Behavioral Perspectives on Personality
KeywordsPersonality Disorder Aversive Stimulus Oral Reading Negative Reinforcement Behavior Analyst
The American Psychological Association defines personality as “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving” (Kazdin 2000). Many undergraduate psychology textbooks include reviews of various theories of personality, including psychoanalytic, neo-analytic, biological, cognitive, social-cognitive, trait, humanistic, existential, positive, and person-situation interactionist (see Friedman and Schustack 2012, as an example). Although many texts omit learning theory or behavior analytic positions, contemporary behavioral science has a well-articulated stance on what constitutes an individual’s personality repertoire. Other texts that do include behavioral explanations tend to use an overly simplistic and outdated critique wrought with misconceptions (Arntzen et al. 2010). For example, Friedman and Schustack (2012) consistently refer to radical behaviorism as a “stimulus-response” analysis of human behavior, which is a common misconception of Skinnerian behaviorism (for a more thorough description of radical behaviorism, see Lundy, Moore, & Bishop, this edition). Although most theories of personality disagree on topics such as free will and offer divergent concepts and methods, the majority explain these phenomena as by-products of some underlying force or state, such as the notion of unconscious drives or instincts focused in specific ways. In contrast, a behavioral perspective tends to examine the observable, measurable manifestations of the person and, when consistent over time, paints the picture of that individual’s “personality.” The root of the problem comes from the lack of understanding by most historians of personality theory that the behavioral approach has changed drastically over the past 100 or so years. Today, most behavioral scientists would have no concerns speaking about the personality of a given individual. The core distinction between a behavioral and non-behavioral stance on personality and individual differences rests on the cause of the personality, not the presence of the personality itself.
Although Sigmund Freud often represents the most well-known pop-personality theorist, believing the causes of behavior stem from childhood experiences locked deep within the psyche, the scientific and philosophical study of personality can be traced as far back as Ancient Greece. Though much of Greek literature focused on mythology and themes of mysticism, Hellenic culture and philosophy was largely naturalistic (Kantor 1963). According to Delprato (2003), many Greek philosophers adhered to a strict form of humanism, placing humans as the measure and maker of all things. While the Greek gods were viewed as superhuman, there were not considered supernatural. Scientists and philosophers at the time never applied the mystical, invisible attributes of Olympus to human experiences, but rather sought measurable, observable truths. Perhaps this preference for the tangible led to Hippocrates (400 BCE) developing personality types based on excesses or deficiencies of bodily fluids (humors). The four humors included choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile), sanguine (blood), and phlegmatic (phlegm) and determined irritable, depressed, optimistic, and calm personalities, respectively. A proper balance of these humors was considered essential to maintaining health, with an imbalance thought to drive an individual’s personality in the direction of the imbalance. For example, a person with an overabundance of black bile may tend to show signs of depression.
From the Ancient Greeks, a belief in both mysticism (or modern mentalism) as well as an appeal to natural science explanations of human behavior emerged. J. R. Kantor (1924) was an American psychologist in the early 1900s who was greatly influenced by the naturalism of Ancient Greek philosophy. His multivolume work Principles of Psychology introduced the term interbehavioral to describe a radical system of psychology that used naturalistic methods to understand behavior. Kantor felt that psychology should use the same objective scientific rigor as any other natural science, namely, the scientific method. Kantor’s (1938) theory defined personality as “the basis for psychological unity, coherence and identity” (p. 310). He considered personality as stable responding based on biological identity and membership in a cohesive social unit (e.g., a family). In an unstable environment, the individual develops disorder in their personality, resulting in psychopathy or multiple personalities. Furthermore, personality comprises specific traits that develop based on one’s reactional biography including an individual’s history of skill acquisition, preference development, and how their communication evolves. Though Kantor never used the word reinforcement, he wrote about how our personality traits are shaped by the environment. He viewed evolution and natural selection as key factors driving personality development and explored how these variables impact the creation of traits that can be categorized as universal, social, or individual. Kantor explained differences in individual personalities as the result of cultural conditioning. He gave the example of two children in the same household who may be treated in different ways based on sex, appearance, birth order, etc. While Kantor’s theories contained elements of mentalism, he moved from psychological phenomena as mental states toward a scientific explanation for behavior as an interaction with various environmental stimuli.
