to anger and an interpersonal posture of guardedness and hostility. As paranoids categorize the situation as just another attack on their person, the level of anger increases, further biasing their perception and recall in support of the original automatic thought. The result is a cognitive-interpersonal vicious cycle.

In addition, Beck and associates (Pretzer & Beck, 1996) also emphasize the importance of cognitive distortions. These are chronic and systematic errors in reasoning that promote the misinterpretation of consensual reality. For example, one of the foremost distortions is dichotomous thinking. Here, an entire distribution of possibilities is artificially limited to two mutually exclusive categories. The compulsive personality, for example, demands perfection from the self; a minor mistake tarnishes the whole effort, leading to the conclusion, "I have failed." Because only perfection is acceptable, di-chotomous thinking in the compulsive leads to another distortion, catastrophizing. Here, things are viewed as being disastrous, a catastrophe, not in realistic terms; thus, the compulsive may further conclude, "I am likely to be fired." Another example is personalization. In this case, the cause of external events is always attributed to the self. Thus, if people at a party start laughing for unknown reasons, an avoidant personality may conclude that they are laughing at his or her social awkwardness. Other, more realistic reasons that people might laugh at a party are automatically excluded in favor of an interpretation that promotes pathology.

TABLE 2.1 Primeval Strategies and Beliefs of the Personality Disorders



Example Belief



"Others are patsies."



"I need people to survive."



"I'm above the rules."



"I can go by my feelings."



"Relationships are messy."



"Goodwill hides a hidden motive.



"People will reject the real me."



"Details are crucial."

The cognitive therapy model of Beck et al. (1990) is anchored to evolution and links the personality disorders to certain primeval evolutionary strategies, adaptive in moderation, but exaggerated in personality pathology. For example, the dependent personality exemplifies a "help-eliciting" strategy. Although asking for help when faced with obstacles is adaptive from both a personal and an evolutionary viewpoint, dependents make this strategy the organizing principle of their entire existence. Conversely, antiso-cials have underdeveloped schemata for being responsible and for feeling guilt about violating social convention. They exaggerate the "predatory strategy" and, thus, are naturally victim-seeking. In contrast, compulsives are disposed to judge themselves responsible and guilt-ridden, but are underdeveloped in the inclination to interpret events spontaneously, creatively, and playfully. A list of primeval strategies and associated beliefs, condensed from Pretzer and Beck (1996), is presented in Table 2.1.

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  • angelika
    Which research methodologies does the cognitive perspective favor?
    2 months ago

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