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Behaviorist Theories

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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.