Rotter and Mischel’s Cognitive Social Learning Theory

Overview of Cognitive Social Learning Theory

Both Julian Rotter and Walter Mischel believe that cognitive factors, more than immediate reinforcements, determine how people will react to environmental forces.  Both theorists suggest that our expectations of future events are major determinants of performance.


  1. Biography of Julian Rotter

Julian Rotter was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1916.  As a high school student, he became familiar with some of the writings of Freud and Adler, but he majored in chemistry rather than psychology at Brooklyn College.  In 1941, he received a PhD in clinical psychology from Indiana University.  After World War II, he took a position at Ohio State, where one of his students was Walter Mischel.  In 1963, he moved to the University of Connecticut and has remained there since retirement.


III.       Introduction to Rotter’s Social Learning Theory

Rotter’s interactionist theory is based on five basic hypotheses.  First, it assumes that humans interact with their meaningful environments: that is, human behavior stems from the interaction of environmental and personal factors (Rotter).  Second, human personality is learned, which suggests it can be changed or modified as long as people are capable of learning. Third, personality has a basic unity, suggesting that personality has some basic stability. Fourth, motivation is goal directed, and fifth, people are capable of anticipating events, and thus they are capable of changing their environments and their personalities.


  1. Predicting Specific Behaviors

Rotter suggested four variables that must be analyzed in order to make accurate predictions in any specific situation.  These variables are behavior potential, expectancy, reinforcement value, and the psychological situation.


  1. Behavior Potential: Behavior potential is the possibility that a particular response will occur at a given time and place in relation to its likely reinforcement.
  2. Expectancy

People’s expectancy in any given situation is their confidence that a particular reinforcement will follow a specific behavior in a specific situation or situations.  Expectancies can be either general or specific, and the overall likelihood of success is a function of both generalized and specific expectancies.

  1. Reinforcement Value

Reinforcement value is a person’s preference for any particular reinforcement over other reinforcements if all are equally likely to occur. Internal reinforcement is the individual’s perception of an event, whereas external reinforcement refers to society’s evaluation of an event.  Reinforcement-reinforcement sequences suggest that the value of an event is a function of one’s expectation that a particular reinforcement will lead to future reinforcements.

  1. Psychological Situation

The psychological situation is that part of the external and internal world to which a person is responding.  Behavior is a function of the interaction of people with their meaningful environment.

  1. Basic Prediction Formula

Hypothetically, in any specific situation, behavior can be predicted by the basic prediction formula, which states that the potential for a behavior to occur in a particular situation in relation to a given reinforcement is a function of people’s expectancy that their behavior will be followed by that reinforcement in that situation.


  1. Predicting General Behaviors

The basic prediction is too specific to give clues about how a person will generally behave.

  1. Generalized Expectancies

To make more general predictions of behavior, one must know people’s generalized expectancies, or their expectations based on similar past experiences that a given behavior will be reinforced.  Generalized expectancies include people’s needs, that is, behaviors that move them toward a goal.

  1. Needs

Needs refer to functionally related categories of behaviors. Rotter listed six broad categories of needs, with each need being related to behaviors that lead to the same or similar reinforcements: (1) recognition-status refers to the need to excel, to achieve, and to have others recognize one’s worth; (2) dominance is the need to control the behavior of others, to be in charge, or to gain power over others; (3) independence is the need to be free from the domination of others; (4) protection-dependence is the need to have others take care of us and to protect us from harm; (5) love and affection are needs to be warmly accepted by others and to be held in friendly regard; and (6) physical comfort includes those behaviors aimed at securing food, good health, and physical security.  Three need components are: (1) need potential, or the possible occurrences of a set of functionally related behaviors directed toward the satisfaction of similar goals; (2) freedom of movement, or a       person’s overall expectation of being reinforced for performing those behaviors that are directed toward satisfying some general need; and (3) need value, or the extent to which people prefer one set of reinforcements to another.  Need components are analogous to the more specific concepts of behavior potential, expectancy, and reinforcement value.

