Behavioral Personality Theories

Traditional models of behaviorism, represented by figures like John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner, are typically considered inconsistent with the concept of “personality,” which itself represents an unobservable construct. Such “radical” behavioral approaches emphasized the study of observable behavior, and thus any theory of personality was restricted to typical patterns of behavior exhibited by a particular individual based on his or her reinforcement history. More recently, and with the proliferation of behavioral and cognitive-behavioral counseling approaches, newer approaches have attempted to reconcile traditional models of behaviorism with a description of human personality. Traditional behavioral principles have been translated into behavioral approaches to counseling, as well as contributing to modern cognitive-behavioral therapies.

This entry begins with a description of the fundamental approaches to learning that represent the foundation of behaviorism. Skinner’s personality theory, which has evolved into the modern study of behavior analysis, follows. John Dollard and Neal Miller’s attempt to reconcile behaviorism and psychoanalysis is presented next, followed by the social cognitive approach represented by Albert Bandura and Julian Rotter. That is followed by an introduction to Arthur Staats’s relatively recent theory of psychological behaviorism. Finally, a rudimentary description of several techniques used in behavior therapy is provided.

Learning Approaches

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, typically attributed to Ivan Pavlov, focuses on the responses of an individual to a particular stimulus in the environment. The response is considered automatic on the part of the individual, with no cognitive interpretation of the stimulus or internal debate regarding how to respond. Watson, one of the first pioneers of behaviorism, further studied this form of stimulus-response learning.

In the classical conditioning paradigm, a previously neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response by serving as a signal for another stimulus that normally elicits that response. Pavlov conditioned the response of salivation in dogs to the sound of a tone by repeatedly preceding the presentation of food with the sound of the tone. The tone, originally a neutral stimulus, became a signal for the food, and thus elicited salivation similar to the actual presentation of the food.

Later, Watson showed that even emotional responses could be subject to classical conditioning. He worked with a child known as “Little Albert,” in whom Watson was able to condition a fear response to a white rat. Moreover, this response generalized to other stimuli that were white and furry, similar to the rat.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning emphasizes the effects of environmental contingencies, such as rewards (or reinforcement) and punishment, on the frequency of behavior. Edward Thorndike, in his attempt to formulate a series of “Laws of Learning,” articulated operant learning through the “Law of Effect,” which states that a behavior followed by a “satisfying state of affairs” is likely to occur more frequently. Skinner originated behavior analytic theory based on operant principles, and in fact developed a comprehensive approach to personality based on these same principles. Skinner focused primarily on reinforcement, which he defined as any consequence that increases the likelihood of a response. Moreover, the schedule of reinforcement—the frequency and timing of reinforcement for a given behavior—has ramifications for the frequency of the behavior’s occurrence, and the likelihood the behavior will continue to occur in the absence of reinforcement. Extinction of a response occurs when the response is no longer elicited due to a continuing absence of reinforcement.

Operant conditioning can also promote the development of more complex behaviors through a process called shaping. Shaping involves the reinforcement of successive approximations of a complex target behavior. For example, to train a dog to roll over may require first rewarding the dog for laying down, then for rolling onto one side, then for rolling onto its back, then to the other side, and finally back onto its belly. Each step of the process is an end unto itself, earning reinforcement for the individual, and then becomes only the prerequisite for the reward at the next step, until the entire series of behaviors becomes necessary for the reinforcement.

Skinner’s Personality Theory

Skinner proposed that human behavior is shaped by a variety of consequences. These consequences, or contingencies, may be administered by another person (a parent, teacher, spouse, or boss), or may be naturally occurring in the environment. Each consequence affects the future likelihood of that behavior. Therefore, each individual has a unique history of such contingencies, and each develops a unique repertoire of behaviors of varying likelihood.

This contingency history approach is distinct from trait theories of personality that view each individual as having a set of traits, or characteristics, that “lead to” a set of behaviors. Traditional behaviorists reject the notion that an internal and amorphous mechanism is responsible for behavior. They believe the contingency or reinforcement history determines an individual’s behavioral tendencies.


For Skinner, the development of these behavioral tendencies occurs through gradual exposure to contingencies within an individual’s environment. Skinner also later incorporated the idea of imitation as a means of learning. Specifically, he asserted that a child might learn a behavior through imitation of a parent or peer, but only if the child’s prior imitations had been reinforced. In other words, a child would be more likely to imitate a behavior if he or she had been previously reinforced for imitating other behaviors. This mechanism increases the individual’s repertoire of behavioral tendencies still further.