During the time of Kantor, introspection still dominated psychology. In J. B. Watson (1913) argued against introspection and championed psychology as the science of behavior, with the overarching goals of description, prediction, and control. Watson developed stimulus-response behaviorism, referred to as methodological behaviorism which posited that psychology should only be concerned with observable behavior (as opposed to mental states), specifically how stimuli evoked responses (Cooper et al. 2007). However, Watson did not deny that important events occur inside the skin; he stated that these events should be viewed as behavior and understood in the same way as behaviors that occur outside the skin (Moore 2015). He believed that personalities resulted from habit systems, repeated responses to external stimuli, and that personalities could be changed with conditioning or unconditioning. His well-known experiment with Little Albert showed how personality traits, such as emotional reactions, could be created through classical conditioning.
In 1938, B. F. Skinner, a contemporary of Kantor and Watson, founded the experimental branch of behaviorism that would later develop into the variation termed radical behaviorism. This approach offered a stark departure from the stimulus-response psychology of Watson by focusing on the selection of behavior via consequences (Skinner 1981). The environment, which includes public and private stimuli, leads to the selection of behaviors that benefit the organism (for a more detailed explanation of Radical Behaviorism, see Lundy, Moore, & Bishop, this edition). While behaviorists have historically avoided the use of the term personality, there are key areas of overlap in what is often referred to as personality and individual differences that also interests the behaviorist, who has discussed the phenomena simply as a stable behavior pattern still influenced by historical environmental factors (e.g., Kanfer and Karoly 1972). Regardless of theoretical orientation, most psychologists find keen interest in the behavior of individuals across space and time, especially when considering the causes and consistency of behavior. As such, it is important to note that despite popular belief, behaviorists do not deny the existence of feelings, thinking, or other aspects of what some call the “mental life.” For the radical behaviorist, all experiences (whether public or private) constitute either behavior or stimulus events. While many personality theories treat behavior as the by-product of some underlying, psychic cause, more contemporary behaviorists see behavior as the direct result of an environmental interaction that serves a specific cause. Furthermore, some behaviorists have even expanded the potential causes behind why people do the things they do to include neurological components (Heilman et al. 1993; Raine et al. 2000). Measurability of such neurological elements allows for an objective verification of their existence, rather than previously hypothesized internal forces.
Causes of Personality and Individual Differences
An important and rather novel consideration regarding the nature of how an individual’s personality appeared to observers also developed from the behavioral perspective. Instead of determining the reason for these individual differences by examining what they looked like to the casual observer, the more contemporary behavioral community begged the question of cause, cause found on the outside of the person, not the inside. Could a behavior that looked the same in two instances arise from different environmental events to function in dissimilar ways? Could the cause be different when the manifestations of a personality were the same? A variety of explorations on this very notion of cause occurred across topics such as syndromal classification (Hayes and Follette 1992), maladaptive motor behaviors (Woods et al. 2001), and addictions (Dixon and Johnson 2007). Together the conclusion appears to be that when we appraise the dimensions of behavior (i.e., frequency, severity, probability), the investigation should also consider the controlling events, which surround the behavior, and not rely on the topography, or the way a behavior looks, in isolation. Evolving into what has been termed the “functional approach” (Haynes et al. 1995), the behaviorist eye is toward function over form, with the realization that many behaviors may look the same yet are present because of and sustained by quite different reasons. This perhaps speaks to the very nature of what an individual difference should be defined as.
Contemporary treatment approaches to personality disorders follow in their heterogeneous applications to identical presenting problems, based upon the primary maintaining variables that have manifested the condition. For example, a client who engages in chronic psychedelic substance use (addictive personality) may be treated by focusing on alternative competing behaviors such as attending church or taking a college course, while another client with the same disorder may be given an opiate blocker. In the first case the client may be using drugs to increase attendance in peer activities such as going to rock concerts or hiking in the woods with drug-using peers. Yet in the second case, the client may be seeking the neurological stimulation of the drugs and be perfectly content sitting home in isolation. Same presenting problems (drug use) are exhibited across clients, yet the function sustaining the behavior (social reinforcement versus neurological stimulation) is radically different – hence the necessity of a functional approach to treatment which is at the core of behavioral science. There are a wide variety of core behavioral processes for presenting personality problems ranging from positive reinforcement procedures (Leitenberg et al. 1977), negative reinforcement procedures (Iwata 1987), differential reinforcement (Patel et al. 2002), noncontingent reinforcement (Carr et al. 2000), to introducing choices (Shogren et al. 2004), each of which is selected based on the hypothesized functional account of what is sustaining an individual client’s challenges. When the root cause of the personality disorder remains outside of the client, it seems plausible that changing such environmental conditions could alter the presenting problems. However, when cause remains within the person themselves, a subjective interpretation rests on the clinician as how to initiate the change process. Potentially, even worse prognoses may occur when the clinician deduces a disease model approach that further limits treatment options.
