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Behavioral Learning Approach and Gender-Role Behavior

Application of Behavioral Theory

It is possible to say that personal traits manifest themselves through decisions and behaviors. As the behavioral theories of personality suggest, individuals learn particular behaviors when influenced by various environmental factors associated with specific macro- and micro-social contexts. It means that a child learns how to act by observing other community members, as well as by being exposed to negative or positive reinforcement, punishment, and other influences pertinent to the environment where he/she is raised.

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Throughout behavioral learning, a person may develop different habits. Unhealthy dieting is one of them. This habit may be largely predetermined by culture, motivation, available resources, opportunities, and their costs. The behavioral pattern develops in case a person chooses a behavioral option (e.g., overeats fat and salty food) consistently over a significant time. It means that in order to treat a client showing unhealthy dieting patterns and develop a behavioral change in him/her, it is essential to make a healthy eating behavior a dominant response across distinct contexts.

To achieve the formulated goal, a therapist should first identify what factors activate the client’s behavioral potential for unhealthy dieting and evaluate his/her fiat tendencies (i.e., intentions and motivations). These data can be collected by investigating how the client interacts with his/her environment. A personal interview may also provide a comprehensive qualitative, reflective information on the problem. Based on these assessment data, the therapist will identify main self-control, and change maintenance motives: satisfaction with behavioral results (e.g., improved health), enjoyment in new behavior (e.g., eating tasty and healthy foods).

To sustain the behavioral change, the self-monitoring technique will be used because “people tend to maintain behaviour if they successfully monitor and regulate the newly adopted behaviour and have effective strategies to overcome barriers to the performance of the new behaviour” (Kwasnicka, Dombrowski, White & Sniehotta, 2016, p. 283). Continual self-regulation will thus be regarded as the major sign of a positive change. To assist the client in self-monitoring, the therapist will help him/her cultivate and utilize essential physical and psychological resources needed to adopt a new behavior.

Lastly, the role of environment in the change maintenance cannot be underestimated. It will be easier for the client to shift towards healthy dieting if it is in line with the social context. Thus, the community assessment, as well as family counseling may be required as well.

Question: What conditions and factors can make a bad habit relapse?

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Individual Differences in Gender-Role Behavior

Gender-role behavior learned through the principles of operant conditioning

According to Halpern and Perry-Jenkins (2016), “much of children’s early learning about gender occurs within the family context—namely, through children’s attendance to parents’ subtle messages about gender roles” (p. 531). These messages can be either explicit or implicit, and consistently with the principles of operant conditioning, they can be associated with either positive or negative reinforcement. It means that in case a person’s behavior is aligned with a view on his/her gender role accepted within a dominant ideology, it can be reinforced through a positive response, e.g., approval, support, respect, etc. On the contrary, if a person’s behavior deviates from the accepted norm, he/she may face a risk of rejection, shaming, etc. For instance, if a boy in a conservative family/community decides to wear a dress, he would likely be misunderstood and ridiculed or even scolded by others because such a behavior is not in line with a traditional perspective on masculinity.

Masculine and femine traits and function in society

Across different cultures and times, masculinity is usually associated with ambition, leadership, self-sufficiency, etc., while femininity is linked to such features as empathy, caring, sensitivity, etc. (Drydakis, Sidiropoulou, Patnaik, Selmanovic, & Bozani, 2017). Although it is commonly believed that men and women behave in a polarly opposite way, many individual demonstrate atypical gender behavioral qualities. As Drydakis et al. (2017) note, no person is born with purely masculine or feminine traits, but the compliance with a gender role is largely defined by culture. It means that a boy may actually like “girl toys” and vice versa. Moreover, an individual can change gender behaviors and attitudes depending on environmental and cultural factors across the lifespan. Based on this, it is possible to say that a woman may show such qualities as ambitiousness and aggressiveness in case she is placed in a competitive environment, while a male, conversely, will behave compassionately and caringly if the situation requires him to do so.

Question: What is the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment in operant conditioning?

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Personality, Conditioning, and Behavior

Can someone’s personality be classically conditioned?

