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Behavioral Theory of Personality

The Unique Way Individuals Think, Feel, and Act

As one group of theorists noted, each of us is in certain respects like all other people, like some other people, and like no other person who has ever lived in the past or will exist in the future.

THE SECOND FORCEbehavior personality

  • Using basic principles of learning, behavioral theorists see both normal and abnormal behaviors as responses to various stimuli, responses that have been learned through past experience and that are guided in the present by stimuli in the individual’s environment.
  • The school of behaviorism emerged in the 1910s, led by John B. Watson. Unlike psychodynamic theorists, behaviorists study only observable behavior. Their explanations of personality focus on learning. Skinner, Bandura, and Walter Mischel all proposed important behaviorist theories.
  • Behavioral genetics researchers are finding increasing evidence that cognitive abilities, personality traits, sexual orientation, and psychological disorders are determined to some extent by genetic factors (hereditary).

Learning is defined as a relatively permanent behavioral change.  As we learn we alter the way we perceive our environment.

John Watson was the first to study people and how the process of learning affects our behavior and in turn our personalities.  Watson’s experiment with Lil Albert concluded that humans could be classically conditioned as were Pavlov’s dogs.

The central idea behind behaviorism is that only observable behaviors are researchable, inner thoughts and emotions are private and to subjective.

  • B. F. Skinner believed that people’s personalities arise from response tendencies and that consequences shape the responses.
  • Albert Bandura said that people learn responses by watching others. He believes that thinking and reasoning are important in learning.
  • Walter Mischel’s research showed that people behave differently in different situations.

Psychologists agree that personality is formed through a two-way interaction between personal characteristics and the environment. This interaction is called reciprocal determinism. Critics argue that behaviorists often generalize inappropriately from animal studies to humans and that they often underestimate biological factors.

  • “Learning and Conditioning,” B. F. Skinner is well known for describing the principles of operant conditioning. Skinner believed that the environment determines behavior. According to this view, people have consistent behavior patterns because they have particular kinds of response tendencies. This means that over time, people learn to behave in particular ways. Behaviors that have positive consequences tend to increase, while behaviors that have negative consequences tend to decrease.
  • Skinner didn’t think that childhood played an especially important role in shaping personality. Instead, he thought that personality develops over the whole life span. People’s responses change as they encounter new situations.
  • Example: When Jeff was young, he lived in the suburbs. He developed a liking for fast driving because his friends enjoyed riding with him and he never got speeding tickets. After he left college, though, he moved to the city. Whenever he drove fast, he got a speeding ticket. Also, his new friends were much more cautious about driving in fast cars. Now Jeff doesn’t like to drive fast and considers himself to be a cautious person.
  • Albert Bandura pointed out that people learn to respond in particular ways by watching other people, who are called models. Bandura’s research on observational learning can be better explained by the BoBo Doll experiment.
  • Although Bandura agrees that personality arises through learning, he believes that conditioning is not an automatic, mechanical process. He and other theorists believe that cognitive processes like thinking and reasoning are important in learning. The kind of behaviorism they advocate is called social-cognitive learning.

Whom Do We Imitate?

  • Research has shown that people are more likely to imitate some models than others. People tend to imitate models they like or admire and models they consider attractive and powerful. People are also more likely to imitate models who seem similar to themselves. Furthermore, if people see models being rewarded for their behavior, they will be more likely to imitate those models. Advertisers often use these research results when they design ads. For example, ads that try to persuade young adults to purchase a certain brand of soft drink often show young, attractive models who are being rewarded with good times for their soda-drinking behavior.
  • Walter Mischel, like Bandura, is a social-cognitive theorist. Mischel’s research showed that situations have a strong effect on people’s behavior and that people’s responses to situations depend on their thoughts about the likely consequences of their behavior. Mischel’s research caused considerable debate because it cast doubt on the idea of stable personality traits. Mischel himself did not want to abandon the idea of stable personality traits. He believed that researchers should pay attention to both situational and personal characteristics that influence behavior.
  • Today, most psychologists acknowledge that both a person’s characteristics and the specific situation at hand influence how a person behaves. Personal characteristics include innate temperaments, learned habits, and beliefs. The environment includes opportunities, rewards, punishments, and chance occurrences. Personality results from a two-way interaction between a person’s characteristics and the environment. This process of interaction is called reciprocal determinism. People’s characteristics influence the kind of environment in which they find themselves. Those environments, in turn, influence and modify people’s personal characteristics.

Criticisms of Behavioral Approaches

  • Critics of the behavioral approach to personality maintain three arguments:
  • Behaviorist researchers often do animal studies of behavior and then generalize their results to human beings. Generalizing results in this way can be misleading, since humans have complex thought processes that affect behavior.
  • Behaviorists often underestimate the importance of biological factors.
  • By emphasizing the situational influences on personality, some social-cognitive theorists underestimate the importance of personality traits.

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Feldman, R. (2013). Essentials of understanding psychology (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Friedman, H.S. & Schustack, M.W. (2012), Personality: classic theories and modern research (5th ed). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
McGraw-Hill.McGraw Hill Higher Education (2013), The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.
Ryckman, R. M. (2013). Theories of personality (10th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

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