Skinner asserted that all of an individual’s behaviors, including pathological behaviors, are learned through these same mechanisms. Mentally ill individuals have learned a maladaptive response that leads to aversive consequences for the individual or for others because that response has been, and may continue to be, reinforced. In addition, an individual may have been unable to learn an appropriate response to a certain situation or stimulus, due to inadequate reinforcement, or due to never having performed the skill in a way that was reinforced.

Walden Two

Skinner explored the hypothetical application of the principles of contingency management to an entire culture in his classic book Walden Two, published in 1948. In Walden Two, Skinner used this process of “cultural engineering” to create an idealized community in which crime, unemployment, and wars are a thing of the past. Skinner argued that such a society would be feasible in America, and it would solve societal problems if truly employed.

Behavior Analysis

Modern behavior analysis is predicated on Skinner’s work. Behavior analytic theorists share Skinner’s emphasis on an individual’s reinforcement history as the determinant of his or her behavioral tendencies. The concept of personality implies a certain degree of consistency in an individual’s behavior; thus, behavior analysis posits that consistent behavioral tendencies are the result of consistent contingencies across similar situations over time, and across different situations.

The lack of consistent contingencies would lead to more unpredictable behavior. A lack of consistency in responding is a sign of a lack of stability in an individual’s “personality,” and thus of some degree of pathology. Behavior analysts advocate adjustments in contingencies as a means for individuals to “relearn” adaptive and more consistent ways of responding.

Human Nature

Both Skinner and the behavior analytic view that ensues from his theory share certain assumptions and positions regarding dimensions of human nature. Among these are an emphasis on environmental influences and a deterministic view of behavior. While Skinner was not as radical as Watson, he did believe that environmental influences (“nurture”) could override biological processes (“nature”). Behavior analysts share this belief. The element distinguishing the view of many behaviorists from other theorists is their belief that biological processes, while very important, are less observable than environmental influences, and thus less subject to measurement.

On the question of free will, Skinner did assert that humans have the power of self-control (i.e., free will), or the ability to manipulate their environment to manage their own behavior. Skinner’s position implies a bit more self-determination than the purely stimulus-response learning emphasized by Watson, but he maintained that even this process requires external contingencies. In sum, Skinner and the behavior analysts in general have leaned heavily toward the position that most human behavior is determined by environmental contingencies.

Dollard and Miller’s Theory

Dollard and Miller attempted to reconcile the conflicting ideas in behavioral and psychoanalytic theories by reformulating Freudian concepts in behavioral terms. They relied heavily on Clark Hull’s concepts of habits and drives. Habits are connections between stimuli and responses. Drives are aversive stimuli that impel a behavior. The ensuing behavior reduces the drive and is thus negatively reinforced. In a departure from the more radical behaviorism of Watson, Dollard and Miller suggested that drives can be either external (such as a need for money or a diploma) or internal (such as hunger or loneliness), thereby introducing the idea that even nonobservable elements may be included in a behavioral theory.

Dollard and Miller further suggested that certain stimuli in the environment serve as cues—consistent with what Skinner called discriminative stimuli—that determine where and when a behavior will occur. Each cue may prompt a range of potential behaviors. These potential behaviors form a response hierarchy based on the relative likelihood of each response in that situation. Each potential response’s position in the response hierarchy is effected in part by the individual’s particular drives when the cue is present. The changing of response probabilities due to differing situations is what Dollard and Miller consider the process of learning.


Freud’s psychoanalytic theory focuses heavily on intrapsychic conflict. Dollard and Miller studied conflict as it pertains to response hierarchies. They suggested that each type of conflict represents choices between goals. An approach-approach conflict occurs when an individual must choose between two equally desirable goals. These goals may conflict because the individual has two competing drives, such as choosing between studying for a test or going out with friends. An avoidance-avoidance conflict occurs when the individual must choose between two undesirable outcomes, such as studying for an exam or failing. An approach-avoidance conflict involves a single response that has both a desirable and an undesirable outcome, such as working at a high-paying but unpleasant job. Finally, in a double approach-avoidance conflict, the individual has to choose between two different responses, each of which has both a desirable and an undesirable outcome. For example, a job applicant may have to choose between the high-paying but unfulfilling job and a lesser-paying but more interesting position.

Like Freud, who claimed that neurosis could result from inadequate resolution of conflicts, Dollard and Miller suggested that pathology could ensue if the individual has difficulty with these conflicts. For example, some individuals may become immobilized by conflict or choose to escape the decision by mal-adaptive means.

Frustration and Aggression

Dollard and Miller first formulated the frustration-aggression hypothesis in 1939. They asserted that frustration, which occurs when there is unexpected interference with a goal-directed response, is always the cause of aggression. Generally, the more frustrated the individual, the greater the amount of aggression he or she will express. This approach mirrored Freud’s position that aggression serves as a cathartic release of tension.