  1. General Prediction Formula

The general prediction formula states that need potential is a function of freedom of movement and need value.  Rotter’s two most famous scales for measuring generalized expectancies are the Internal-External Control Scale and the Interpersonal Trust Scale.

  1. Internal and External Control of Reinforcement

The Internal-External Control Scale (popularly called “locus of control scale”) attempts to measure the degree to which people perceive a causal relationship between their own efforts and environmental consequences.

  1. Interpersonal Trust Scale: The Interpersonal Trust Scale measures the extent to which a person expects the word or promise of another person to be true.


  1. Maladaptive Behavior

Rotter defined maladaptive behavior as any persistent behavior that fails to move a person closer to a desired goal.  It is usually the result of unrealistically high goals in combination with low ability to achieve them.


VII.     Psychotherapy

In general, the goal of Rotter’s therapy is to achieve harmony between a client’s freedom of movement and need value.  The therapist is actively involved in trying to (1) change the client’s goals and (2) eliminate the client’s low expectancies for success.

  1. Changing Goals

Maladaptive behaviors follow from three categories of inappropriate goals: (1) conflict between goals, (2) destructive goals, and (3) unrealistically lofty goals.

  1. Eliminating Low Expectancies

In helping clients change low expectancies of success, Rotter uses a variety of approaches, including reinforcing positive behaviors, ignoring inappropriate behaviors, giving advice, modeling appropriate behaviors, and pointing out the long-range consequences of both positive and negative behaviors.


VIII.    Introduction to Mischel’s Personality System

Like Bandura and Rotter, Mischel believes that cognitive factors, such as expectancies, subjective perceptions, values, goals, and personal standards are important in shaping personality.  In his early theory, Mischel seriously questioned the consistency of personality, but more recently, he and Yuichi Shoda have advanced the notion that behavior is also a function of relatively stable cognitive-affective units.


  1. Biography of Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel was born in Vienna in 1930, the second son of upper-middle-class parents.  When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, his family moved to the United States and eventually settled in Brooklyn.  Mischel received an MA from City College of New York and a PhD from Ohio State, where he was influenced by Julian Rotter. He is currently a professor at Columbia University.

  1. Background of the Cognitive-Affective Personality System

Mischel originally believed that human behavior was mostly a function of the situation, but more lately he has recognized the importance of relatively permanent cognitive-affective units.  Nevertheless, Mischel’s theory continues to recognize the apparent inconsistency of some behaviors.

  1. The Consistency Paradox

The consistency paradox refers to the observation that, although both lay people and professionals tend to believe that behavior is quite consistent, research suggests that it is not.  Mischel recognizes that, indeed, some traits are consistent over time, but he contends that there is little evidence to suggest they are consistent from one situation to another.

  1. Person-Situation Interaction

Mischel believes that behavior is best predicted from an understanding of the person, the situation, and the interaction between person and situation.  Thus, behavior is not the result of some global personality trait, but rather of people’s perceptions of themselves in a particular situation.


  1. Cognitive-Affective Personality System

However, Mischel does not believe that inconsistencies in behavior are due solely to the situation; he recognizes that inconsistent behaviors reflect stable patterns of variation within a person.  He and Shoda see these stable variations in behavior in the following framework: If A, then X; but if B, then Y.  People’s pattern of variability is their behavioral signature, or their unique and stable pattern of behaving differently in different situations.

  1. Behavior Prediction

Mischel’s basic theoretical position for predicting and explaining behavior is as follows: If personality is a stable system that processes information about the situation, then as people encounter different situations, they should behave differently as those situations vary.  Therefore, Mischel believes that, even though people’s behavior may reflect some stability over time, it tends to vary as situations vary.

  1. Situation Variables:

Situation variables include all those stimuli that people attend to in a given situation.

