Person Variables

Cognitive and behavioral construction competencies represent the first of the person variables. Mischel terms them "competencies" to emphasize that they represent potentials—that is, what people can do, rather than what they do. Referring to their "constructive" quality implies that people do not passively store but actively construct their experiences by transforming and synthesizing incoming information in novel ways. Another of these person variables involves encoding strategies and personal constructs. People encode information and classify events in personalized, unique ways. For different individuals, traitlike constructs such as intelligence or honesty may therefore have some overlapping features but may also have many idiosyncratic ones. This explains why two people can witness and process the same event but interpret it differently. Both people only attend to stimuli consistent with their own personal construct systems and ignore discrepant information.

Mischel maintains that besides knowing people's potentials and how they construct events, to predict behavior people must also know their expectations. One type, termed stimulus-outcome expectancies, develops when people form associations between two events and begin to expect the second event as soon as the first occurs. For example, if a child learns to associate parental frowning with being scolded, any angry face alone may instill anxiety.

A second type, termed response-outcome expectancies, refers to learned "if-then rules," in which specific actions will result in certain outcomes. Outcome expectancies can have a significant influence on what people do. When expectations are inconsistent with reality, they can lead to dysfunctional behavior. Expecting relief from alcohol, when drinking actually leads to multiple problems, illustrates this point.

Subjective stimulus values—subjective values or worth that a person attributes to an object or event—are another type of person variable. In spite of holding identical outcome expectancies, people may behave differently if they do not attribute equal value to this outcome. For example, many believe that practice makes perfect, but not everyone values achievement. Furthermore, the worth of a given outcome often depends on its context. Even an avid skier might cancel a ski trip on an icy, stormy winter day.

Self-regulatory systems and plans are yet another kind of person variable. Besides being affected by external rewards and punishments, people are capable of regulating their own behavior. They set goals and mediate self-imposed consequences, depending on whether they meet their own standards. These self-regulatory processes produce individual differences in behavior independently from the effects of extrinsically imposed conditions.

More recently, Mischel and his colleagues have proposed that people also classify events based on cognitive prototypes. These are analogous to templates, and they contain only the best or most typical features of a concept. Although prototypes facilitate the classification of input information, they carry with them the danger of stereotyping. Anyone who, for example, has mistaken a woman business executive for the secretary can appreciate the problem resulting from inaccurate classification.

In summary, with the concept of person variables, Mischel can explain behavioral consistency and at the same time take into account the environment as an important determinant of human actions. In psychologically strong situations, person variables play a minimal role (at a church service, for example, all people behave similarly). In psychologically weak situations (such as a cocktail party), however, individual differences are pronounced because there are no consistent cues to signal what behaviors are deemed appropriate. Therefore, whether or how much cognitive dispositions influence behavior varies with the specific situation.

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