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Behaviorist Theories

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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.

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