Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory


For this paper, I have chosen to compare and contrast two prevalent theories of Personality: the Social Cognitive Theory and the Trait Theory. To kick things off, I would like to ask the question, what are theories of personality and why are they important? Before Psychology experts began doing research into this area, individualism and personality were a big mystery. What made each person different from the other, and the topic of nature versus nurture were presented and argued continuously.

Each human being’s personality is so much more than just the way they view the world and how they react with it; personality is the outward exudence of all our thoughts, behaviors, and individuality. Learning more about personality and how it is formed is important because it enables us to understand each other better.

Human beings are complex creatures that are often hard to figure out. Psychology and theories such as these have so much merit because they let those who learn them have a better grasp of how to help one another. Psychology is oftentimes thought of as a ‘pseudoscience’ or ‘quackery’. These terms are insulting because it is so much more than that: it is a compassionate, inquisitive, and scientific field of study that is incredibly beneficial to our world.

In order to explain the intricacy of the human mind, psychological hypotheses and then theories are formed. While these theories do a good job of explaining the ‘why’ behind a lot of our behavior, there is no single theory that is the ‘right’ theory. They all have their own merit, base in science, and valid explanation of our thoughts and actions. One such theory, described as a ‘social learning theory’ is the Social Cognitive theory, formulated by social cognitive psychologist, Albert Bandura.

Social Cognitive Theory

The Social Cognitive theory in a nutshell reaches the conclusion that nature and nurture work together to create an individual’s personality; the combination of learned behavior and environmental/biological factors influence the ever-developing nature of human beings. Albert Bandura formed the Social cognitive theory in order to explain this phenomenon. He believed that the majority of human behavior was learned through observation, mimicking and absorbing information from others in order to form one’s own personality and outlook on life.

Albert Bandura’s concept stood out because it explained human behavior in a way that others in the past had not. Typically, human behavior was thought to be formed by only by punishment and reinforcement; however, Bandura argued that in addition to this, the majority of behavior was learned through surveying and processing the observed behavior.

The next step Bandura took in order to solidify his theory was experimentation. He hypothesized that children who viewed adults acting aggressively and being punished/rewarded for their behavior would influence their choice to perform similar acts. In order to create this theory, Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment was formed.

The experiment was launched in the year 1961. Albert took the lead in overseeing the assessment, which included 72 young boys and girls (36 of each gender) from a Nursery school. The children were between the years of 3 and 6, a life stage commonly referred to as the formative years of a child’s life, wherein they absorb information like a sponge.

During the 1960’s, a toy doll called the ‘Bobo doll’ was a popular item for children around this age. The doll was a human sized, bowling pin shaped toy. When knocked down, it would spring back up because of its weighted bottom. The children were placed in a room where they were quietly playing with non-aggressive toys. At the same time, an adult began to play with the bobo doll. In certain groups, the adult would play normally with the doll while in others, they would begin to act violently.

The adult in these groups would become aggressive with the doll while the child watched. As the child looked on, no doubt internalizing the presented behavior, the adult would hit, kick, and yell at the doll. The children who were exposed to this violent behavior and the ones who were exposed to the adults normal play were then sent to another room with the bobo doll.

What Bandura observed from these children supported his hypothesis that when exposed to aggressive behavior, young children will begin to emulate it. The kids who were placed in the room with the adult with violent behavior began to act violently themselves. They were shown to batter the doll much like their older counterparts did, even hurling the same insults that the adults yelled at the doll.

The theory of social learning goes beyond observed actions. Children often begin to emulate the emotional states of those around them; as previously stated, they are like a sponge for learning. This enables them to pick up on things that those older than them may not; they are very in tune with other’s emotions and are easily able to pick up on mood shifts, especially in adults. This often affects their own mood greatly, as being in a hostile feeling environment will lead to hostile acting children, and being in a happy environment will lead to happy children. As we grow older, we learn how to moderate our emotions even when influenced by others.

But still, without realizing it, our emotional state and behaviors can subconsciously change due to the actions and feelings of those around us. Ultimately, the theory of social cognition really tries to answer the question whether the people are a product of their environment.

Trait Theory

Bandura’s ideas were viewed as unique at the time, as other theories, such as the trait theory, were based more on genetic predisposition. Originally created by Gordon Allport and further developed by such notable proponents as Hans Eysenck, Robert McCrae, and Paul Costa, trait personality theory interprets personality as a constellation of different characteristic traits. It main premise is that people have stable and enduring characteristic that define their individuality. These traits are, in turn, largely defined by genetic predisposition , which is why scholars also refer to this approach as dispositional theory (Eysenck, 2017). As a result, trait theory mainly concentrated on the systematization of traits and the factors influencing the emergence and development of said traits in humans.

While proponents of the trait theory could differ in the particularities of their approach, its core always stayed the same: at the end, human personality could be interpreted as the composition of a few essential traits. Allport pioneered this approach by analyzing the words Webster’s New International Dictionary that characterized individual qualities and found out that they generally fell under several broad categories. When Eysenck, another notable theorist in the field, had to provide his list of key personality traits, he offered three: neuroticism, extraversion, and psychoticism (2017).

