Explaining Personality: Learning and Humanistic Approaches

What you’ll learn to do: describe and differentiate between personality theories

Beyond Freud and the Neo-Freudians, there are many other approaches that work to explain personality. In this section, you’ll learn about the behavioral, humanistic, biological, trait, and cultural perspectives.

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Watch this video for an overview about the main philosophical approaches to studying personality:


Learning Objectives

  • Describe the learning perspective on personality, including the concepts of reciprocal determinism, self-efficacy, locus of control, and the person-situation debate
  • Explain the contributions of humanists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers to personality development

Learning Approaches

In contrast to the psychodynamic approaches of Freud and the neo-Freudians, which relate personality to inner (and hidden) processes, the learning approaches focus only on observable behavior. This illustrates one significant advantage of the learning approaches to personality over psychodynamics: Because learning approaches involve observable, measurable phenomena, they can be scientifically tested.

The Behavioral Perspective

Behaviorists do not believe in biological determinism: They do not see personality traits as inborn. Instead, they view personality as significantly shaped by the reinforcements and consequences outside of the organism. In other words, people behave in a consistent manner based on prior learning. B. F. Skinner, a strict behaviorist, believed that environment was solely responsible for all behavior, including the enduring, consistent behavior patterns studied by personality theorists.

As you may recall from your study on the psychology of learning, Skinner proposed that we demonstrate consistent behavior patterns because we have developed certain response tendencies (Skinner, 1953). In other words, we learn to behave in particular ways. We increase the behaviors that lead to positive consequences, and we decrease the behaviors that lead to negative consequences. Skinner disagreed with Freud’s idea that personality is fixed in childhood. He argued that personality develops over our entire life, not only in the first few years. Our responses can change as we come across new situations; therefore, we can expect more variability over time in personality than Freud would anticipate. For example, consider a young woman, Greta, a risk taker. She drives fast and participates in dangerous sports such as hang gliding and kiteboarding. But after she gets married and has children, the system of reinforcements and punishments in her environment changes. Speeding and extreme sports are no longer reinforced, so she no longer engages in those behaviors. In fact, Greta now describes herself as a cautious person.

The Social-Cognitive Perspective

Albert Bandura agreed with Skinner that personality develops through learning. He disagreed, however, with Skinner’s strict behaviorist approach to personality development, because he felt that thinking and reasoning are important components of learning. He presented a social-cognitive theory of personality that emphasizes both learning and cognition as sources of individual differences in personality. In social-cognitive theory, the concepts of reciprocal determinism, observational learning, and self-efficacy all play a part in personality development.

Reciprocal Determinism

In contrast to Skinner’s idea that the environment alone determines behavior, Bandura (1990) proposed the concept of reciprocal determinism, in which cognitive processes, behavior, and context all interact, each factor influencing and being influenced by the others simultaneously (Figure 1). Cognitive processes refer to all characteristics previously learned, including beliefs, expectations, and personality characteristics. Behavior refers to anything that we do that may be rewarded or punished. Finally, the context in which the behavior occurs refers to the environment or situation, which includes rewarding/punishing stimuli.

Three boxes are arranged in a triangle. There are lines with arrows on each end connecting the boxes. The boxes are labeled “Behavior,” “Situational factors,” and “Personal factors.”

Figure 1. Bandura proposed the idea of reciprocal determinism: Our behavior, cognitive processes, and situational context all influence each other.

Consider, for example, that you’re at a festival and one of the attractions is bungee jumping from a bridge. Do you do it? In this example, the behavior is bungee jumping. Cognitive factors that might influence this behavior include your beliefs and values, and your past experiences with similar behaviors. Finally, context refers to the reward structure for the behavior. According to reciprocal determinism, all of these factors are in play.

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Observational Learning

Bandura’s key contribution to learning theory was the idea that much learning is vicarious. We learn by observing someone else’s behavior and its consequences, which Bandura called observational learning. He felt that this type of learning also plays a part in the development of our personality. Just as we learn individual behaviors, we learn new behavior patterns when we see them performed by other people or models. Drawing on the behaviorists’ ideas about reinforcement, Bandura suggested that whether we choose to imitate a model’s behavior depends on whether we see the model reinforced or punished. Through observational learning, we come to learn what behaviors are acceptable and rewarded in our culture, and we also learn to inhibit deviant or socially unacceptable behaviors by seeing what behaviors are punished.

