Chapter 13: Rotter and Mischel: Cognitive Aspects of Social Learning Theory

Part 3: Basic Constructs in Mischel’s Social Learning Theory

Behavioral Specificity and Consistency

In 1968, Walter Mischel challenged both state and trait theories of personality.  Psychological states typically fall within the domain of psychodynamic theory, whereas trait theories are a perspective unto themselves.  According to Mischel (1968), although state and trait theorists use very different language, they tend to approach personality in the same general way: they use responses to infer pervasive, underlying mental structures that exert enduring causal effects on behavior.  Thus, both state and trait theorists emphasize consistency in behavior. However, there is a wealth of data that individuals do not act consistently from situation to situation. Instead, Mischel argues, behavior can best be predicted only when one takes into account the specific situation in which the behavior occurs.

In order to support his argument, Mischel examined which aspects of behavior are or are not consistent.  Generally, intellect is consistent, including academic ability, achievement, and cognitive style. In contrast, there is little evidence to support consistency of behavior across situations when examining personality variables such as attitudes, moral behavior, sexual identification, dependency, aggression, tolerance, conditionability, etc. (Mischel, 1968).  How, then, might we predict behavior? Mischel suggests a dynamic perspective on how people interact with their situations. If the environment has not changed much, we can expect past behavior to be a reasonable predictor of current behavior (and state and trait theories would seem to hold true as well). However, if the environment changes dramatically, the individual may act in unpredictable ways.  In addition, the individual may begin to learn new social conditions, thus allowing for considerable change in behavior over time.

Delayed Gratification

Perhaps Mischel’s most famous contribution to psychology is his research on delayed gratification.  In a series of studies, begun in the late 1950s, Mischel examined the conditions under which children choose immediate gratification or whether they can delay gratification in order to obtain a larger reinforcer at a later time.  The ability to delay gratification, according to Mischel, is essential for the development of self-control. From early childhood throughout the lifespan, achieving long-term goals often requires setting aside tempting distractions.  Conversely, many personal and social problems result from failures of self-control, such as dropping out of school, poor job performance, and even violent and criminal behavior (Mischel & Mischel, 1980). In an amazing longitudinal study, Mischel and his colleagues offered 4 year-old children the opportunity to grab a marshmallow.  But, if the child could wait until the researcher ran an errand, the child could then have two marshmallows! Some children grabbed the marshmallow as soon as the experimenter left, but others were able to wait 15-20 minutes. It was not easy, however. The children who waited demonstrated a variety of behaviors to distract themselves from the marshmallow: they would play, sing, cover their eyes so they didn’t have to look at the marshmallow, etc.  The most striking results from this study were actually obtained years later. Mischel and his colleagues tracked down the former 4 year-old subjects as they were graduating from high school. The individuals who had delayed gratification as 4 year-olds were significantly more personally effective and self-assertive, and they were better able to cope with life’s frustrations (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989; Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990). In addition, the 4 year-old children who had been able to delay gratification were more successful as students in a variety of ways, including eventually earning significantly higher SAT scores (210 points higher, on the combined score), and the ability to delay gratification proved to be a better predictor of SAT scores than IQ (Peake, cited in Goleman, 1994).

This image shows a little girl standing outside eating a marshmallow. She has her hair in braided pigtails and she is wearing a purple shirt.
Image Source: go_see. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Although the famous marshmallow-grabbing study was conducted at a preschool on the campus of Stanford University, Mischel began this research with very different groups: Black and East Indian children on the islands of Trinidad and Grenada (Mischel, 1958b, 1961).  On these relatively poor, Caribbean islands, Mischel not only compared the Black and East Indian children, he also compared the children of Trinidad to the children of Grenada. The main purpose of the second study, however, was to examine the effect of fathers being absent from the home on the preference of children for immediate or delayed gratification.  Overall, when fathers are absent from the home, both young boys and young girls (ages 8 to 9 years old) demonstrated a preference for immediate gratification. Mischel suggests that the inability to delay gratification amongst children who lack a father may be related to immaturity or poor psychological adjustment (Mischel, 1961).

While Mischel was at Stanford University, he also collaborated with Bandura.  Blending the interests of both men, they examined whether observing models would affect children’s choices regarding immediate vs. delayed gratification.  They identified two groups of children (both boys and girls) as preferring either immediate gratification (a small candy bar now) or delayed gratification (a larger candy bar later).  The children were then exposed to either a live model choosing the alternative strategy, a symbolic model (a description of an adult choosing the alternative), or no model. As expected, exposure to a model choosing the alternative strategy dramatically affected the behavior of the children, and a live model was more effective than the symbolic model.  The effects of this modeling appeared to be quite persistent (Bandura & Mischel, 1965). Considering the importance that modeling can play in developing the ability to delay gratification, it is perhaps easy to see why children in families lacking a complete and stable family structure don’t develop self-control as well as other children.

Mischel’s most famous contribution is the concept of delayed gratification.  How good are you at waiting for gratification? Are some rewards easier to wait for than others?  If you know anyone who is significantly different than you, either wanting immediate gratification or being able to delay it without much trouble, does the difference between you create any problems or interesting situations?

The Cognitive-Affective Processing System (CAPS)

More recently, Mischel has turned his attention to solving what has been called the “personality paradox:”  How do we reconcile our intuition and theories that personality is relatively stable with the overwhelming evidence that personality varies across different situations?  Mischel proposes a dynamic personality system that takes into account both: (1) the behavioral consistency that accounts for specific scores on trait tests and indicates what the individual is like in general; and (2) the consistency in how an individual varies across different situations.  This consistency of variation is recognized by distinct patterns of if…then… relationships, which are characteristic of the individual’s overall personality (Mischel, 2004).

