Skinners Theory of Personality

B.F. Skinner was part of the Behaviorist “school” of psychology. While other theorists considered human psychology as a complex system of varied influences, Skinner believed the human psyche was not far removed from the cognitive processes found in other animals. Namely, human behavior is a product of the desire for rewards. Skinner rejected the notion of human personality and the mind engaging in unconscious activities as touted by Sigmund Freud. He also rejected the idea of trait theory in explaining personality since trait theory implies inner tendencies to prefer certain behaviors to other behaviors based on internal presets rather than environmental influence. 


Skinner called his theory radical behaviorism. Radical behaviorism assumed that behavior is determined by a desire to gain positive reinforcement and to avoid negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement tends to cause behaviors to be repeated. Negative reinforcement motivates behavior in the attempt to remove or avoid some undesirable effect. Removing the rewards or introducing punishment tends to extinguish behavior.


Radical behaviorism discounts the influence of perceptions and emotions in behavioral decisions. Rather, reacting to stimuli is habitual or instinctive based upon experiences or expectations of outcomes based upon generalizations with similar behaviors.   


A hallmark feature of Skinner’s view of personality is the role of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning means that reinforcement operates or manipulates behavior. Reinforcement schedules are critical to operant condition. Continuous Reinforcement (CR) provides constant reinforcement for desired behavior. CR is difficult to maintain and the behavior tends to lose intensity over time. Interval Reinforcement (IR) provides reinforcement based on time. IR includes preset and random intervals. Ratio Reinforcement (RR) provides reinforcement based on performance benchmarks. Performance benchmarks may be random or preset. 


The behavioral orientation to personality assumes that people are constantly learning from their experiences based upon the positive or negative reinforcement associated with the experience. Skinner believed that certain factors tended to interfere with the ability of people to engage in healthy learning. The factors include: FEAR, EXCESSIVE COMPLEXITY, CONFUSION, and a LACK OF REINFORCEMENT.  


Skinner’s theory is very popular in schools and other contexts where people engage in destructive behaviors. The assumption is that destructive behaviors like behavioral problems or addictions are due to these behaviors receiving reinforcement. Behavior modification is a popular approach to helping people learn healthy behaviors.

Behavior modification recognizes the factors that often interfere with learning and that current reinforcement relationships need to be broken. Modification plans often involve encouragement, creating small steps, providing clarity about desirable behavior, and the use of effective reinforcement schedules to establish desirable behavior.