Personality Theories 3

This is the third part of Personality Theories series and I am covering few behaviourist & learning theories here.  Some important psychologist involved in the development of these theories include Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936) – Classical Conditioning, B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) – Operant Conditioning and Albert Bandera (1925 – till date) – Social Learning Theory.


The behaviourists believe that personality is no more (or no less) than a collection of learned behaviour patterns. Put simply, all our behaviours are learned. Behaviourists do not give importance to the internal causes of behaviour. Behaviourism is primarily concerned with observable behaviour, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion. As John B. Watson (1878-1958), who established behaviourism puts it –

“Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behaviour. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness.”

Although behaviourists generally accept the important role of inheritance in determining behaviour, they focus primarily on environmental factors.

Ivan Pavlov – Classical Conditioning

Pavlov (1849 – 1936) was a behaviourist. He is known primarily for his work in classical conditioning. It involves famous bell-and-dog experiment where pairing of bell with food resulted in dog salivating at the sound of bell. Classical conditioning refers to a learning procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus (e.g. food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell). It also refers to the learning process that results from this pairing, through which the neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response (e.g. salivation) that is usually similar the one elicited by the potent stimulus (e.g. food -> salivation).

Pavlov - Classical Conditioning
Pavlov: Classical Conditioning (Via: SlidePlayer)

The Pavlov’s theory further elaborates acquisition, extinction and spontaneous recovery from extinction. This theory explains many of our learned behaviours, including some phobias or irrational associations on the basic of this conditioning. One of my friends had associated smell of chemistry laboratory with one really bad, aggressive chemistry teacher that he had in his school, and he would actually show certain signs of anxiety, fear in the chemistry lab even after he left school. He got over it in a year or so in his college. Anyway!

Classical conditioning is “classical” because it is the first systematic study of basic laws of learning or conditioning. It should be kept in mind that classical conditioning differs from operant conditioning – in classical conditioning, behavioural responses are elicited by antecedent stimuli, whereas in operant conditioning behaviours are strengthened or weakened by their consequences (i.e., by reward or punishment).

B. F. Skinner – Operant Conditioning

Skinner (1904-1990) was an American psychologist, behaviourist and social philosopher. Skinner considered free will an illusion and human action dependent on consequences of previous actions. If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the actions that led to it being repeated become more probable. Skinner called this the principle of reinforcement. He called the use of reinforcement to strengthen behaviour as Operant Conditioning.

Skinner: Operant Conditioning
Skinner: Operant Conditioning (Via: AZ Quotes)

Skinner’s theory is also known as Learning Theory of Personality. According to this, personality of an individual can be understood through the study of his/her behaviour. Moreover, the behaviour can be distinguished in two types –

  1. Respondent –  Automatic, involuntary behaviours that are elicited by the stimuli of the environment. E.g. Salivation, constriction of pupil etc.
  2. Operant – Voluntarily performed behaviours, not caused due to any specific stimuli of the environment. E.g. Most of individual’s intentional behaviours.

Skinner emphasized that behaviour which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); whereas behaviour which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened). Some of Skinner’s ideas about reinforcement are worth discussing in details.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Skinner postulated and demonstrated positive reinforcement with his famous experiment with a rat in the Skinner Box. A rat was kept in the Skinner box and the rat bounced around this box and accidentally pressed a lever which resulted in getting a food pellet. The rat repeated that behaviour (pressing the lever) and continued to get the food pellets. The rat quickly learnt to press the lever and got its positive reinforcement: the food.

As Skinner explains, positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour by providing a consequence that we find rewarding. All rewards that we offer essentially work as positive reinforcers.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement refers to strengthening of behaviour by removing an unpleasant reinforcer. In Skinner’s rat & Skinner box experiment, this involved pressing the lever to stop unpleasant electrical current that the rat was subjected to. It is called negative reinforcement because it removes/eliminates an adverse stimulus which is ‘rewarding’ to the animal or person. For example, parking fine acts as a negative reinforcer that may encourage people to park their vehicles properly.


Punishment is a form of conditioning that is different from negative reinforcement, though at times it is difficult to discern between the two. It is defined as the opposite of reinforcement since it is designed to weaken or eliminate a response rather than increase it. It is also known as aversive stimulus and it decreases probability of the behaviour that it follows.

For example, if a rat is given unpleasant shock for pressing a specific button, it will press that button less often, or maybe never. Likewise, if you spank a child for throwing his/her toys,  he/she will (perhaps) throw them less and less.

