Cognitive Topics in Personality

Personality Revealed through Perception

Field Dependence

Pain Tolerance and Sensory Reducing-Augmenting

Personality Revealed through Interpretation

Kelly's Personal Construct Theory Locus of Control Learned Helplessness

Personality Revealed through Goals

Personal Projects Analysis Cognitive Social Learning Theory


Summary and Evaluation Key Terms


Mourners in New York City after the shooting of | Amadou Diallo. Protests erupted over the killing of an unarmed African male by the police. The court ruled that what occurred the night Mr. Diallo was shot was a series of terrible accidents, errors in perception and cognition on the part of the police officers.

n February 4, 1999, just past midnight, Amadou Diallo, a 22-year -old immigrant from West Africa, was standing on the front stoop of his Bronx home after putting in a full day at work. An unmarked car carrying four plainclothes offi cers from the NYPD Street Crime Unit cruised by . The police officers were inves tigating crimes that had plagued that particular area, including a series of gunpoint rapes. This South Bronx neighborhood was one of the most dangerous in New York City. As they passed Mr . Diallo, he backed into the open doorway . On noticing this, the of ficer driving put the car into reverse and backed up to a point directl in front of Mr. Diallo.

As Mr. Diallo stood on the top step of the stoop, the plainclothes officers exite their vehicle, and two approached Mr . Diallo saying, "Police Department. We'd like to have a word with you." At this point, Mr . Diallo started to back into the vestibule and the two officers then added the commands "Stay where you are, and "Keep your hands where we can see them."

Mr. Diallo reached his right hand into his front pocket. He turned toward the officers while pulling a black object out of his pocket and going into a crouchin stance, bringing his hands toward each other . One officer yelled, "Gun! Two offi cers fired. The closest office , trying to back away from Mr . Diallo, fell backwards down the steps. The other of ficers thought he had been shot

In the next four seconds, the police of ficers fired a total of 41 bullets, 19 which struck Mr. Diallo, killing him almost instantly. When the officers approache Mr. Diallo's body, they found him holding not a gun, but his wallet.

Mourners in New York City after the shooting of | Amadou Diallo. Protests erupted over the killing of an unarmed African male by the police. The court ruled that what occurred the night Mr. Diallo was shot was a series of terrible accidents, errors in perception and cognition on the part of the police officers.

The details of this tragic and controversial case were made public during the subsequent trial of the police of ficers. Key documents from this trial, as well a news articles on which the above description is based, can be found at The jury concluded that what occurred that night was a series of terrible accidents, errors in perception and cognition that had catastrophic results. The officers "saw a gun, they "thought" one of their own had been shot, and they "thought" Mr. Diallo was returning gunfire, when, in fact, it was thei own ricocheting bullets. Their behavior then followed these cognitive errors. Many police academies now analyze the Diallo case during the training of new of ficers, t understand what factors contributed to such misunderstandings and to avoid similar misperceptions in the future. The final chapter in this case closed in January of 200 when the City of New York settled a civil rights lawsuit by paying Mr . Diallo's family $3 million and of fering an apology for the tragic misunderstanding.

The case of Mr . Diallo illustrates the connection between cognitive factors and behavior. People perceive and think and then act. Sometimes this all happens very quickly; sometimes we take our time thinking things through. We are processing information all the time and using this information to guide our actions. Most of the time, our information processing is fairly accurate, resulting in appropriate actions. Sometimes errors of information processing occur, and mistakes are made. Psychologists are very interested in understanding how humans process information, as well as in how errors occur . Personality psychologists take this interest a step further; they are interested in how people differ from each other in processing information. They are interested in dif ferent styles of perceiving and thinking and in dif ferent strategies people use to solve problems.

The following case illustrates individual dif ferences in perception. It is not as dramatic as the Diallo case, but it nevertheless illustrates how two people can look at the same object and see two very dif ferent things. There were several women from the same sorority in one class. The professor had heard that the sorority had adopted a dog. Curious, he asked one sorority member what kind of dog it was. She said, "He is big and friendly and loves to go for walks and likes to jump up and lick my face. I just love him." The next day, he had an opportunity to ask a dif ferent sorority member the same question. She responded, "Our new dog is a 3-year -old male golden retriever. He weighs about 90 pounds, is tall for the breed, and is rusty-red colored." It is interesting that the same question elicited such dif ferent information from these two people. The first student o fered no information about the breed of dog; instead, she told how she felt about the dog. The second student gave details about the dog but said nothing about what she thought of the dog. These two women obviously processed quite different information when asked about the new dog. And it is also quite likely that they think very dif ferently from each other about many things in life. Such differences in how people think are the focus of cognitive approaches to personality.

Several years ago, a study was done on what people think about when they are exposed to emotion-provoking stimuli (Larsen, Diener , & Cropanzano, 1987). The researchers showed people slides of emotion-provoking scenes, then asked the participants what they thought about when they looked at each slide (a technique called thought sampling). For example, one picture was of a mother holding a child who was bleeding from a severe head wound. In this study , the researchers were interested not in what the participants felt but in what they thought about—in the information that went through their minds—when exposed to such emotional scenes. One participant said, "My brother once had a bad gash on his head just like that, and I remember all the blood, and how upset my mother became, and my brother screaming and my mother trying to stop the bleeding, and me feeling helpless and confused." The next participant looked at the same picture and said, "Head wounds bleed quite a bit because, in the head, there is a high concentration of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. I was thinking about the major artery groups in the head when I looked at that photo." The first person who looked at the picture engaged in what i called personalizing cognition. That is, the scene prompted him to recall a similar event from his own life. The second subject looked at the same picture and engaged in what is called objectifying cognition. That is, the scene prompted her to recall objective facts about the distribution of blood vessels in the human head. The difference between these two persons is a dif ference in cognition.

