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Behaviorism as a Theory of Personality

Behaviorism appeared as a critical response to psychoanalytic theory that was suggested by Sigmund Freud. Many notable psychologists such as Edward Thorndike, John Watson, Ivan Pavlov, Burrhus Skinner, and others were convinced that in order to explain natural laws of human behavior, psychology should develop scientific methodology and conduct an empirical research of the observable behavior rather than the unconscious ideas. Since behavioral theory focuses away from the internal processes of our mind and the subconsciousness, studying only the observable behavior, it cannot claim to be a full-fledged theory clarifying all the aspects of personality. However, the behavioral approach helps to explain some of our motives, actions, and phobias.

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Behavioral Theory

As a personality theory, behaviorism studies human behavior on the assumption that it is always learned. In most cases, a person’s actions depend on a previous experience that was reinforced in a positive or negative way by particular measures. This leads to the concept of conditioning process. There are two types of conditioning in behavioral theory: classical and operant. Classical conditioning is the process in which two stimuli (unconditioned and conditioned) are used to create an association between them and to produce a certain response. The process of operant conditioning applies not stimuli, but reinforcement (positive or negative) to create a response and to make a subject of conditioning act in a certain way. As a result of the conditioning process, a person develops particular behavioral patterns, which they use in different situations (Friedman & Schustack, 2010). Behavioral theory also studies the possibility of change in behavior describing the extinction process: if a conditioned stimulus presented alone or a person does not receive any reinforcement, then the behavior weakens and the behavioral pattern changes. In classical conditioning, a subject may display signs of neurotic behavior when something vaguely resembles the unconditioned stimulus (Friedman & Schustack, 2010).

Thus, behavioral theory deals with the observable behavior and ignores the internal processes that may determine and influence the way in which person chooses to act. As a personality theory, behaviorism suggests that personality is formed during the constant process of interaction between a person and the environment.

Application of Behavioral Theory

I characterize myself as an introvert and believe that my introversion is determined by the environment. One of my characteristic features is careful thinking. I will never express my opinion unless I know a subject of discussion sufficiently well. People who jump to conclusions irritate me. Most likely, such trait developed as a result of realization that people appreciate thoughtfulness. If people know that you are a careful thinker, they will respect your opinion and will seek your advice. Such recognition serves as the positive reinforcement and induces to develop the habit of reasoning even further. Thus, the careful thinking is the behavior that arose in response to the positive reinforcement during the unintentional process of operant conditioning where the society was an object, and I was a subject.

In case if I do not receive a positive reinforcement, that is, if I see that people do not consider my opinion or remain indifferent to what I say, the motivation to be thoughtful and reasonable disappears. This can serve as a model of the extinction process. It is possible to explain this process more accurately on another example. When I work on a project, I try to do my best to reach the qualitative result. However, if I see that nobody notices my efforts and does not appreciate them, that is, if there is no positive reinforcement, I do everything with indifference that quite often affects the quality of my work.

Those were the examples of operant conditioning. Classical conditioning may explain my fear of drunk people. In my childhood, the father used to drink alcohol when he had problems. As a rule, alcoholism is accompanied with physical violence and, unfortunately, my case was not different. The look of intoxicated father served as the unconditioned stimulus, and the beating was the conditioned one. Today I understand that drunk people not always present a threat, however, I cannot overcome my fear.

Limitations of Behavioral Theory

Behavioral theory is subject to criticism because it focuses only on observable and measurable behavior and ignores the mental, internal processes. Most of the experiments of behaviorists were performed on animals, and conclusions were made on the basis of those experiments. The history of behaviorism knows John Watson’s relatively successful attempt to apply conditioning processes to nine-month-old Albert, though (Friedman & Schustack, 2010). Still, it is impossible to use the results of the animal tests in explanation of human behavior. Behavioral theory ignores such concepts as will, sense of responsibility, pride, etc (Ryckman, 2012). This theory cannot explain some of my decisions. If we take the same example with public recognition as the positive reinforcement, then behavioral theory cannot clarify the motives of my participation in the anonymous charity projects. I am aware of the fact that people will never know that I contribute money for children with serious diseases but I continue to do that without their appreciation. In this case, behavioral theory fails to explain what other theories of personality can clarify.

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Behavioral theory arose in the twentieth century as a response to psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. This theory is based on the assumption that all human actions are determined by the previous experience, in which a person develops certain patterns of behavior. Thus, behavioral theory assumes that personality is formed during the process of person’s interaction with the environment. This theory may explain some of the actions, motives, and phobias, as well as modify the behavior with the help of the positive or negative reinforcement. For this reason, this theory is widely used in education, personnel management, treatment of mental disorders and phobias. Nevertheless, the disregard for the mental and unconscious processes is the obvious disadvantage of this theory because it does not allow calling it a full-fledged theory of personality.


Friedman, H. S. & Schustack M. W. (2010). Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.). New York City, NY: Pearson.

Ryckman, R. M. (2012). Theories of personality. San Francisco, CA: Cengage Learning.

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