Behaviourist Theoryskinners Theory of Personalitybehaviourist Theory and Personality Psychology

The best introduction to the Theory of Behaviourism would be to take a look at the work of B. F Skinner.

Skinner held a strict behaviourist viewpoint and argued that if humans were to be changed, then the environment must be changed and not the “inner self” as other psychologists might advocate.

Personality, Behaviourism and Skinner’s Theory ~

According to Skinner’s theory, individual differences in behaviour are largely the result of different kinds of learning experiences encountered by different people. Some behaviour patterns may be learned through direct experience (when a person is rewarded or punished for behaving in a certain manner). But many responses are acquired without direct reinforcement either through observational or vicarious learning. The reinforcement that controls the expression of learned behaviour may be: Direct – tangible rewards, social approval or disapproval or Vicarious – observing someone receiving reward or punishment for behaviour similar to one’s own, or;

Self-administered – evaluation of one’s own performance with self-praise or reproach is based on the idea of reinforcement, whereby the consequences of a behaviour increase the chances that the behaviour will be repeated again. Furthermore, reinforcement can be used in the “shaping” of behaviour, where approximations to the desired behaviour are reinforced until the desired behaviour is finally emitted.

Psychology Research and Conditioning

Reinforcement can either be positive or negative according to Skinner. With positive reinforcement, a stimulus is presented following a behaviour. Negative reinforcement however, is where a stimulus is removed following a behaviour. This should not be confused with punishment. Negative reinforcement is where an unpleasant effect is applied to all possible responses except the one the person is supposed to learn, thereby strengthening the specific behavioural response.

Punishment is in fact, not a form of reinforcement at all. Skinner devised a number of different “schedules” of reinforcement and found that “ratio” schedules give the highest response rates. Variable schedules are most resistant to extinction, whereas fixed schedules are the least resistant to extinction of a behavior.

Behaviourism, Personality Theory and Skinner ~

 A main assumption of Skinner’s theory is that people will behave in ways that are likely to produce reinforcement. According to Skinner, all behaviour is a consequence of reinforcement; reinforcement increases the likelihood of that behaviour (whether positively or negatively). Therefore, the particular behaviour chosen in a specific situation will depend on the expected outcome. As well as this, the individual learns to discriminate and this is when generalization takes place, ensuring that the same behaviour will occur in a variety of situations. The idea that behaviour is the inevitable result of reinforcement has come from experience with animals in restricted environments.

Psychologists Views of Skinner’s Theory ~

Psychologists like Mischel would argue, however, that people are not like rats in boxes. Skinner’s theory doesn’t really explain individuality. Everyone has different hopes and interests that are quite different from each other. Mischel therefore prefers to talk about “person variables;” these determining how people select, evaluate and interpret stimuli and how that particular stimuli will affect behaviour. So whereas, according to Skinner, people automatically respond to every reinforcement and their behaviour can be controlled by society at large, Mischel sees man as intelligent and able to delay gratification through cognitive thought-processes, plans and beliefs.


Carpenter F. The Skinner Primer – Behind Freedom and Dignity. The Free Press (Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc.). 1974.

Gross, R D. Psychology, the Science of Mind and Behaviour. Hodder & Stoughton, London. 1972.

Leibert R M & Spiegler, M. Personality Strategies and Issues. Brooks/Cole Publishing Co. 1973.