  1. Cognitive-Affective Units

Cognitive-affective units include all those psychological, social, and physiological aspects of people that permit them to interact with their environment with some stability in their behavior.  Mischel identified five such units.  First are encoding strategies, or people’s individualized manner of categorizing information they receive from external stimuli.  Second are the competencies and self-regulatory strategies.  One of the most important of these competencies is intelligence, which Mischel argues is responsible for the apparent consistency of other traits.  In addition, people use self-regulatory strategies to control their own behavior through self-formulated goals and self-produced consequences.  The third cognitive-affective units are expectancies and beliefs, or people’s guesses about the consequences of each of the different behavioral possibilities.  The fourth cognitive-affective unit includes people’s subjective goals and values, which tend to render behavior fairly consistent. Mischel’s fifth cognitive-affective unit includes affective responses, including emotions, feelings, and the affect that accompanies physiological reactions.


XII.     Related Research

The theories of both Rotter and Mischel have sparked an abundance of related research, with Rotter’s locus of control being one of the most frequently researched areas in psychology, and Mischel’s notion of delay of gratification, and Mischel and Shoda’s cognitive-affective personality system also receiving wide attention.

  1. Locus of Control, Depression, and Suicide

During the genocide of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during World War II, only one half of one percent of people in Nazi-occupied territory helped Jewish neighbors whose lives were in peril (Oliner & Oliner, 1988), in part because the peril to their own lives equaled the danger to the lives of those they assisted.  Elizabeth Midlarsky and her colleagues wanted to use personality variables to predict who was a Holocaust hero and who was a bystander during World War II (Midlarsky, Fagin Jones, & Corley, 2005).  One of the personality variables they selected was locus of control, along with autonomy, risk taking, social responsibility, authoritarianism, empathy, and altruistic moral reasoning.  They found that internal locus of control was positively related to more autonomy, risk taking, sense of social responsibility, tolerance, empathy, and altruistic moral reasoning, and to less authoritarianism.  Statistical analysis supported the researchers’ hypothesis that personality would predict who was a hero and who was not, being correct 93% of the time.  A higher sense of internal control was associated with heroism in this study.

  1. Person-Situation Interaction

            Mischel and associates have reported hundreds of studies influenced by his cognitive-affective personality system.  These studies—which are based on the statement, “If I am in situation A, then I do X; but If I am in situation B, then I do Y.”   These studies have generally supported Mischel and Shoda’s conception of the conditional nature of human behavior.  One of Mischel’s students, Lara Kammrath, and her colleagues recently conducted an elegant study (2005) illustrating the “If…then…” framework very clearly (Kammrath, Mendoza-Denton, & Mischel, 2005).  This study showed that people understand the if-then framework and use it when judging others; in other words, the average person understands that people behave differently in different situations, and depending on their personality, people adjust their behavior to match the situation.  Mischel and colleagues conducted further studies on the conditional nature of dispositions (Mendoza-Denton, Ayduck, Mischel, Shoda, &Testa, 2001), and found that conditional and interactionist self-evaluations tend to buffer negative reactions to failure.  They concluded that their conceptualization of the person-situation environment as social-cognitive and interactionist is more applicable to understanding human behavior than the traditional, “decontextualized” views of personality, in which people behave in a given way regardless of the context.


XIII.    Critique of Cognitive Social Learning Theory

Cognitive social learning theory combines the rigors of learning theory with the speculative assumption that people are forward-looking beings.  It rates high on generating research, internal consistency; it rates about average on its ability to be falsified, to organize data, and to guide action.


XIV.    Concept of Humanity

Rotter and Mischel see people as goal-directed, cognitive animals whose perceptions of events are more crucial than the events themselves.  Cognitive social learning theory rates very high on social influences, and high on uniqueness of the individual, free choice, teleology, and conscious processes. On the dimension of optimism versus pessimism, Rotter’s view is slightly more optimistic, whereas Mischel’s is about in the middle.


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