The model best known today and most frequently used the Big Five, developed by McCare and Costa. This model keeps Eysenck’s neuroticism and extraversion, and its third component, agreeableness is roughly equivalent to Eysenck’s psychoticism, being the measure of whether people are willing to cooperate with others or display anti-social behavior. The other two crucial traits it offers are conscientiousness and openness to experience. Thus, the trait personality theory in its current form posits that one’s personality s best assessed as a combination of five essential traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Apart from the personality traits themselves, the key concepts of the trait theory of personality are antecedents and consequences. Antecedents refer to the factors that precede and influence personality traits, and Eysenck (2017) distinguished between the distal and the proximal ones. Distal antecedents are, simply put, the main cause behind any traits – they are the genetic factors that define whether a human being will possess certain traits to a certain degree (Eysenck, 2017). Proximal antecedents are the specific biological intermediaries between the genes and the person behavior, such as the development of limbic or nervous systems (Eysenck, 2017).

These factors shape the key personality traits which, in turn define how a given individual responds to the stimuli and challenges encountered in life. Their proximal consequences, in Eysenck’s (2017) terms, are an individual’s perception. Memory, vigilance, and reactions to conditioning in the formative years. Distal consequences include the effects on a person’s behavior in social contexts, ranging from sociability to sexual behaviors (Eysenck, 2017). Thus, just as social cognitive theory focuses on one’s environment, trait theory seeks to answer whether the people are defined by their genes.

Discussion and Comparison

Approach to conditioning and behaviors is the point where the trait theory departs most clearly from the social cognitive theory discussed earlier. Bandura operated on the premise that behaviors are learned and that the process of perceiving and emulating the actions and emotional states of others precedes the emergence of personality. Proponents of trait theory take a completely different stance on the matter. From their perspective, the process of conditioning happens when the crucial traits of one’s personality are already fully shaped. Since it is genetics and biological systems’ of one’s body that define personality traits, these precede any process of learning, whether conscious or not (Eysenck, 2017).

Hence, the two theories discussed in this paper diverge sharply on which factors define the basics of human personality and when in the course of a human being’s development personality itself emerges.

It is important to stress that the proponents of trait theory do not negate the possibility of learning behaviors or emotions – rather, they assign a different meaning to them. In social cognitive theory, emulating other people’s reactions is the core component of personality development – its cause rather than effect. From Bandura’s perspective, if children observe an adult consistently engaging in prosocial behaviors, they will begin mimicking such behaviors, and, as a consequence, develop more compassionate and altruistic personalities. On the other hand, those adhering to the trait theory would interpret the same process in a different light.

According to their perspective, children observing prosocial behaviors would react to them depending on their genetically predetermined personality traits (Eysenck, 2017). Those with low neuroticism, high agreeableness, and high openness would likely endorse prosocial behaviors and incorporate them easily. However, those with low agreeableness, aggravated by high neuroticism, would be unlikely to imitate altruistic behaviors even when exposed to them. Therefore, the trait theory does not deny the idea of learning that forms the core of social cognitive theory but views is as a consequence rather than cause of personality development.

Much like the social cognitive theory, trait theory puts an emphasis on scientific study and experimentation. One of the key proponents of the theory, Eysenck (2017) insisted that experimental laboratory work was essential for any psychological study, especially the one dealing with such overreaching concepts as personality. True to his principle, he developed and completed a series of experiments deigned to test his hypothesis of personality traits being genetically predetermined.

In particular, testing twins demonstrated that they displayed similar scores at extraversion and neuroticism regardless of differences in upbringing and conditioning (Eysenck, 2017). Thus, even though the two theories discussed above differ considerably in their approach to personality, they still share the fundamental scientific principles of skepticism, experimentation, and rigorous testing of their hypotheses.


As one can see, psychology offers a range of approaches that seek to explain the formation and development of human personality, and social cognitive theory and traits theory are among the most prominent ones. Social cognitive theory, largely based on Bandura’s works, posits that people shape personalities by emulating those who surround them in their formative years. This learning is not limited to behaviors and also involves imitating and incorporating emotional responses to various stimuli. Trait theory, on the other hand, maintains that personality is a constellation of several key traits largely defined by genetics and intermediary biological systems.

Its adherents – most notably, Allport, Eysenck, McCrae, and Costa – developed different systematizations of essential personality traits but all agreed that genetic factors precede and ultimately overshadow conditioning and upbringing. As a result, while social cognitive theory views learning as the main factor that affects personality developments, trait theory interprets it as merely a consequence of preexisting personal characteristics. That being said, both theories remain consistently scientific in their approach and stress skepticism and experimentation to test the validity of their hypotheses.


Eysenck, H. (2017). Dimensions of personality. Routledge.

Cite this paper

Select style


PsychologyWriting. (2022, July 15). Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory. Retrieved from


PsychologyWriting. (2022, July 15). Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory.

Work Cited

"Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory." PsychologyWriting, 15 July 2022,


PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory'. 15 July.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory." July 15, 2022.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory." July 15, 2022.


PsychologyWriting. "Interpreting Personality: Social Cognitive Theory and Trait Theory." July 15, 2022.