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.
B. F. Skinner’s Ideas
As described in Chapter 7, “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 his 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’s Ideas
Albert Bandura pointed out that people learn to respond in particular ways by watching other people, who are called models. See Chapter 7, “Learning and Conditioning,” for more information on Bandura’s research on observational learning.
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.
Walter Mischel’s Ideas
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.