Cognitive Personality Theories

Cognitive theories of personality focus on the processes of information encoding and retrieval, and the role of expectations, motives, goals, and beliefs in the development of stable personality characteristics. This approach differs from personality theories that emphasize either the conditions within which personality develops (e.g., behavioral theories) or the trait structures that are revealed in those various conditions (e.g., evolutionary and trait theories). As such, cognitive theories of personality are particularly relevant for counseling psychology because of their core assumption that lasting personality change can occur as a result of rational analysis and insight.

Personality theories are often categorized as either nomothetic (i.e., personality is understood in terms of an individual having greater or lesser amounts of traits that are common to all people) or idiographic (i.e., each individual has a unique personality structure and may possess traits that others do not possess). Taking a nomothetic approach, a personality theory can be used to generalize about an individual or to categorize the person. For example, a person can be said to have a particular trait or style. On the other hand, personality theories that take an idiographic approach attempt to describe the specific individual in such a way as to show how this one individual is different from all other individuals. Cognitive theories of personality are both nomothetic and idiographic. Nomothetic theorists have demarcated dimensions of individual difference such as cognitive styles. Idiographic theorists have developed complex descriptions of individuals cognitively embedded within their own life contexts.

General Components of Cognitive Personality Theories

Most cognitive theories of personality focus on the ways in which personal knowledge and judgment are developed. Often this development occurs in a distorted fashion because it is necessary for people to adapt to their environment. Humans desire to be consistent in their beliefs and behaviors so that they can predict the outcome of their actions. They are also motivated to gain social approval from others and to enhance their perception of themselves. This can result from a process of comparing one’s self with those of others or a process of comparing what one believes is one’s actual self with an imagined ideal self. Cognitive personality theorists have focused their efforts on describing the development of cognitions that explain the world and the individual’s concept of self in it, and they have also developed some understanding of variations in cognitive styles that predict individual differences.

History of Cognitive Personality Theories

Early ideas related to cognitive theory can be traced back to the Greek Stoic Epictetus, who claimed that processes of rational judgment were at the basis of all emotion, be it happiness or suffering. He stated that events in and of themselves have no moral or ethical meaning. Moral judgment and choice are the consequences of how people come to interpret and understand events.

At the turn of the 20th century, William James championed the idea that no psychological theory is complete that does not allow for a mechanism by which thought will regulate actions. James emphasized the role of the focus of attention in determining behavior. He also anticipated the concept of cognitive schemata by characterizing the stream of consciousness as anticipating and adapting to current events by comparing current experiences to past experiences.

Early work in social cognition forms a basis of current cognitive personality theory. Fritz Heider, an early social psychologist, emphasized that people act with others on the basis of their conceptions of themselves and of others. Heider developed the notion of phenomenal causality, which is the perception of causality that leads to judgment and action. Heider’s ideas led to the development of the field within social psychology known as attribution theory, which is the study of the determinants of phenomenal causality or causal attributions. One important dimension of causal attributions is that of internal (or dispositional) versus external (or situational) attributions. People’s judgments and conceptions of an event are largely determined by their beliefs regarding whether people act according to internal dispositions or because of situational pressure. Heider’s ideas are often called naive psychology in that the person is described as acting according to his or her own personal theory of psychology regarding others.

Kelly’s Theory of Personal Constructs

George A. Kelly’s theory of personal constructs is most frequently cited as the first modern cognitive personality theory. Kelly proposed and elaborated upon the metaphor of “person as scientist.” Drawing on the theories of Heider and attribution researchers, Kelly proposed that people use observations to develop beliefs about themselves and their world. These observations are organized into personal constructs, which were described by Kelly in terms very similar to the current concept of cognitive schemata. Cognitive schemata are meaningful organizations of related pieces of knowledge. Kelly proposed that people make predictions and interpretations regarding their experience on the basis of their personal constructs (or schemata), and they endeavor to behave in a manner that is consistent with their personal constructs.

Kelly proposed that personal constructs develop and change through processes that are similar to assimilation and accommodation. As described by the cognitive developmental theorist Jean Piaget, assimilation is the process by which people integrate new information into the existing body of information they already possess. Accommodation is the process by which people change or modify their existing knowledge based on the information gained from new experiences. Like Piaget, Kelly viewed cognitive development as a continuing interplay between assimilation and accommodation. For example, children learn to catch a large ball by holding out their arms a certain distance apart as the ball is thrown. Later, when a smaller ball is thrown, they will hold out their arms the same distance apart (assimilation) but fail to catch the ball. They will need to accommodate the new information that the size of the ball must determine the distance apart that they spread their arms (i.e., their catching schema).