Also consistent with Freud’s theory was Dollard and Miller’s work on displaced aggression. Specifically, they agreed that individuals who are unable to respond to the original stimulus will respond to the most similar available stimulus. For example, if your boss makes you work late on an evening when you had other plans, you may not express aggression toward your boss because of a fear of punishment. Instead, you will express aggression toward someone who is in some way similar to your boss when the opportunity (cue) occurs.

Critical Training Periods

Dollard and Miller attempted to convert Freudian developmental stages into more behavioral terms. The result was what they called critical training periods. Three of the four training periods mirror Freudian psychosexual stages of development, and are thought to affect personality development. The feeding situation, which roughly corresponds to the Freudian oral stage, involves stimulus generalization; infants who learn that their hunger drive will be alleviated by others develop the belief that they will be able to satisfy their other drives. Moreover, in this training situation, the infant may develop secondary drives learned through association with these primary drives. For example, the drive of intimacy may be developed through the close, comfortable relationship between infants and their mothers during feeding.

The cleanliness situation, akin to Freud’s anal stage, involves a similar emphasis on toilet training. Difficulty during toilet training may be met by parental disapproval and punishment. The child may interpret the disapproval as focused on themselves rather than their behavior, and thus develop anxiety. This anxiety may generalize to other situations in which developing persons perceive themselves as inadequate or unlovable.

Dollard and Miller suggested that early sex training, corresponding to Freud’s phallic stage, involves anxiety associated with initial expressions of sexuality and sexual behavior. Specifically, behaviors such as masturbation are typically called dirty, perverted, or wrong. Again, this association may be generalized to other sexual behaviors, and to fulfillment of the sexual drive overall.

Finally, Dollard and Miller asserted that a child who becomes frustrated may become angry and aggressive. Aggressive behaviors by children are typically met with some form of punishment. The result is an approach-avoidance conflict because the child who experiences frustration must either express that anger and get punished or suppress the anger. Chronic suppression of anger may ultimately lead to development as a passive, unassertive adult.

Social Cognitive Theories

Traditional behavioral approaches have eschewed the cognitive processes that occur within humans as being unobservable. Theorists from this perspective have as a whole believed not that these processes are insignificant but simply that they are not measurable, and thus not subject to scientific inquiry. Social cognitive and social learning approaches are based on many of the same principles as behavioral theories, but include the cognitive element that behaviorists have omitted. The primary figures associated with this approach are Julian Rotter, Walter Mischel, and Albert Bandura.

Reciprocal Determinism

Social-cognitive theory and its distinction from purely behavioral theories are exemplified by Bandura’s concept of reciprocal determinism. Bandura posited that behavior, the environment, and the cognitive processes within an individual have a mutually interactive relationship. Instead of a unidirectional stimulus-response relationship, these three variables all affect one another.

These cognitive processes are what Mischel called person variables. Generally, social cognitive theorists de-emphasize traits, which imply greater stability across situations, in favor of the processes that enable individuals to adapt to specific environmental conditions and circumstances. An individual’s competencies involve what he or she is capable of doing. Encoding strategies reflect how an individual cognitively represents information. The individual also has expectancies regarding how likely he or she believes an action will result in a particular outcome. Such outcomes will each have a particular subjective value assigned by the individual. Finally, the individual engages in a self-regulatory process that includes planning an action or series of actions, executing those actions, and adjusting the actions as he or she evaluates the progress made toward the goal.

Bandura also described the variable of self-efficacy, or the individual’s perception of his or her ability to perform a behavior in a given situation. Self-efficacy can be considered to be general, such as an overall confidence in one’s ability to perform actions as needed. More specifically, however, self-efficacy refers to confidence in a specific situation. For example, an individual may feel comfortable sitting at home answering questions to a television quiz show; the individual’s confidence in his or her ability to do so in front of an audience and cameras with prize money on the line may be different.

Rotter is best known for his work on the concept of locus of control, or the explanation an individual has for events and outcomes. Persons who attribute outcomes to factors outside themselves (e.g., luck, divine providence, or another person) have an external locus of control. Those who attribute outcomes to their own efforts or abilities have an internal locus of control. Generally, having an external locus of control is associated with poorer psychological and physical health.

Vicarious Learning

Another distinction between the social cognitive approach and purely behavioral models of personality is the stipulation that learning can occur without a direct experience of classical or operant conditioning. The process can happen vicariously, according to social learning theorists, and imitation need not be reinforced for observational learning to occur.

Bandura is perhaps best known for his work on observational learning (i.e., learning by watching behavior). His Bobo Doll experiments showed that children could learn aggressive play behaviors by watching an adult model such behaviors against a blow-up clown doll. Examples of observational learning are evident whenever an individual learns how to cook a meal by watching a cooking show, learns how to change a flat tire by watching a mechanic, or is persuaded to buy a product by a celebrity on a television commercial.

