Tinker, Tailor, Indian Chief–A Behaviorists View of Personality

The behavioristic model says our personalities evolve from the people and situations we experience in our lives. We can understand why Jody talks out in class by looking at what happens in the classroom just before and after she talks out. By doing this we can see what makes Jody talk out in the first place, and what happens after she talks out that makes her want to do it again. This model was popularized by B.F. Skinner who believed that personalities could best be understood by looking at what people did, not at what they thought in their heads. It all boiled down to one simple rule: we repeat actions leading to outcomes we like and do not repeat behaviors resulting in consequences we don’t like. For instance, George quickly learns he’s more likely to get what he wants by beating his hands and feet on the floor and screaming at the top of his lungs in a store than at home. It was this train of thought which led one behaviorist, John B. Watson, to assert, maybe a little too confidently, that he could train any healthy child to become any type of specialist he chose–doctor, artist, and even thief.

Our environment shapes our behavior, not our parents’ genes or what we think in our head. We may inherit limits on our behavior and intelligence from our parents, but within those limits consequences such as our boss’s approval, a perfect score on a test, or a date with the girl next door influence how hard we try. What is going on here and now is what counts, not what happened three years ago or even three days ago.

All this focus on environment means that we as parents and teachers are largely responsible for what our children become–a chilling thought for most of us. However, any parent who has watched their three-year-old try to lop off their cat’s tail, or stab you with a plastic sword knows (or hopes) there’s more than this to the total picture of personality development.

One social-learning theorist, Albert Bandura, believed that what goes on behind the scenes is just as important as the behavior we see. He stressed that children are active thinking beings who contribute in meaningful ways to their own development, and even have a hand in creating their own environments. What children think determines which environmental events they perceive, and how they in turn interpret, organize and act on these events. Positive and negative reinforcers do not automatically strengthen or weaken their behavior, nor do they completely explain how children’s behavior is acquired, maintained, or changed.