We can see the principles of reciprocal determinism at work in observational learning. For example, personal factors determine which behaviors in the environment a person chooses to imitate, and those environmental events in turn are processed cognitively according to other personal factors.

Self-Efficacy

Bandura (1977, 1995) has studied a number of cognitive and personal factors that affect learning and personality development, and most recently has focused on the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our level of confidence in our own abilities, developed through our social experiences. Self-efficacy affects how we approach challenges and reach goals. In observational learning, self-efficacy is a cognitive factor that affects which behaviors we choose to imitate as well as our success in performing those behaviors.

People who have high self-efficacy believe that their goals are within reach, have a positive view of challenges seeing them as tasks to be mastered, develop a deep interest in and strong commitment to the activities in which they are involved, and quickly recover from setbacks. Conversely, people with low self-efficacy avoid challenging tasks because they doubt their ability to be successful, tend to focus on failure and negative outcomes, and lose confidence in their abilities if they experience setbacks. Feelings of self-efficacy can be specific to certain situations. For instance, a student might feel confident in her ability in English class but much less so in math class.

Julian Rotter and Locus of Control

Julian Rotter (1966) proposed the concept of locus of control, another cognitive factor that affects learning and personality development. Distinct from self-efficacy, which involves our belief in our own abilities, locus of control refers to our beliefs about the power we have over our lives. In Rotter’s view, people possess either an internal or an external locus of control (Figure 2). Those of us with an internal locus of control (“internals”) tend to believe that most of our outcomes are the direct result of our efforts. Those of us with an external locus of control (“externals”) tend to believe that our outcomes are outside of our control. Externals see their lives as being controlled by other people, luck, or chance. For example, say you didn’t spend much time studying for your psychology test and went out to dinner with friends instead. When you receive your test score, you see that you earned a D. If you possess an internal locus of control, you would most likely admit that you failed because you didn’t spend enough time studying and decide to study more for the next test. On the other hand, if you possess an external locus of control, you might conclude that the test was too hard and not bother studying for the next test, because you figure you will fail it anyway. Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control perform better academically, achieve more in their careers, are more independent, are healthier, are better able to cope, and are less depressed than people who have an external locus of control (Benassi, Sweeney, & Durfour, 1988; Lefcourt, 1982; Maltby, Day, & Macaskill, 2007; Whyte, 1977, 1978, 1980).

A box is labeled “Locus of Control.” An arrow points to the left from this box to another labeled “Internal” containing “I am in control of outcomes: belief that one’s effort and decisions determine outcomes.” Another arrow points to the right from the “Locus of Control” box to another box labeled “External” containing “Outcomes are beyond my control: belief that luck, fate, and other people determine outcomes.”

Figure 2. Locus of control occurs on a continuum from internal to external.

Link to Learning

Take the Locus of Control questionnaire. Scores range from 0 to 13. A low score on this questionnaire indicates an internal locus of control, and a high score indicates an external locus of control.

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Walter Mischel and the Person-Situation Debate

Walter Mischel was a student of Julian Rotter and taught for years at Stanford, where he was a colleague of Albert Bandura. Mischel surveyed several decades of empirical psychological literature regarding trait prediction of behavior, and his conclusion shook the foundations of personality psychology. Mischel found that the data did not support the central principle of the field—that a person’s personality traits are consistent across situations. His report triggered a decades-long period of self-examination, known as the person-situation debate, among personality psychologists.

Mischel suggested that perhaps we were looking for consistency in the wrong places. He found that although behavior was inconsistent across different situations, it was much more consistent within situations—so that a person’s behavior in one situation would likely be repeated in a similar one. And as you will see next regarding his famous “marshmallow test,” Mischel also found that behavior is consistent in equivalent situations across time.