Interestingly, Skinner doesn’t ‘approve‘ of the use of aversive stimuli; not because of ethics, but because they don’t work well! That is because whatever was reinforcing the bad behaviours hasn’t been removed, but it has just been covered up with a conflicting aversive stimulus. So for example, if a young boy is learning to use his hands to throw and hence enjoying throwing his toys, he might continue to do so despite punishment (say: spanking). However, the boy may just wait till his mother or father is out of the room, or find another way to escape the consequences (punishment). Moreover, this occasional throwing would develop into what is known as variable schedule of reinforcement, and it is even more resistant to extinction.

Instead one can achieve desired behaviour modification by a simple (not necessarily easy) approach: Extinguish or weaken an undesirable behaviour by removing the reinforcer and replace it with a desirable behaviour by reinforcement. Thus instead of punishing child for throwing toys (undesirable behaviour), the child can be instead encouraged and rewarded for putting them properly in the shelf (desirable behaviour). The child may be encouraged to play a game of throwing ball and catching it. The behaviour modification is used to treat several psychological problems including addictions, neuroses, shyness and it works quite well with children.

Skinner also elaborated on Schedules of Reinforcement to explain how frequency of reinforcements affects behaviour, Behaviour Shaping through successive approximation and he also talked about Token Economy where desired behaviour is reinforced with tokens (secondary reinforcers) and later exchanged for rewards (primary reinforcers). Token Economy can be used very effectively with younger children in primary schools where they can be rewarded with some kind of tokens to encourage good behaviour. If you are really curious, you can read more about these concepts from the references provided at the end of this article. I am skipping this long discussion to keep this part focused on the essence of his theory around operant conditioning.

Walden II & More

B. F. Skinner graduated with English major and he also wrote a book called Walden II, in which he describes a utopia-like commune run on his operant principles. Skinner was an atheist and he faced lot of criticism from the religious right people for this book claiming that his ideas take away their freedom and dignity as human beings. He responded to that criticism with another book called Beyond Freedom and Dignity. In this book he argued that the bad do bad because the bad is rewarded. The good do good because the good is rewarded. There is no true freedom or dignity. He further claimed that as a society, we can take control and design our culture in such a way that good gets rewarded and bad gets extinguished! According to him, with the right behavioural technology, we can design culture.

Skinner was one of the major influential psychologists after Freud. His Operant Conditioning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviours – from the process of learning, to addiction and language acquisition. However, operant conditioning fails to take into account the role of inherited and cognitive factors in learning and hence, does not offer complete explanation of the learning process.  Nevertheless, it is one of the crucial theories in behaviourism and offers different perspective on personality and how we learn our behaviours.

Albert Bandura – Social Learning

Born in 1925, Bandura is more than 90 years old as I write this article. He is an American psychologist who worked at Sanford University and some of his major contributions include Social Learning Theory and the theoretical construct of Self-Efficacy. He continues to work at Stanford even today.

Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura concurs with the behaviourist learning theories of classical conditioning and operant conditioning explained above. However, he added an important dimension to behaviourism by demonstrating that humans, especially children learn a lot by observing others in their environment.

Observational Learning

In his famous Bobo Doll experiment, Bandura made a film of a young woman, beating up a Bobo doll (an inflatable doll that bounces back when knocked down).  The young woman punched the doll, shouting “sockeroo!” She kicked it, sat on it, hit with a little hammer, and so on, shouting various aggressive phrases. Bandura showed this film to groups of kindergartners who liked it a lot. They then were let out to play. In the play room there were several observers with pens and papers, a brand new Bobo doll, and a few little hammers.

As it was recorded by the observers, many of those kids did beat the Bobo doll. They punched it and shouted “sockeroo”, kicked it, sat on it, hit it with the little hammers, and so on. In other words, they imitated the young lady in the film, and quite precisely at that.

Thus, these kids changed their behaviour without first being rewarded for approximations to that behaviour! Though this may not seem extraordinary to the average parent, teacher, or casual observer of children, it didn’t fit so well with standard behaviouristic learning theory prevalent at that time. Bandura called this phenomenon Observational Learning or Modelling, and his theory is known as Social Learning Theory.

Bandura’s Social Learning Theory is considered as the bridge between behaviourism and the cognitive approach. This is because this theory focuses on how mental (cognitive) factors are involved in learning.  After various experiments on similar lines, Bandura established that there were certain steps involved in this modelling process, and they are: attention (while learning or picking up the behaviour), retention (committing that behaviour or learning to the memory), reproduction (reproducing learned behaviour)) and motivation (reasons to continue that behaviour).