Environmental Factors that Develop a Personality
With the behavioral perspective resting on the pre-analytic assumptions of prediction and control, a few well-established principles of the approach contribute in orderly ways to craft the eventual personality of a given individual. When these principles remain consistent across time and place, a fair amount of predictability develops which aids the clinician in understanding the why of an individual’s behavior.
Consequences and Behavioral Economics. Perhaps there is no more important principle within the behavioral framework than that of consequential control. Within the context of a behavioral perspective, dispositional traits are viewed as behaviors that are reinforced. Keeping with a functional approach, the behavior of any individual essentially functions to “get” or “get out of something.”
In terms of “getting” something, behavior may function to obtain certain stimuli, called reinforcers. Behaviors that contingently produce reinforcers typically increase over time. This type of contingency is called positive reinforcement. Several factors determine the reinforcing properties of a consequent stimulus and tend to be idiosyncratic over time. Therefore, stimuli that function as reinforcers for the behavior of one individual may or may not function in a similar manner for someone else. In general, social positive reinforcement refers to the delivery of reinforcers in public, such as attention, toys, food, and many other examples. Appropriate and inappropriate behaviors are said to be maintained by social positive reinforcement if a functional relationship is observed between the behavior and the putative reinforcer. For example, if a child tantrums in line at the grocery store and this tantrum behavior is typically followed by access to a candy bar, then the tantrum behavior is likely maintained, or supported, by a contingency of social positive reinforcement. The form of the behavior is secondary to the function it serves (i.e., obtaining the candy bar). Automatic positive reinforcement refers to the delivery of private reinforcers produced directly by the behavior and may include such things as neurotransmitter release, self-generated speech, or other internal consequences directly produced by the behavior. People who engage in extreme exercise often refer to a “runner’s high” or a general feeling of euphoria following a hard workout. Their description likely refers to the private release of a reinforcer (e.g., endogenous opiates) following exercise.
Behaviors may also function to “get out” of something. In other words, the behavior serves to remove an aversive stimulus. Behaviors that result in the removal of aversive stimuli also tend to increase over time. This type of contingency is commonly labeled negative reinforcement. As with reinforcers, aversives are also idiosyncratic across people and situations. Many people incorrectly assume that their personal preferences are universal. Additionally, it is easy to allow the intended function of some stimulus arrangement to blind one to the actual function. To correctly identify the function of behavior requires careful observation of the effect of various stimulus arrangements on behavior over time. As with positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement may also maintain control of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. If a teacher tells a student, “great job working quietly at your desk. You do not need to complete your math homework tonight” and, over time, the student’s quiet work behavior increases, it is likely that negative reinforcement is at work. Again, social negative reinforcement refers to the removal of public aversive stimuli, while automatic negative reinforcement applies to private aversive stimuli.
Let’s examine a hypothetical example that represents a common issue for applied behavior analysts who work with children. Billy, an 8-year-old male with developmental delays, is referred to a clinician for problem behavior. Billy’s mother describes him as whiny, dramatic, and occasionally aggressive. However, Billy’s teacher describes him as polite, helpful, and independent. If asked about this discrepancy, Mom might suggest that Billy is shy with new adults or perhaps he is being manipulative. These dispositional adjectives are all descriptors that paint a vague picture of Billy and his behavior across two environments. One can create a mental picture of what is meant by “whiny” or “helpful”; however, the behaviorist is more interested in what contingences are in place to support those behaviors. Upon observation, the behaviorist observes Mom, after an 8-h shift, returns home and allows Billy access to just about anything as long as he stops the whining so she can make dinner in peace. Or perhaps she can sometimes ignore the whining, but gives in during a full-blown tantrum. His teacher, however, ignores all bad behavior but delivers praise and rewards only for completing work quietly or assisting a classmate. In this example, one can easily see that Billy’s behavior is a product of consequences, in this case involving two different environments, not predisposed traits living somewhere inside Billy. Billy’s behavior reflects what pays off for him in each environment. As such, an intervention that focuses on the function of Billy’s behavior will likely produce a more desirable result than one targeting dispositional forces or diagnostic labels.
