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What makes people different from each other, and how does the way we think about things influence who we are? In this lesson, we’ll examine cognitive approaches to personality development, including explanatory styles.

What Is Personality?

Alma has been thinking about what makes her different from her brother Rando. While Alma is very outgoing and bubbly, Rando is more quiet and serious. Why are they so different?In psychology, personality is made up of patterns of behavior that are relatively consistent over time. Taken together, these patterns make up who we are, which is what our personality essentially is.

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But what makes people’s personalities so different from each other? To help Alma understand how she and her brother ended up so different, let’s look at cognitive approaches to personality.

Cognitive Approaches

Alma is an extrovert, and her brother Rando is an introvert. So, what’s going on? How did they end up so different from each other?There are many ways to think about personality.

One type of approach is a cognitive approach, which looks at the way people think and how it influences their personality. For example, if Alma notices that outgoing people are more popular and more successful, she’s more likely to become outgoing. She’ll want to be successful and have people like her, so even if she’s a little introverted, she’s likely to work hard to become outgoing.There are many different cognitive approaches to personality.

Some of the earliest ones focused on the way our mental representations, or the way we picture things in our minds, influenced our personalities. For example, if Rando pictures himself as a shy, introverted guy, he’s more likely to act shy and introverted.Another common cognitive approach to personality says that people have certain beliefs, attitudes, and values that impact their personalities.

For example, if Rando believes that being serious is a good thing, he’s more likely to be serious. If Alma has a set of values that includes the attitude that people should always try to make others’ day happier, she’s more likely to be upbeat and funny. The key thing that all cognitive approaches to personality have in common is the belief that the way people think and perceive things influences who they are.

Explanatory Styles

Alma’s always upbeat and optimistic, while Rando is more pessimistic.

We’ve already seen several examples of cognitive approaches that might try to explain this difference. But let’s look closer at a popular modern cognitive approach to personality, explanatory styles, and how it might see Alma and Rando.The explanatory styles theory says that people’s personalities are shaped by the way they explain the good – and especially the bad – things that happen to them. For example, let’s say that Alma and Rando both fail a test. Alma might say, ”Oh, no! I didn’t study hard enough! I’ll have to work harder next time!” In contrast, Rando might say, ”I failed because I’m a stupid failure.

I’m bad at everything, and nothing I can do will ever change that.”Those are obviously very different approaches, but what’s going on? The explanatory styles theory says that people judge events in three different ways: internal versus external control, stable versus unstable, and global versus specific.To understand each of these three ways, let’s look at Alma’s reaction to failing her test again. Internal vs. external control says that some people take the credit or blame for things that happen, while others give credit or blame to something or someone outside of them.

Alma says that she failed because she didn’t study hard enough. That’s internal control: she’s blaming herself, which in turn suggests that she believes she has some kind of control over the situation. In contrast, Rando says that he failed because he’s stupid. There’s nothing he can do about that; it’s out of his control, so he believes in external control.

Stable vs. unstable is about how long a person expects a situation to last. Will it last forever (stable) or is it temporary (unstable)? Alma says that she’ll work harder next time, which is not only internal control, but it’s also her thinking about the failure as unstable: next time, it will change. Rando, though, believes it will never change, so he believes the problem is stable.

Finally, global vs. specific is about how far-reaching the situation is. A global belief sees the problem as impacting most or all of a person’s life, whereas a specific belief sees the problem as being related to only this one aspect of the person’s life. Rando, for example, has a global belief: he thinks that he’s stupid and bad at everything. He would probably also say that his failing this test is going to mean that he never graduates school and ends up a hobo.In contrast, Alma might believe that failing the test is not a big deal because it’s very specific.

She might say that the test can bring down her grade in the class, but she’s more likely to see the problem as only relating to that one test or that one class, not her whole life.What does all this have to do with personality? The explanatory styles theory posits that a person who views negative events in terms of external control, stable, and global are most likely to be pessimists. Optimists, in contrast, will view negative events as unstable, specific, and due to internal control.

We can see that when we think about Alma and Rando.Of course, people may not be all one or all the other, and their beliefs may change from situation to situation. But by and large, an external, stable, global explanatory style is common in pessimists, while an internal, unstable, and specific explanatory style is common in optimists.

Lesson Summary

Personality is made up of patterns of behavior that are relatively consistent over time. Cognitive approaches to personality look at the way people think influences their personalities.

There are many different cognitive approaches to personality. Some of the earliest ones focused on the way our mental representations, or the way we picture things in our minds, influenced our personalities. Another common cognitive approach to personality says that people have certain beliefs, attitudes, and values that impact their personalities.The explanatory styles theory says that people’s personalities are shaped by the way they explain the good – and especially the bad – things that happen to them. It states that people judge events in three different ways: internal versus external control, stable versus unstable, and global versus specific.Internal vs. external control says that some people take the credit or blame for things that happen, while others give credit or blame to something or someone outside of them.

Stable vs. unstable is about whether a person believes negative events will last forever (stable) or are temporary (unstable). Finally, global vs. specific is about how far-reaching a situation is. A global belief sees the problem as impacting most or all of a person’s life, whereas a specific belief sees the problem as being related to only this one aspect of the person’s life.A person who views negative events in terms of external control, stable, and global are most likely to be pessimists.

Optimists, in contrast, will view negative events as unstable, specific, and due to internal control.

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