Bandura: Self Efficacy (Via: AZ Quotes)
Bandura: Self Efficacy (Via: AZ Quotes)

According to Bandura, self-efficacy is a person’s belief in his/her ability to succeed in a particular situation. Bandura described these beliefs as determinants of how people think, behave, and feel. One’s sense of self-efficacy can play a major role in how one approaches goals, tasks, and challenges.

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (that evolved later from his Social Learning Theory) suggests is that an individual’s actions and reactions, including social behaviours and cognitive processes, in almost every situation are influenced by the actions that individual has observed in others. Self-efficacy represents the personal perception of external social factors. According to Bandura’s theory, people with high self-efficacy – that is, those who believe they can perform well are more likely to view difficult tasks as something to be mastered rather than something to be avoided.

Bandura showed that difference in self-efficacy correlates to how individuals fundamentally differ in the way they view the world. People with high self-efficacy generally believe that they are in control of their own lives (internal locus of control), that their own actions and decisions shape their lives, while people with low self-efficacy may see their lives as outside their control (external locus of control).

The crucial question is: How does self-efficacy develop?
These beliefs begin to form in early childhood as children deal with a wide variety of experiences, tasks, and situations. However, the growth of self-efficacy does not end during youth but continues to evolve throughout life as people acquire new skills, experiences, and understanding.

According to Bandura, there are four factors affecting self-efficacy

  1. Mastery Experiences Or Enactive Attainment – The experience of mastery is the most important factor determining a person’s self-efficacy.  Performing a task successfully strengthens our sense of self-efficacy. However, failure to do so can affect self-efficacy adversely. In short, success raises self-efficacy, while failure lowers it.
  2. Social Modelling Or Vicarious Experiences – Witnessing other people successfully completing a task is another important source of self-efficacy. When we see someone succeeding, our own self-efficacy increases; when we see people failing, our self-efficacy decreases. This process is even more effective when we see ourselves as similar to the model, i.e. when we can identify with them closely.
  3. Social Persuasion – It is possible to persuade people to believe that they have the skills and capabilities to succeed. We can often achieve our goals with encouragement. Getting verbal encouragement from others helps people overcome self-doubt and try to give their best. Discouragement also works similarly. In fact, it has been found that discouragement is generally more effective at decreasing a person’s self-efficacy than encouragement is at increasing it. Thus, it is all the more important that we should be positive and encouraging while working with others.
  4. Psychological, Physiological Responses – In stressful situations, we commonly exhibit signs such as: shakes, aches and pains, fatigue, fear, nausea, etc. Perceptions of these responses in oneself can markedly alter self-efficacy. For example, certain signs of anxiety such as shaking legs, feeling thirsty before public speaking may be interpreted by someone with low self-efficacy as a sign of inability, thus decreasing self-efficacy further. Whereas someone with high self-efficacy might interpret these anxiety signs as normal and unrelated to own ability. Thus, it is the interpretation that affects the self-efficacy.

I think this is one of the most important concepts discussed by Bandura and it affects all spheres of life. In a nutshell, it explains why our own perception about the self matters and how it affects almost everything that we do. You can watch this video that explains Bandura’s theory and self-efficacy quite well –

Since the late 1960’s, behaviourism has given way to the Cognitive Revolution, of which Bandura is considered a part. Cognitive psychology retains the experimentally oriented flavor of behaviourism, without artificially restraining the researcher to external behaviours.

This shift to Cognitive Revolution is important, some of the most important people in psychology have contributed to it including: Julian Rotter (Locus of Control) and Walter Mischel (Situational & Personality factors affecting behaviour). It even includes therapist such as Aaron T. Beck (Cognitive Therapy) and Albert Ellis (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy aka REBT). Also, many people working on personality trait research, such as Buss and Plomin (Temperament Theory) and Costa & McCrae (Five Factor Theory) – are essentially ‘Cognitive Behaviourists’ like Bandura.

There is lot more to the theories these behaviourists have proposed. In fact, there are other important contributors to behaviourism as well. I have simply chosen these three and their important concepts that I find relevant for personality theories and to My Zen Path theme. Please refer to the references and any reputed book on Personality theories if you are really interested.


  1. Theories Of Personality by Schultz and Schultz
  2. Personality Theories by Dr. C. George Boeree – Useful e-book for important personality theories
  3. Behaviourism on Wikipedia
  4. Classical Conditioning on Wikipedia
  5. Operant Conditioning on Wikipedia
  6. Social Learning Theory on Wikipedia
  7. Self-Efficacy on Wikipedia
  8. Simply Psychology – For all those miscellaneous references.

About the featured image:

The featured image for this article is a free wallpaper from QuoteFancy and it features quote by behavioural psychologist: B. F. Skinner. I am using this free wallpaper here on with gratitude.

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