The above discussion detailed powerful functional contingencies that produce or generate behavior. For example, one might be labeled “extrovert,” not because of dispositional forces, but rather a history of reinforcement for behaviors commonly viewed as “extroverted.” Consequences within the environment may also suppress behavior. These contingencies also involve reinforcers and aversive stimuli, but in different actions. Sometimes, a behavior leads to the presentation of an aversive stimulus. A wrong turn on a bicycle may cause you to wreck and injure yourself. In the future, you are now less likely to make a similar wrong turn. This stimulus arrangement is known as positive punishment, not because something great has happened, but due to the addition (positive) of an aversive stimulus contingent on behavior. The contingent removal of a reinforcer also leads to a suppression of behavior in a contingency termed negative punishment. Imagine that you are sitting with friends having a great time telling jokes. Your friends are laughing and pouring on the attention. Your next joke is a bit off-color and falls flat. Your friends stop laughing no longer attend to you. For the rest of the night, you sit quietly and then decide to leave early. The contingent removal of reinforcers (your friends’ laughter and attention) caused this reduction in your extroverted behavior. Conversely, it was the same reinforcers that initially maintained your extroverted behaviors. Contingencies of punishment may offer parsimonious environmental explanations for a number of traits, such as introversion.
Contrary to popular belief, radical behaviorists do not view behavior as the product of single or simple contingencies. Rather, the behavior emitted by an individual at any given time is the result of competition between multiple available contingencies. More recent behavior analytic research has incorporated principles of behavioral economics to better capture the dynamic nature of reinforcement contingencies within various environmental contexts. Just as commodities compete for consumer dollars, multiple contingencies operate within a context competing for behavior. Consider a child engaging in oral reading during an elementary school lesson. A cursory analysis of the environment might unveil several competing contingencies for the behavior of reading out loud: (a) how well the child reads (in other words, is reading naturally reinforcing or aversive due to the child’s skill), (b) teacher attention (presumably a contingency of positive reinforcement), (c) potential ridicule and/or bullying from peers (presumably a contingency of positive punishment), and (d) any other number of potential functional contingencies. Now assume that another contingency exists: the student tells the teacher that reading out loud makes him anxious, so the teacher allows him to escape oral reading. Which behavior will be chosen?
From a behavioral economics view (see Reed et al. 2013 for a more thorough review), the behavior that produces greatest cost to benefit ratio, also known as unit price, will be chosen. Let’s assume that teacher attention is available on a very thin schedule of reinforcement (e.g., variable interval 200 s) and is of both low quality and magnitude. If peer ridicule is available on a richer schedule and presents a stimulus condition in which the aversive properties outweigh the reinforcing quality of teacher attention, the child would predictably report anxiety to the teacher. This has much more to do with the benefit of escaping the potentially aversive situation than any “anxiety” the child may or may not be experiencing. A preponderance of aversive stimulation, or even the potential for aversive stimulation within the context, will likely produce escape behaviors. In order for the child to choose oral reading, the reinforcement (or benefit) must outweigh the cost (the difficulty of the reading and the peer-mediated contingency).
A more complicated arrangement is encountered when comparing immediate versus delayed contingencies. Suppose some friends invited a college student named Bob to a party at the most popular sorority house on campus. Bob loves to drink and have fun with his friends, especially female friends, but he also has a big exam coming up. This same cost-benefit approach would help understand the dynamic factors that could lead Bob to choose either option under differing circumstances. If the test is scheduled for the next morning, Bob may be more likely to choose studying than if the test was a week or more away. His current standing in the class may also impact his choice. Even additional specific information about the party, such as who exactly will attend, could also influence his choice. Still, environmental variables offer a more concrete analysis of his choice behavior than a consideration of dispositional or other internal forces. The integration of behavioral economics into the field of behavior analysis offers much promise in the design of effective interventions, especially when traditional trait constructs, such as self-control, may be involved.