One of Mischel’s most notable contributions to personality psychology was his ideas on self-regulation. According to Lecci & Magnavita (2013), “Self-regulation is the process of identifying a goal or set of goals and, in pursuing these goals, using both internal (e.g., thoughts and affect) and external (e.g., responses of anything or anyone in the environment) feedback to maximize goal attainment” (p. 6.3). Self-regulation is also known as will power. When we talk about will power, we tend to think of it as the ability to delay gratification. For example, Bettina’s teenage daughter made strawberry cupcakes, and they looked delicious. However, Bettina forfeited the pleasure of eating one, because she is training for a 5K race and wants to be fit and do well in the race. Would you be able to resist getting a small reward now in order to get a larger reward later? This is the question Mischel investigated in his now-classic marshmallow test.

Mischel designed a study to assess self-regulation in young children. In the marshmallow study, Mischel and his colleagues placed a preschool child in a room with one marshmallow on the table. The child was told that he could either eat the marshmallow now, or wait until the researcher returned to the room and then he could have two marshmallows (Mischel, Ebbesen & Raskoff, 1972). This was repeated with hundreds of preschoolers. What Mischel and his team found was that young children differ in their degree of self-control. Mischel and his colleagues continued to follow this group of preschoolers through high school, and what do you think they discovered? The children who had more self-control in preschool (the ones who waited for the bigger reward) were more successful in high school. They had higher SAT scores, had positive peer relationships, and were less likely to have substance abuse issues; as adults, they also had more stable marriages (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989; Mischel et al., 2010). On the other hand, those children who had poor self-control in preschool (the ones who grabbed the one marshmallow) were not as successful in high school, and they were found to have academic and behavioral problems.

Link to Learning

To learn more about the marshmallow test, watch Joachim de Posada’s TEDTalk video.

Today, the debate is mostly resolved, and most psychologists consider both the situation and personal factors in understanding behavior. For Mischel (1993), people are situation processors. The children in the marshmallow test each processed, or interpreted, the rewards structure of that situation in their own way. Mischel’s approach to personality stresses the importance of both the situation and the way the person perceives the situation. Instead of behavior being determined by the situation, people use cognitive processes to interpret the situation and then behave in accordance with that interpretation.

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Think It Over

Do you have an internal or an external locus of control? Provide examples to support your answer.

Humanistic Approaches

As the “third force” in psychology, humanism is touted as a reaction both to the pessimistic determinism of psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on psychological disturbance, and to the behaviorists’ view of humans passively reacting to the environment, which has been criticized as making people out to be personality-less robots. It does not suggest that psychoanalytic, behaviorist, and other points of view are incorrect but argues that these perspectives do not recognize the depth and meaning of human experience, and fail to recognize the innate capacity for self-directed change and transforming personal experiences. This perspective focuses on how healthy people develop. One pioneering humanist, Abraham Maslow, studied people who he considered to be healthy, creative, and productive, including Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and others. Maslow (1950, 1970) found that such people share similar characteristics, such as being open, creative, loving, spontaneous, compassionate, concerned for others, and accepting of themselves. When you studied motivation, you learned about one of the best-known humanistic theories, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, in which Maslow proposes that human beings have certain needs in common and that these needs must be met in a certain order. The highest need is the need for self-actualization, which is the achievement of our fullest potential.

Another humanistic theorist was Carl Rogers. One of Rogers’s main ideas about personality regards self-concept, our thoughts and feelings about ourselves. How would you respond to the question, “Who am I?” Your answer can show how you see yourself. If your response is primarily positive, then you tend to feel good about who you are, and you see the world as a safe and positive place. If your response is mainly negative, then you may feel unhappy with who you are. Rogers further divided the self into two categories: the ideal self and the real self. The ideal self is the person that you would like to be; the real self is the person you actually are. Rogers focused on the idea that we need to achieve consistency between these two selves. We experience congruence when our thoughts about our real self and ideal self are very similar—in other words, when our self-concept is accurate.