Cognition is a general term referring to awareness and thinking, as well as to specific mental acts such as perceiving, attending to, interpreting, remembering, believ ing, and anticipating. All these mental behaviors add up to what is called information processing, or the transformation of sensory input into mental representations and the manipulation of such representations. If you have ever wondered whether other people think about things the same way you do, then you are a budding cognitive personality psychologist. Perhaps you have wondered if other people see colors the same as you do. Is the perception of green, for example, the same for everyone?

An interest in cognitive topics, ranging from perception to problem solving, represents an information-processing approach to personality . This approach to personality grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s, during which time psychology in general saw a lar ge upsurge in interest in cognition. It is perhaps no coincidence that an emphasis on information processing in personality psychology took hold during an era commonly known as the Information Age. Humans, in some ways, are like computers, in that we spend a great deal of our time processing information. Unlike computers, however, humans are not always accurate or unbiased in how they process information. Moreover, unlike computers, humans dif fer greatly from each other in terms of their information processing—in how they perceive, think about, and construe themselves, the world, and other people. Cognitive dif ferences in how people process information represent one domain of human nature that has been investigated in some detail by personality psychologists.

In this chapter, we will cover three levels of cognition that are of interest to personality psychologists. The first level is perception, or the process of imposing order on the information our sense or gans take in. You might think that there are few , if any, differences in how people perceive the world, since our sensory and perceptual systems are all the same and what we perceive is an accurate representation of what is out there. But this is not true; two people can look at the same situation and actually see very dif ferent things.

Consider Figure 12.1. If you look at this illustration, you can see it in three dimensions. That is, instead of being a two-dimensional, flat drawing, you perceive it a having depth, as coming out of the page. This is because your perceptual system interprets cues of depth as representing a three-dimensional object. Another aspect of this figure—known as the Necker Cube—is that you may perceive the cube as extendin out and upward to the right of the base, whereas others perceive the cube as extending outward and downward toward the left. Thus, not everyone sees the same object, even though the drawing is objectively the same. An especially interesting feature of the Necker Cube is that most people can actually see the cube reverse directions. If you stare at the cube long enough, you will see the two dif ferent three-dimensional cubes, and you should be able to see the two cubes flip back and forth, from up an rightward to down and leftward.

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Figure 12.1

The Necker Cube.

Imagine how people might dif fer in what they see when they look at the much more complicated social world. Even at the level of perception, what we see in the world can be quite dif ferent from person to person. Moreover , these dif ferences in what people see may be related to their personalities. It is this reasoning that underlies the rationale for such projective assessment techniques as the Rorschach inkblots. As we discussed in Chapters 2 and 9, what people see in the inkblots can be a function of their personalities. When looking at the same inkblot, one person might see a family of butterflies landing on a garden of flowers, and another person, looking the same inkblot, might see a dog that has been hit by a car , with blood splattered all over the street. Do you think these two people might have dramatically dif ferent personalities?

The second level of cognition of interest to personality psychologists is interpretation, or the making sense of, or explaining of, various events in the world. Interpretation concerns the giving of meaning to events. When you are confronted with an event and you are asked, "What does this mean?" or "How did this happen and how will it turn out?" you are likely to engage in the act of interpretation. For example, suppose you have a small mishap while driving your car , driving up a curb and scratching your fender. Someone might ask you, "Why did this happen?" You quickly and automatically make an interpretation and of fer it to your inquisitor as a fact: "The street there is poorly laid out. It' s too narrow and the curve is too sharp, and lots of people jump the curb there. It's the fault of the road department." However, maybe you of fer a different interpretation, equally certain that it represents a fact: "I'm really a clumsy driver; I just can't handle the car. Maybe I should quit driving."

These are two of many possible interpretations, and which ones people of fer may reveal aspects of their personalities. This notion of differences in interpretation underlies the rationale for such projective techniques as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), discussed in Chapter 1 1. In the TAT, participants are shown an ambiguous drawing and asked to interpret what is going on, to explain what is happening in the picture and how it will work out. People dif fer dramatically in how they interpret the TAT pictures, and some evidence suggests that such interpretations reveal aspects of people's personalities, particularly their long-term motives, such as the needs for achievement, power, and intimacy.

The third level of cognition that is of interest to personality psychologists is people's conscious goals, the standards that people develop for evaluating themselves and others. People develop specific beliefs about what is important in life and which task are appropriate to pursue. These tasks may be age-specific and culture-specific, such a in Western cultures, establishing independence from one' s family in early adulthood. Individuals transform these cultural beliefs about which life tasks are appropriate and important into personal desires or goals. A final topic in cognitive approaches is intel ligence. Although this is a lar ge and controversial topic in psychology , the student of personality should have some grasp of the basic issues and concepts in this area.

We will begin our exploration of cognition and personality with perception. Most nonpsychologists think of perception as the accurate mental representation of objective reality. As you'll see, the perceiver contributes to the mental representations such that, even in the perception of simple objects, there may be dif ferences between people in what they see when they look at the same scene.

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