Motivating Operations. A relatively new principle adopted by the behavioral approach is one of motivation. Although the concept of motivation has been a part of psychology for quite some time, behaviorists have only recently acknowledged the critical role this may play in the development of eventual behavior. In a series of seminal papers, Jack Michael (1982, 1988, 2000) introduced the term motivating operations (MO) and described two primary effects an MO exudes over behavior: value-altering and behavior-altering effects. A stimulus event, such as deprivation, satiation, or aversive stimulation, may temporarily alter the value of some consequent event. Specifically, the MO may make a consequence more or less reinforcing or more or less aversive. If you like cookies, for example, but just gorged yourself at the local buffet, cookies would likely not function as an effective reinforcer for your behavior at that time. An MO may also temporarily increase or decrease behaviors that have produced that consequence in the past. This behavior-altering effect has been described by Michael (2000) as either an evocative or abative effect. Consider the individual whose wife hides his junk food due to his tendency to binge eat. For the most part, he never searches for food, but on nights that he works late and does not eat for 6–7 h, he tears the kitchen apart searching for calorie-dense snacks. He may finally jump back in his car and drive to a nearby fast-food restaurant to obtain reinforcement.
Motivating operations have temporary effects; as such, when the MO is not in place, the individual may behave very differently than when he or she is under the influence of an MO. Again, MOs can typically be grouped into conditions of deprivation (which typically establish the effectiveness of a reinforcer and evoke behaviors that have produced reinforcement in the past), satiation (which typically abolish the effectiveness of a reinforcer and abate behaviors that have produced reinforcement in the past), and aversive stimulation (which can have both types of effect on behavior). From a practical standpoint, MOs help to explain situations in which people engage in uncharacteristic behavior. These irregularities are not the result of some invisible force or internal psychological disorder, but again an interaction between behavior and environmental events.
Language. As the behavioral approach to understanding behavior evolved from the study of nonhuman animals to that of fully developed humans, it became apparent that simple consequential control was insufficient to explain everything a human being may do on a day to day basis. The initial attempt at understanding how language could play a role in altering the behavior was crafted by Skinner’s theoretical text “Verbal Behavior” in (Skinner 1957). Adapted from a long series of experiments with rats and pigeons, this book has been met with both support (Knapp 1992) and criticism (Chomsky 1971) since its publication. Subsequent variations of the behavioral account continued, each with an increasing amount of empirical support to justify its evolution from the initial Skinnerian doctrine (Sidman 1997; Hayes et al. 2001). In totality, the way language factors into an individual’s personality is by providing a set of rules by which we may try and live by. When done successfully, reinforcement for following such rules is delivered by the social community. When we fail do adhere to socially approved rules, the community may punish us or remove reinforcing consequences from the near future. For example, when a history of reinforcement has been established for an individual to comply with instructions or rules by their parent (pick up your toys; be nice to your sister; do not steal), similar more personality-type rules may also be followed when delivered by the same caregiver (always keep to yourself unless you must talk; the key to happiness is by loving others; never show someone you are scared). Unfortunately, not all rules are adaptive and thus may plant the seeds for abnormal personalities to emerge (never be late or people will dislike you; happiness is found in the bottom of a bottle of wine; most people in this world suck).
Behavioral Selection and Cultural Practices
To this point, it should become apparent that the behaviorist would find great interest in behaviors related to the construct of personality, though the employed approach to study it may differ greatly from traditional methodologies. When it comes to individual differences, behaviorists always consider how a behavior interacts with its environment. Humans learn, develop, prosper, adapt, and change all due to natural selection. At the most basic level, natural selection refers to the Darwinian view of evolution related to the survival and reproduction of some species and the extinction of others. Behaviorists refer to this level of selection as phylogenic selection which is exclusively related to innate behaviors related to survival of the species. According to Catania (1998), the influence over behavior involves gradual changes at the genetic and/or physical level. Giraffes developed long necks over a gradual period because those with longer necks tended to survive and give birth to offspring with longer necks. Similarly, Russians have systematically bred tameability into red foxes, so much so that domesticated red foxes serve as house pets in Russian households.