High congruence leads to a greater sense of self-worth and a healthy, productive life. Parents can help their children achieve this by giving them unconditional positive regard, or unconditional love. According to Rogers (1980), “As persons are accepted and prized, they tend to develop a more caring attitude towards themselves” (p. 116). People raised in an environment of unconditional positive regard, in which no preconceived conditions of worth are present, have the opportunity to fully actualize. When people are raised in an environment of conditional positive regard, in which worth and love are only given under certain conditions, they must match or achieve those conditions in order to receive the love or positive regard they yearn for. Their ideal self is thereby determined by others based on these conditions, and they are forced to develop outside of their own true actualizing tendency; this contributes to incongruence and a greater gap between the real self and the ideal self. Both Rogers’s and Maslow’s theories focus on individual choices and do not believe that biology is deterministic.

Unconditional Positive Regard

In the development of the self-concept, Rogers elevated the importance of unconditional positive regard, or unconditional love. Personality Development and the Self-Concept

Rogers based his theories of personality development on humanistic psychology and theories of subjective experience. He believed that everyone exists in a constantly changing world of experiences that they are at the center of. A person reacts to changes in their phenomenal field, which includes external objects and people as well as internal thoughts and emotions.

phenomenal-field flowchart depicting the self in the center with objects, people, behaviors, thoughts, and images inside. Then two circles on the side show influence from an individual (motivation) and from the environment (learning).

Figure 3. The phenomenal field refers to a person’s subjective reality, which includes external objects and people as well as internal thoughts and emotions. The person’s motivations and environments both act on their phenomenal field.

Rogers believed that all behavior is motivated by self-actualizing tendencies, which drive a person to achieve at their highest level. As a result of their interactions with the environment and others, an individual forms a structure of the self or self-concept—an organized, fluid, conceptual pattern of concepts and values related to the self. If a person has a positive self-concept, they tend to feel good about who they are and often see the world as a safe and positive place. If they have a negative self-concept, they may feel unhappy with who they are.

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“The Good Life”

Rogers described life in terms of principles rather than stages of development. These principles exist in fluid processes rather than static states. He claimed that a fully functioning person would continually aim to fulfill his or her potential in each of these processes, achieving what he called “the good life.” These people would allow personality and self-concept to emanate from experience. He found that fully functioning individuals had several traits or tendencies in common:

  1. A growing openness to experience–they move away from defensiveness.
  2. An increasingly existential lifestyle–living each moment fully, rather than distorting the moment to fit personality or self-concept.
  3. Increasing organismic trust–they trust their own judgment and their ability to choose behavior that is appropriate for each moment.
  4. Freedom of choice–they are not restricted by incongruence and are able to make a wide range of choices more fluently. They believe that they play a role in determining their own behavior and so feel responsible for their own behavior.
  5. Higher levels of creativity–they will be more creative in the way they adapt to their own circumstances without feeling a need to conform.
  6. Reliability and constructiveness–they can be trusted to act constructively. Even aggressive needs will be matched and balanced by intrinsic goodness in congruent individuals.
  7. A rich full life–they will experience joy and pain, love and heartbreak, fear and courage more intensely.

Criticisms of Rogers’ Theories

Like Maslow’s theories, Rogers’ were criticized for their lack of empirical evidence used in research. The holistic approach of humanism allows for a great deal of variation but does not identify enough constant variables to be researched with true accuracy. Psychologists also worry that such an extreme focus on the subjective experience of the individual does little to explain or appreciate the impact of society on personality development.

Think It Over

Respond to the question, “Who am I?” Based on your response, do you have a negative or a positive self-concept? What are some experiences that led you to develop this particular self-concept?

Glossary

congruence: state of being in which our thoughts about our real and ideal selves are very similar
ideal self: person we would like to be
incongruence: state of being in which there is a great discrepancy between our real and ideal selves
locus of control: beliefs about the power we have over our lives; an external locus of control is the belief that our outcomes are outside of our control; an internal locus of control is the belief that we control our own outcomes
real self: person who we actually are
reciprocal determinism: belief that one’s environment can determine behavior, but at the same time, people can influence the environment with both their thoughts and behaviors
social-cognitive theory: Bandura’s theory of personality that emphasizes both cognition and learning as sources of individual differences in personality
self-concept: our thoughts and feelings about ourselves
self-efficacy: someone’s level of confidence in their own abilities