14.4 Behaviourist and Social-Cognitive Perspectives on Personality

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the behaviourist perspective on personality.
  2. Describe the cognitive perspective on personality.
  3. Describe the social cognitive perspective on personality.

In contrast to the psychodynamic approaches of Freud and the neo-Freudians, which relate personality to inner and hidden processes, the learning approaches discussed in this section focus only on observable behaviour. This illustrates a significant advantage of the learning approaches over psychodynamics. Because learning approaches involve observable and measurable phenomena, they can be scientifically tested.

The behavioural perspective

Behaviourists 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 behaviourist, believed that environment was solely responsible for all behaviour, including the enduring, consistent behaviour patterns studied by personality theorists.

As you may recall from your study on the psychology of learning, Skinner proposed that we demonstrate consistent behaviour patterns because we have developed certain response tendencies (Skinner, 1953). In other words, we learn to behave in particular ways. We increase the behaviours that lead to positive consequences, and we decrease the behaviours 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 behaviours. 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 behaviourist 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.

In contrast to Skinner’s idea that the environment alone determines behaviour, Bandura (1986) proposed the concept of reciprocal determinism, in which cognitive processes, behaviour, and context all interact, each factor influencing and being influenced by the others simultaneously (see Figure 14.16). Cognitive processes refer to all characteristics previously learned, including beliefs, expectations, and personality characteristics. Behaviour refers to anything that we do that may be rewarded or punished. Finally, the context in which the behaviour occurs refers to the environment or situation, which includes rewarding and punishing stimuli.



This chart has three textboxes 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 14.16. Albert Bandura proposed the idea of reciprocal determinism in which our behaviour, 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 behaviour is bungee jumping. Cognitive factors that might influence this behaviour include your beliefs, values, and your past experiences with similar behaviours. Finally, context refers to the reward structure for the behaviour. According to reciprocal determinism, all of these factors are in play.

Bandura’s key contribution to learning theory was the idea that much learning is vicarious. We learn by observing someone else’s behaviour 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 behaviours, we learn new behaviour patterns when we see them performed by other people or models. Drawing on the behaviourists’ ideas about reinforcement, Bandura suggested that whether we choose to imitate a model’s behaviour depends on whether we see the model reinforced or punished. Through observational learning, we come to learn what behaviours are acceptable and rewarded in our culture, and we also learn to inhibit deviant or socially unacceptable behaviours by seeing what behaviours are punished.

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

Bandura (1977, 1995) has studied a number of cognitive and personal factors that affect learning and personality development. Most recently, Bandura 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 behaviours we choose to imitate as well as our success in performing those behaviours.

People who have high self-efficacy believe that their goals are within reach, have a positive view of challenges by 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 their ability in English class but much less so in math class, or vice versa.

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 (see Figure 14.17). Those of us with an internal locus of control tend to believe that most of our outcomes are the direct result of our efforts. Those of us with an external locus of control tend to believe that our outcomes are outside of our control and are instead 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, 2013; Whyte, 1977, 1978, 1980).



This chart has three textboxes. A box labeled “Locus of Control” is at the centre. An arrow points to the left from this box to another textbox 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 14.17. Locus of control occurs on a continuum from internal to external.


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