A second type of selection, ontogenic selection, is attributable to the unique life history of a person and what contingencies reinforced specific classes of behavior. While evolution for our species occurs slowly and on a macro-level, the behavior of individuals also “evolves” through what is selected during their personal timeline. As discussed earlier, traits, which are viewed as behaviors, that are reinforced survive, while those that do not produce favorable outcomes are extinguished.
The third type of behavioral selection is cultural selection which accounts for behavior passed from one person to the next, allowing the behavior to outlive the organism. The general mechanics of cultural selection and ontogenic selection are the same in that they affect classes of behavior. Imitation, observational learning, and rule-governed behavior allow members of a culture to share behavior with each other, no matter how those individuals are genetically related. The emergence of language offers one of the most glorious examples of cultural selection. It can be taught informally, perhaps from mother to child, or formally, within an education system. Whether a baby’s repeating of “mama” is praised or a child receives a sticker for spelling a difficult word, it is the social environment that ensures language survives within that culture through contingencies (reinforcement and punishment) that promote language-producing behavior. Reinforcement and punishment also shape how we, as a culture, celebrate holidays, raise our children, and treat the disenfranchised members of our communities.
The notion of morality or ethical standards of behavior is one that has been a point of contention for humans throughout the history of the species and one that offers a poignant example of cultural selection. Cultural selection, along with language, allows humans to engage in a type of behavior unique to the species: following rules. Rather than conceptualizing morals or ethics as some form of a priori knowledge, behavior analysts explain morality and ethics in the context of rule-governed behavior; that is, behavior that is controlled and maintained by verbal or private self-imposed rules or instructions rather than the direct-acting contingencies and programmed consequences that govern other behavior (Peláez 2001). In other words, rule-governed behavior is not maintained by the direct consequences of engaging or not engaging in the behavior, but rather, these responses are maintained by the consequences following compliance with the rules that are established related to the behaviors. For example, it can be assumed that most individuals who regularly operate vehicles are going to stop at red lights often, even though they never have personally experienced consequences associated with running a red light. Most individuals stop at a red light because of rules that have been verbally passed on (avoiding a car crash or receiving a traffic citation, for instance).
Many of these rules align with specific forms of cultural practices that come to shape what our society deems as moral or ethical behavior. For example, if a culture perpetuates the rule “an eye for an eye,” it should not come as a surprise that members of that culture may find revenge morally acceptable. Due to the differential reinforcement of a variety of behaviors that are declared “good” or “bad” in different cultures (which ultimately make up cultural contingencies), individuals in one context develop a repertoire of behaviors that are deemed “good/moral” in one environment and “bad/immoral” in another environment. Human history accounts for many examples (racial discrimination, social injustice, religious intolerance, etc.) of the conflict that can arise when incompatible cultural contingencies encounter one another.
The interplay of the three forms of selection lead to what Kantor called personality traits (1938). Traits may be thought of as the individual differences that make up the personality. Traditional psychologists measure them systematically and believe they account for stability in behavior patterns. Measured traits usually consist of paired opposites, like extroversion and introversion, and a ratings scale will determine which trait a person exhibits. For the radical behaviorist, however, a trait is considered a general description of contingencies that cause behavior (Moore 2015).
Treatment of Personality Disorders
The behavioral perspective for the treatment of a personality disorder begins with the examination of the possible factors that have contributed to the development of the condition. This will include a careful examination of the controlling functional relationships between the observed behaviors and the contextual field of variables that surround them. Such variables will include the client’s motivation levels and how they are increased or decreased via the exhibition of certain behaviors to produce consequences from the social community. Next, the behaviorist will seek to understand how language (in the form of rules delivered by others or crafted by the client) governs their behavior patterns in maladaptive ways. Furthermore, when such rules are temporally paired with what is irrationally deduced as casual accomplishments of success, they become even more detrimental to the client. In order to improve the human condition of a client by altering their personality, a rich series of alternative positive consequences will need to be contacted by the individual. Initially these consequences may be contrived, but for long-term successful change to occur, the natural environment must sustain these changes in behavior.
To illustrate this change process, let us examine the behavior of an introverted graduate student named John who is fearful of speaking in public. John has reported anxiety of public speaking, large crowds, and any event that results in others paying him close attention. As a result, John has avoided these experiences as much as possible. He never speaks up in classes, reluctantly presents his work when required, and never volunteers for any speaking opportunities at professional meetings. John is worried that he may never succeed in his long-term plan of becoming a professor because he knows he will eventually need to lecture to students and also present research at conferences in front his peers. Additionally, a history of antianxiety medication has left John with decreased social interest, and thus he has not had a romantic relationship in many years.