Kelly proposed that individuals are motivated to maintain a hierarchical structure of personal constructs that is consistent with the world, as they perceive it. Anxiety results when information does not conform to the expectations generated by their constructs. This leads to a need to change or reorganize their cognitive structure (accommodation), or to force the discordant experience to fit their preexisting construct hierarchy (assimilation). Often assimilation requires less cognitive effort than accommodation. Rigidly adhering to assimilation via “obsolete” constructs by refusing to expend the effort to accommodate, or being unable to accommodate, can lead to irrational behavior.

Locus of Control

Julian Rotter developed a social learning theory that emphasized the role of the cognitive expectancy of reward in determining behavior. The major contribution of this theory to the psychology of personality was the proposal of a generalized cognitive expectancy that Rotter called locus of control. Individuals differ to the extent that they generally believe their own actions are related to personal outcomes. Those with an internal locus of control have a strong expectation that success or failure will result from their own efforts. Those with an external locus of control generally believe that success or failure is determined by fate, chance, or the will of others.

Currently, psychologists believe individuals can have different locus of control beliefs for different aspects of their life. For example, an individual could have an internal locus of control regarding social relationships and an external locus of control regarding his or her health. One domain that has been predictive of therapy outcome is the individual’s locus of control beliefs concerning illness or health outcomes. Causal attributions also determine whether events are believed to be stable or transient. For example, a stable causal attribution might be, “I did poorly on the algebra test because I have never been very good at math.” A transient attribution could be, “I did poorly on the algebra test because I did not get enough sleep last night.” Finally, causal attributions may be general (i.e., relevant to many experiences) or specific (i.e., applicable only to a single instance). For example, a stable causal attribution might be, “I didn’t dance well because I have never been coordinated.” A specific attribution could be, “I didn’t dance well because I have never liked dancing.”

Cognitive Style

Herman A. Witkin observed that individuals differ in their general modes of intellectual and perceptual functioning along a number of dimensions. Some of the dimensions that have been shown to be useful predictors of individual differences are tolerance for ambiguity, impulsivity versus reflectivity, field dependence versus field independence, cognitive complexity versus simplicity, and the more motivational “need for cognition.” Tolerance for ambiguity relates to open- versus close-mindedness and the ability and individuals’ willingness to accommodate their schemata to new experience. Impulsivity versus reflectivity refers to the extent to which one will consider consequences of acts and alternatives before acting. Field dependence versus independence refers to a global as opposed to analytic style of perceiving. Field-dependent perceptions are influenced by the context within which they occur. Field-independent perceptions are more analytical and somewhat independent of the context within which they occur. Cognitive complexity versus simplicity refers to the usual number of interrelated schemata that are applied to experiences. Need for cognition refers to individual differences in the desire to be challenged to think and reflect. It is currently believed that many of these dimensions along which individuals differ are genetically based or at least congenital and somewhat difficult to modify.

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory

Albert Bandura expanded cognitive personality theory by describing processes of observational or vicarious learning and the role of belief structures such as self-efficacy. Bandura agreed that people develop and change as a consequence of the direct rewards and punishments they receive from the environment. These rewards and punishments occur as a consequence of their actions (the basis of operant conditioning). However, we also learn by observing others (models) and noting the consequences that result from their behavior.

The study of observational learning led psychologists to distinguish between the factors that influence the vicarious acquisition of knowledge and the factors that influence the actual performance of some behavior. Among the factors that influence the vicarious acquisition of knowledge are the strength and valence (i.e., emotional value) of the observed consequences of the behavior, the similarity of the model (i.e., person performing or demonstrating the action) to the observer, and the social status of the model. In contrast, the person’s self-efficacy beliefs influence the actual performance of some behavior. Self-efficacy is a person’s beliefs regarding what should be done to achieve a desired goal, and the person’s beliefs regarding his or her ability to perform those actions.

The first set of beliefs relates to the individual’s locus of control expectancies, but by themselves these beliefs will not determine whether the goal-seeking behavior will be performed. The critical factor is the individual’s beliefs regarding his or her ability to perform the necessary behavior successfully.

Self-efficacy beliefs depend on a number of factors, including previous direct experience, observational learning, social persuasion, and self-assessment and interpretation of current and past emotional states. Conditions that lead to the development of healthy self-efficacy include the positive factors of family interactions (warmth, support, and challenge), and peer networks (similar models, access to activities, and social motivation), as well as negative factors such as competition and stress. Like locus of control, self-efficacy is largely domain specific (e.g., academic self-efficacy, social self-efficacy, and athletic self-efficacy can all differ for a given person).