Both classical and operant conditioning can occur by observation. Vicarious conditioning occurs when an individual becomes conditioned to a stimulus by viewing another individual being conditioned to that same stimulus. Vicarious reinforcement occurs when an individual becomes more likely to engage in a behavior after seeing someone else rewarded for that behavior.


According to the social cognitive view, most pathology results from dysfunctional expectancies. An individual may, to a maladaptive extent, overestimate or underestimate the likelihood of a particular outcome of a behavior. For example, a shy person may avoid social gatherings for fear of rejection or embarrassment, or a shoplifter may believe that he or she will never be caught and arrested.

Consistent with other behavioral theories, social cognitive theory posits that maladaptive behaviors and appropriate behaviors result from similar learning processes. We may learn appropriate behaviors through vicarious reinforcement, but we can also learn mal-adaptive behaviors through vicarious reinforcement  (i.e., seeing someone else run a red light successfully, and then doing so as well).

Psychological Behaviorism

In recent years, Staats has criticized traditional behaviorism’s emphasis on learning principles that apply to animals. He regards these principles as insufficient to explain human behavior. Staats’s psychological behaviorism is predicated on the notion that humans learn new behaviors in the context of previously learned behavioral repertoires.

Staats has stated that individuals develop basic behavioral repertoires (BBRs) that facilitate later learning. Personality is the individual’s combination of basic behavioral repertoires. These initial BBRs are learned through the interaction of stimulus events and the individual’s sensory and perceptual processes.

Like traditional behavioral theorists, Staats has asserted that personality develops and changes through a series of learning experiences. But psychological behaviorism emphasizes the context of the individual’s prior learning. Specifically, individuals develop BBRs based on their experiences with environmental stimuli. Their biological condition at the time of this learning plays an important mediating role. Later, individuals’ biological conditions may be different, thus affecting their BBR, when a second stimulus event is experienced and prompts a behavior. This process demonstrates both the situational nature of behavior and the more generalized nature of personality. While somewhat stable, the BBRs can be modified or supplemented through later learning, thus reflecting the adaptability of human personality.

Behavior Therapy

Behavior therapy involves the use of learning principles to modify maladaptive behaviors. Behavior therapy focuses on the acquisition of necessary skills to obtain reinforcement (such as in social skills training), the learning of more adaptive responses to environmental stimuli (as in systematic desensitization), and the modification of environmental factors to promote adaptive behaviors (as in contingency management).

Social Skills Training

Social skills training is used to promote adaptive interpersonal behaviors to facilitate the acquisition of social reinforcement. Therapy clients reporting loneliness, depression, or anxiety may have inadequately developed skills to promote satisfactory interpersonal relationships. These individuals do not engage in appropriate eye con-tact, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other conversational skills, many of which are more typically learned in the natural environment. In therapy, clients may engage in role-play activities where the therapist first models the appropriate skills, and then encourages the client to demonstrate. Real-world assignments to test these new skills are instrumental in helping clients to apply these skills to genuine situations and to gain genuine social reinforcement.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is most applicable to situations in which an individual experiences a disproportionate or dysfunctional level of anxiety to a stimulus or situation. The process relies on counterconditioning (i.e., the development of a response—relaxation—that is incompatible with anxiety). During relaxation training, clients are taught a series of exercises to relax the mind and body. Relaxation training may involve imagery (i.e., teaching clients to picture themselves in a tranquil, placid scene). Clients also develop a hierarchy of fear-inducing situations, and rank them according to the level of anxiety they cause.

Once a client has become adept at relaxation and has completed the hierarchy, the therapist leads the clients through each step in the hierarchy. The client attempts to maintain the relaxation response in the context of each situation on the list. This process may occur through imagery or in real-life exposure.

Contingency Management

Contingency management entails the manipulation of reinforcement and punishment to increase the frequency of desirable and adaptive behavior. This approach can use simple contingency plans, such as rewarding a child with a cookie for eating his or her dinner, or more complex point systems or token economies, such as those used in many schools and institutions. Withdrawal of reinforcement through time-out is also a form of contingency management.

Relevance of Behavioral Personality Theories

Behavioral approaches to personality began with the radical behavioral approach of Watson, which was largely incompatible with an internal, nonobservable construct such as personality, but they have evolved over time. Skinner’s behavior analysis is still relevant, as are more modern approaches such as Staats’s psychological behaviorism, which is largely consistent with those earlier approaches. Behavioral approaches provide the theoretical foundation for the wealth of effective techniques that today are used as part of a behavioral approach to counseling.


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