In 1995, Mischel and Shoda first presented this dynamic approach to understanding personality, referring to it then as the cognitive-affective personality system, but now preferring the term cognitive-affective processing system (CAPS; Mischel, 2004; Mischel & Shoda, 1995/2000; Shoda, Leetiernan, & Mischel, 2002).  Over a number of years, Mischel, his students, and his colleagues studied children extensively in a residential summer camp.  They observed both behaviors and the situations in which they occurred. Over time, they were able to identify patterns of if…then… situation-behavior relations that reflected distinctive and stable characteristics of each child’s behavior organization.  These observations, therefore, gave rise to situation-behavior profiles for each child.  It is essential to recognize, however, that the term “situation” in these studies does not refer to simple environmental stimuli, as they might for a behaviorist such as B. F. Skinner.  Instead, these situations activate a whole set of internal reactions, including cognitive and emotional elements. They are also not limited to the external world; they can be generated in thought, fantasy, planning, etc.  Accordingly, Mischel and Shoda referred to these personality variables as cognitive-affective units (or CAUs).  These CAUs include encodings, expectancies and beliefs, affects, goals and values, and competencies and self-regulatory plans.

Mischel and Shoda (1995/2000) did not neglect the individual’s development in this theory.  Our ability to recognize distinct aspects of the environment are influenced by genetic/biological factors, cultural factors, and the interactions between them.  These genetic/biological/cultural factors also influence the CAPS, as does our social learning history. In a sense, bringing all of these factors together begins to move us beyond the person-situation debate, since both sides of the debate are correct in the proper context.  The future of personality theory may lie in an as yet undetermined synthesis of these perspectives (Fleeson, 2004). For now, according to Mischel, this dynamic approach to understanding personality has at least helped to bring together the major aspects of different schools of personality theory.

The Impact of Social Learning Theory

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of social learning theory on psychology because the human species is so inherently social.  Social life seems to come automatically, mediated via mental processes that are largely unconscious (Bargh & Williams, 2006), and our social norms appear to arise from social behavior that is adaptive within local ecologies (Kameda, Takezawa, & Hastie, 2005).  It is important to note, however, that social organization is by no means unique to the human species. There are many animal species that live in social groups, some demonstrating a surprising degree of intelligence, suggesting that social living itself may have helped to foster the development of intelligence (Pennisi, 2006).  Further evidence for the impact of social learning theory on psychology can be found in the simple name recognition enjoyed by Bandura, certainly one of the most famous psychologists.

There are also interesting lines of research within the field of neuroscience that provide support for Mischel and Shoda’s cognitive-affective processing system.  Utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Decety & Jackson (2006) have found that empathy appears to involve activation of the same brain regions involved in experiencing the situation about which one is feeling empathy toward another person.  For example, there is significant activation of brain regions involved in pain when an individual views pictures of someone else in a clearly painful situation. This would seem to provide neurobiological evidence in support of Mischel and Shoda’s cognitive-affective units, the functional components of the cognitive-affective processing system.  Similarly, Knoblich & Sebanz (2006) have demonstrated that perceptual, cognitive, and motor processes are enhanced by social interaction, and that such interactions can be measured using event-related potentials that measure brain electrical activity. Some of the data presented in the study by Knoblich & Sebanz are essentially situation-behavior profiles for the individuals in their study.

This is an image of a fMRI showing activation of the visual cortex in response to visual stimuli.
Image Source: OpenStax. (2016, May 18). 1206 FMRI. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Finally, let’s address the role of expectancy in one of the most challenging social issues facing the world today:  diversity. We hear more and more about the value of diversity in higher education and in the workplace, but pursuing diversity is often challenged by prejudice.  Expectations of prejudice enhance attention to social cues that threaten one’s social identity. In other words, when individuals expect that engaging in diversity will lead to prejudice, and perhaps then to discriminatory behavior, they are more likely to notice evidence of that very outcome (Kaiser, Vick, & Major, 2006).  In addition, contact between diverse groups does less to displace feelings of prejudice among members of minority groups than it does among members of the majority group (likely due to the minority group members’ recognition of the ongoing effects of prejudice and discrimination; Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005). These represent difficult situation-behavior circumstances, since it can obviously be very difficult for team members to predict the behavioral responses likely to follow the artificial establishment of diversity.  In making recommendations to the leaders of organizational teams, Mannix & Neale (2005) suggest clearly defining the team’s tasks and goals, providing bridges across diversity, and enhancing the influence of the minority. Perhaps most importantly, there is a need to provide incentives for change. Taken together, these approaches both increase the expectancy of success and raise the reinforcement value of working toward successfully diversifying the team. As such, principles that have arisen from social learning theory can clearly play a positive role is reshaping society.

Supplemental Materials

Walter Mischel on Self-Control

This video [9:21] features Walter Mischel describing his research on self-control by exploring the nature of willpower, identifying cognitive skills and mental mechanisms that enable it, and showing how these can be applied to life’s challenges.



The Marshmallow Test

This video [3:27] shows a group of children participating in the marshmallow test.  The test was designed to measure self-control and delayed gratification.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

The RSA. (2014, November 18).  Walter Mischel on self-control.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License. 

Igniter Media.  (2009, September 24).  The marshmallow test | Igniter media | Church video.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.