According to Bandura, a complete understanding of the person involves recognition of the reciprocal interaction of personal (cognitive and affective) factors with environmental factors. Bandura labeled this concept reciprocal determinism. By this he meant that personal factors can be influenced by environmental factors such as rewards, punishments, and information from models, but behavior and personal factors also cause changes in the environment and in other individuals. Because of the human ability to symbolize personal experience and to think ahead about the expected consequences of personal actions, each individual has the capability to self-reflect, leading to the potential for self-directed changes in behavior. Self-efficacy beliefs are crucial to making self-directed changes because they are most functional when they are accurate. When efficacy is high but skills are poorly developed, harm and trauma can occur. When efficacy beliefs are low, even when skill level is high, personal growth will not occur and there will be little motivation for change.

Mischel’s Cognitive-Affective Personality System

Explaining and predicting the consistency and inconsistency of individuals across the wide variety of situations that confront them on a daily basis is a problem for personality theory in general. Walter Mischel pointed out that personal variables such as traits and dispositions are often not by themselves as predictive of behavior as variables external to the person such as the demands of the situation. In a somewhat selective review of the literature, Mischel concluded that personality information was predictive of only a very small percentage of the variation of behavior in situations. This argument stimulated the field of personality research to elucidate the interaction of the person within the situation as opposed to focusing on person variables.

In recent years, Mischel and colleague Yuichi Shoda have made progress in describing dynamic interactions of situations with personal variables (self-efficacy beliefs, personal goals, and emotional reactions) into an integrated theory called the cognitive-affective personality system. This approach recognizes that persons differ in the aspects of a situation on which they focus and in the way in which they encode a particular element of a situation. The resulting theory emphasizes the interaction of situations, encoding processes, memories, beliefs, expectancies, and behavior in a reciprocally determinative dynamic. This idiographic system can be considered a model for the most complete cognitive theory of personality. A person’s cognitive existence cannot be considered independently of the current situation, the individual’s past history, and his or her expectations for the future.

Cognition and Emotion

Cognitive theories of personality have made important contributions to counseling and psychotherapy by demonstrating the ways in which cognition can cause or modify positive or negative emotion. Aaron T. Beck’s method of cognitive-behavioral therapy and Albert Ellis’s rational emotive behavior therapy both emphasize the ways in which distorted beliefs (mostly attributional beliefs) directly lead to experiences of negative emotion such as anxiety and depression. A long-standing debate concerns whether all human emotions more complex than simple sensory pleasure or pain are a result of cognitive processes or are merely congruent with them. In actuality, most cognitive theories of personality emphasize the presence of evolutionarily prepared (i.e., automatic) reactions and temperaments and the importance of the individual’s perception and interpretation of his or her own biological reactions during events.

Self-Discrepancy Theory

Self-discrepancy theory is a form of dissonance theory that states that people are motivated to maintain a consistency among their self-perceptions and beliefs. The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers proposed that incongruence between the self as experienced and the ideal self is a source of human suffering. Support for this position is buttressed by the many studies that have found successful counseling outcomes characterized by reductions in this incongruence. E. Tory Higgins incorporated ideas of expectancy into the self-discrepancy model. He demonstrated that discrepancies between people’s current self-appraisals and their self-constructs as they wish to be (the ideal self) lead to feelings of dejection and depression. In contrast, discrepancies between people’s current self-appraisals and how they believe others expect them to be (ought self) lead to agitation and anxiety. A number of moderators of the strength of this effect have been identified, including the amount of the discrepancy, factors that increase or decrease the salience of the discrepancy, and the importance of the discrepancy to the individual.

Entity Versus incremental Judgments of Self

Carol Dweck has demonstrated how a person’s perception of self as static or as capable of growth has dramatic effects on both emotions and motivation. Dweck distinguishes between two forms of belief that people may hold regarding their efficacy. The first, or entity view, regards any ability such as intelligence as fixed or stable. Persons taking an entity view within any domain of ability (entity theorists) will develop goals that avoid failure, are measured by absolute performance standards, and are low risk. A person can also perceive his or her efficacy incrementally. An incremental theorist regards abilities as changeable or improvable through challenge and work. Incremental theorists develop relative or mastery goals and are less motivated by fear of failure. Entity theorists are performance oriented, while incremental theorists are learning oriented. Entity theorists are more likely to be judgmental regarding themselves and others and to experience helplessness, depression, and anxiety.

Cognitive Personality Theory in Counseling

Cognitive personality theory is applicable to counseling in two ways. First, psychologists perform cognitively based personality assessments in order to select the most appropriate treatment methods for an individual client. Second, cognitive personality theories provide the theoretical underpinning for interventions designed to achieve long-standing changes in personality.


Counselors have access to a large number of assessment devices that measure cognitive style and other cognitive individual difference dimensions beyond intelligence factors. These can be useful while thinking of the counseling experience as an educational enterprise requiring the need to assess the “learning style of the client.” Motivational factors can also be assessed. For example, understanding the client’s health locus of control can inform the choice of methods. Other assessment devices, developed mainly for use in cognitive-behavioral therapy, assess dysfunctional beliefs in various domains.