It is possible to say that classical conditioning can only partially shape personality. It implies the occurrence of a behavioral response to a certain experience or factor through excitation and emotional/unconditioned stimuli associated with it. In case a person demonstrates an enduring retaining of these responses, a new habit/attitude develops. As Wood (2017) observes, “habit is one of many acquired behavioral dispositions,” and it does not reflect the personality entirely (p. 389). Still, the fact that it becomes cultivated at a physiological, neurological level can signify that it plays a key role in human behavior. Nevertheless, even if a child develops a classically conditioned trait early in life, it does not mean it will sustain across the lifespan. For instance, if a timid child will be placed in a friendly classroom environment and will be accustomed to receiving a positive feedback every time he/she speaks in front of the class, he/she will be conditioned to overcome anxiety and will learn to enjoy group speaking, or vice versa. Overall, a classically conditioned personality trait or a habit will affect an individual’s decisions and actions, yet it may be changed in different contexts.

Can personality be conditioned using the principles of operant conditioning?

Like in the case with classical conditioning, personality can be shaped using the principles of operant conditioning as well. It seems that operant conditioning happens naturally throughout the course of social learning and upbringing. Most of the parents approve and show affection for a child if he/she behaves well, and conversely, scold him/her when he/she is naughty and disobedient. In this way, such personality traits as politeness, compliance with social norms, and even empathy, etc. can be conditioned through positive and negative reinforcement, as well as positive and negative punishment. Naturally, if a child learns that politeness and friendliness lead to satisfaction, i.e., add something pleasant to his/her life, he will subconsciously or deliberately aim to maximize the benefits associated with this behavior. In this way, a personality trait can be developed over time. At the same time, the operant conditioning does not work for everybody with the same effectiveness − some innate qualities, such as extroversion and introversion, neuroticism, obsessive-compulsive features, etc. can either facilitate or interfere with social learning and conditioning, both classical and operant.

Bandura’s Four-Step Model of Aggression

Bandura considered that people form a cognitive image of a particular behavioral response through observing the behavior of others, and then this encoded information (stored in long-term memory) can be used to guide their actions. In this way, individuals can learn either positive or negative behaviors including aggressiveness. Based on this, long-term exposure to violence and aggression can lead to increased aggressiveness, weakening of factors holding back aggression, dulled sensitivity to aggression, and formation of the image of social reality justifying aggressive behaviors.

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Individuals can observe and learn aggressiveness through four major steps, namely, attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. The first step implies that a person perceives a behavioral example thoroughly and clearly. Retention means he/she memorizes the observed behavior. During the reproduction stage, a person translates the information encoded in memory into a new form of a behavioral response. Lastly, motivation refers to environmental and personal stimuli that support the performance of the learned behavior. Bandura emphasized the importance of the pres of sufficient stimuli for a particular behavioral response. It means the chance that a person will behave aggressively decreases when he/she knows this behavior will not be accepted or will be punished.

Criticisms of the behavioral/social learning approach to personality

The social learning theories employing the principles of operant and Pavlovian conditioning are considered to be radical. As stated by Kelland (2015), they are associated with “a vigorous effort to avoid spurious inner causes,” and underestimate the significance of individual cognitive functioning (p. 1). For instance, in his experiments, Pavlov observed that some dogs develop and retain conditioned responses much easier than other subjects, and explained it by differences in the nervous systems of the animals. However, the researcher failed to include the individual, innate factors in the theory of social learning and conditioning, making it excessively deterministic. Thus, the second criticism of the social learning theory is connected to the fact that it does not take into account the factor of individuals’ free will and motivation. From this theoretical point of view, people are almost deprived of a chance to control their lives. The inclusion of the cognitive aspect into the theory by Bandura made a significant contribution to the evolution of the theory as the model suggested by him provides therapists and individuals with instruments for modifying undesirable and harmful behaviors learned from the environment.


Drydakis, N., Sidiropoulou, K., Patnaik, S., Selmanovic, S., & Bozani, V. (2017). Masculine vs feminine personality traits and women’s employment outcomes in Britain: A field experiment. 

Kelland, M. (2015). Social learning theory and personality development. Web.

Kwasnicka, D., Dombrowski, S. U., White, M., & Sniehotta, F. (2016). Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: A systematic review of behaviour theories. Health Psychology Review, 10(3), 277-296.

Halpern, P., & Perry-Jenkins, M. (2016). Parents’ gender ideology and gendered behavior as predictors of children’s gender-role attitudes: A longitudinal exploration. Sex Roles, 74(11), 527–542.

Wood, W. (2017). Habit in personality and social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(4), 389-403.

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