The behaviorist seeking to alter John’s anxious personality begins by unpacking the motivation behind what is sustaining John’s disengagement from the social community. If anxiety occurs under a set of predictable conditions (speaking in public, large crowds), it seems rationale for John to avoid these events. John is motivated to avoid or reduce his anxiety and seeks a variety of ways of behaving to do so.
Next the behaviorist explores the consequences that follow from John’s avoidance behavior. Any context in which John must engage in verbal behavior in the presence of other individuals is generally paired with aversive consequences, but this does not necessarily mean that all of the behaviors in which John has engaged in similar contexts have contacted aversive consequences. Rather, it is more likely that verbal behavior specifically has not contacted sufficient reinforcement to compete with the aversive consequences (or lack of reinforcement) paired with these behaviors, thus reducing the likelihood that John will engage in these behaviors in this context. Consequently, John likely established a rule that he will always become anxious when he is forced to speak in public. As previously mentioned, the source of reinforcement associated with rule-governed behavior is compliance with the rule; therefore, John’s self-imposed rule may be comprised of the statements: “If I speak in front of a large crowd, I will encounter significant anxiety. However, if I do not speak in front of a large crowd, then I will avoid this anxiety.” Now, if John must speak in front of a crowd and experiences anxiety, then the first statement of the rule has contacted a direct-acting contingency and now lends further credibility to the validity of the rule, increasing the probability that John will continue avoiding such contexts. If John avoids speaking to crowds and does not experience anxiety, then the second statement of the rule has been reinforced through adherence to the rule, and the validity and reliability of the rule’s if/then statement has increased. Unfortunately for John, adherence to such rules is maladaptive if John is to continue a career in academia, as such contexts will likely remain aversive and John’s verbal repertoire associated with such situations will not increase in complexity.
Finally, to treat the anxiety associated with John’s public speaking, the behaviorist could work with John to systematically decrease the aversive stimuli and tap into naturally occurring reinforcement that occurs with learning a new skill. John begins to speak in front of small groups of people and then gradually speaks in front of larger groups of people, experiencing less anxiety and subsequently becoming more successful in the future through the subsequent improvement in his skills associated with verbal behavior in the presence of many individuals. A new rule is established that the momentary discomfort associated with public speaking is worth the delayed benefit of mastering a new skill and establishing a successful career in academia.
The behavioral perspective of personality and individual differences focuses on measurable behaviors shaped by the environment and the consequences that follow. Given its natural science approach, the theoretical goal of behaviorism is prediction and control of behavior. While individual differences may be helpful when referring to a repertoire of behavior, specific prediction based on broad strokes, like personality, can be challenging. Individuals show great variation in the ways they respond to stimuli. Jack Marr’s (1996) chaos theory reminds us that the real world is messy and surprise can thwart our best predictions. Marr provides a thorough (though incomplete) list of sources for surprise, “stochastic processes, chaotic behavior, instabilities (catastrophic or otherwise), noncomputable systems, irreducible systems, many-variable interactions, combinations of positive and negative feedback (with and without delays), emergence, and, of course, combinations and interactions of all these” (p. 23). Another source of surprise can be the mysterious epigenetic changes in an individual caused by environmental stimuli. The study of epigenetics is still in its infancy, but beyond chemicals and environmental stresses, the study of behavioral epigenetics looks at how our experiences (and even our grandmother’s experiences) can create changes in gene expression (Carere et al. 2005).
With such a great potential for variance, constructs such as personality and individual differences are helpful to the behaviorist in quickly defining a repertoire of individual behaviors that tend to function in accordance with a limited set of reinforcers. However, these concepts should remain a descriptive summary of observation and not a causal agent, as the latter limits the basic assumptions of human behavior as a natural science. The functional approach to human behavior continues to offer tangible solutions to many societal problems and has made inroads into less traditional applications, such as depression, anxiety, and self-control. New treatments, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is grounded in the foundations of behavior analysis, offer exciting new frontiers in the study of human behavior (Hayes et al. 1999).
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