A large number of cognitive assessment instruments have been developed. In general, each test contains a list of self-related statements, and clients are asked the extent to which they endorse each statement as “true” or “descriptive” of them. For example, a psychologist could administer the following self-statement inventories to assess anxiety disorders: (1) the Body Sensations Questionnaire to assess perception of anxiety symptoms, (2) the Anxiety Sensitivity Questionnaire to assesses dysfunctional beliefs regarding anxiety symptoms, (3) the Agoraphobic Cognitions Questionnaire to assess the presence of thoughts related to agoraphobia, or (4) the Anxious Self-Statement Questionnaire to assess self-related negative cognitions regarding personal performance. These and the many other available instruments are easy to give and to score. They can be used to inform the therapist’s choice of an intervention strategy or to assess progress in treatment. Unfortunately, although most of these instruments have strong content validity (i.e., they cover most of the domain that experts believe to be relevant), they have not been subjected to the kinds of reliability and statistical stability testing that characterize other psychological tests, such as ability and achievement tests.

Other procedures that elicit the client’s patterns of thoughts and beliefs are variations on the method of the Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts. In this procedure, the client fills out a structured diary form reporting problematic situations and the thoughts, expectations, and beliefs that accompany his or her distress.

A more idiographic approach is necessary when assessing the person-situation interaction. There are two domains of situations that are immediately most relevant. The first involves the targeted problem situations that will be the focus of the counseling intervention. The daily diaries help to develop an assessment of the client’s expectancy and belief patterns that may be problematic. Another long-standing instrument for this kind of assessment is George A. Kelly’s Role Construct Repertory (Rep) test. As originally constructed, the Rep test compares and contrasts schemata regarding other individuals, but it can be modified to compare situations. Asking the client to compare groups of three concepts at a time and explain how two of the concepts are the same reveals personal constructs. This comparison, of course, reveals how the client views those two concepts as different from the third. For example, in the original Rep test, a client’s best friend can be compared to the client’s father and favorite teacher. In a situational Rep test, a client’s most feared situation could be compared with the client’s most compelling situation and most embarrassing situation.

The second situational domain to be cognitively assessed is that between the individual client and counselor. Clients enter counseling with different perceptions, beliefs, and expectations regarding therapy. These can be assessed with instruments similar to those described above. Expectations and beliefs regarding therapy have been found to be highly related to the therapeutic alliance. This, in turn, is one of the common factors (i.e., effective components of successful therapy) that are highly related to therapeutic outcome.

Cognitive Theories of Personality Change in Counseling

A large amount of work has been directed toward the development of methods to treat personality disorders using cognitive-behavioral therapy. Personality disorders themselves are not generally recognized as reliably identifiable entities within most established cognitive theories of personality. Nevertheless, the often successful attempts to modify long-standing patterns of living toward more adaptive and stable patterns are encouraging. The efforts indicate that therapeutic interventions that focus on changing dysfunctional beliefs can be used to modify personality. The dysfunctional beliefs that have received the most attention include those regarding feelings of hopelessness, skill enhancement, and attitude toward treatment. Effective cognitive therapy interventions have been developed to deal with each of these issues. Furthermore, cognitive and behavioral interventions that address generalized belief structures such as self-efficacy have been used in therapy with success. The successful pairing of cognitive and behavioral techniques reinforces the view that cognitive elements of personality are best conceived as imbedded in a dynamic interaction of biological, cultural/social, and behavioral interactions.

Future Directions

Cognitive theories of personality have made important contributions to psychology by explaining complex person-situation interactions, incorporating the powerful role of attributional belief systems, and delineating many of the cognitive dimensions that are critical in understanding individual differences. Nevertheless, a great deal of cognitive psychology has not yet been integrated fully into cognitive personality theories. Probably the most important oversight concerns the factors involved in decision making and choice behavior. For example, individual differences in the heuristic biases that influence decision making and many elements of the cognitive science of memory (e.g., the factors influencing retrieval bias) have not been incorporated into cognitive personality theories. The next decade will most likely see the integration of neglected areas such as these into cognitive theories of personality, just as the findings of cognitive science itself will become incorporated into comprehensive biopsychosocial personality perspectives.


  1. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Beck, A. T., Freeman, A., Davis, D. D., & Associates. (2003). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
  3. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
  4. Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94, 319-340.
  5. Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.
  6. Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Mendosa-Denton, R. (2002). Situation-behavior profiles as a locus of consistency in personality. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 50-54.
  7. Rasmussen, P. R. (2005). Personality-guided cognitive-behavioral therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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