A Short History of Personality – Dr Miguel Farias and Dr Catherine Wikholm * Explaining Behaviorism: Operant and Classical Conditioning – Eric Charles Ph.D.

The study of personality is heavily focused on what psychologists call ‘traits’. These are patterns of behaviour, thoughts and feelings that we use to characterize people, think of one of your friends who is outgoing and adventurous (an extravert) and another who is often moody and over-sensitive (neurotic).

Most of the time, psychologists argue, these key personality traits will be astonishingly consistent throughout our lives.

The forefather of modern US psychology, William James, wrote in his Principles of Psychology (1890) that we are essentially creatures of habit:

“Already at the age of 25 you see the professional mannerism settling on the young commercial traveler, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counselor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the “shop”…

It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.”

William James wrote this before the turn of the twentieth century, but his concluding sentence still reverberates through modern textbooks on the science of personality. In his own time he was not alone in thinking that many of our behaviours are particularly resistant to change.

Bells, petals and electric shocks

On the other side of the Atlantic, in 1874, Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, argued that both nature and nurture shape our personality, although nature played a major role. He was borrowing from Shakespeare, who in The Tempest first juxtaposed those two words. Referring to the beast Caliban, the magician Prospero calls him ‘A devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick.’

Galton’s own perspective was very similar to Prospero’s: he believed that nature played a predominant role in the shaping of our personalities and intelligence. He based this view on his pioneering study of twins. By observing identical twins, who share all genetic makeup, and contrasting them with fraternal twins, who share only half, he noticed that identical twins were especially similar in temperament to each other. The implication was that nature, and not culture, education or the environment, played the predominant role in the making of our characters.

Not all agreed with this view. Aristotle famously spoke of the human mind as an ‘unscribed tablet’, the infant’s mind is like a blank slate on which experience etches a personality.

Among psychologists the American John Watson was one of the strongest advocates of this perspective. He thought that none of our behaviours are instinctive, and that all we do is learn though our interaction with the environment. ‘Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in,’ Watson wrote in 1924, ‘and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors?’

This perspective swung the pendulum of determinism in the other direction: we become not what nature or biology dictates, but what our environment provides and how our minds associate events with pleasant or unpleasant responses (such as relaxation or fear).

For Watson’s Behaviourism, not only is personal change possible, but it happens all the time. In effect we can learn one response, but also unlearn it and replace it with another.

Take a biologically pleasant stimulus, such as a flower, which you might expect to look upon with joy, breathing in its scent, marvelling in its colours. With the correct kind of conditioning, you can start dreading its sight and smell. English novelist Aldous Huxley vividly portrays this concept in his novel Brave New World (1932). In the story eight month old babies are conditioned to be afraid of books and rose petals. The babies are taken to the conditioning rooms, where petals, and books with brightly coloured pages are spread all over the floor. As soon as the babies are happily playing, the director of the conditioning centre gives an order to the head nurse. A lever is switched and suddenly:

‘There was a violent explosion. Shriller and ever shriller, a siren shrieked. Alarm bells maddeningly sounded. The children started, screamed; their faces were distorted with terror. “And now,” the Director shouted (for the noise was deafening), “now we proceed to rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock.”

He waved his hand again, and the Head Nurse pressed a second lever. The screaming of the babies suddenly changed its tone. There was something desperate, almost insane, about the sharp spasmodic yelps to which they now gave utterance. Their little bodies twitched and stiffened; their limbs moved jerkily as if to the tug of unseen wires?’

The electric shocks stop. But when the director instructs the nurse again to show flowers and books, the babies shrink away in horror. ‘What man has joined,’ Huxley writes, ‘nature is powerless to put asunder.’

Of course, just as we are able to reassociate pleasant and beautiful things, such as flowers, with pain, so can we associate naturally unpleasant and dangerous stimuli, such as spiders and snakes, with positive feelings. Psychologists have used this technique countless times in the treatment of phobias.

Imagine you are terrified of spiders, so terrified that you start hyperventilating and experience blurred vision just by seeing a picture of one. A behavioural therapist would attempt to change your panic response through counter-conditioning. Slowly and systematically, a therapist shows you a picture of the dreaded spider while giving you techniques that encourage you to relax. Eventually the fear subsides and you have learned a new conditioning seeing a spider triggers a relaxation response that replaces the old one. It’s not necessarily a pleasant way to instigate change, but it is a potentially effective one.

Despite the possibilities that Behaviourism suggests for personal change, its premise that humans lack free will and rely upon conditioning to exhibit a certain behaviour has been severely criticized. Some psychologists believe that Behaviourism evades the complexity of mental life, denies the existence of unconscious motivations, and fails to explain how we develop a sense of identity, of who we are.

At the method’s heart there is a bleak determinism: the biological account of nature how the encryption of proteins at the micro-level ultimately shapes our behaviour is replaced by the mechanics of stimulus and response. It enables the possibility of personal change; but at what cost?

Extraverts, introverts and neurotics

At the same time as Watson was publishing his thoughts on behavioural change, other psychologists were developing new ideas about personality and ways to measure it. Researchers started using surveys that included lists of questions about an individual’s behaviour: ‘Are you outgoing? Do you enjoy parties? Does your mood often go up and down? Are you easily irritated?’ Questions such as these are supposed to measure personality traits that is, habitual ways to believe, think and feel.

The notion that we each have certain personality traits is not an entirely modern discovery. Around 2,500 years ago Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physicist known as the father of Western medicine, conceived of four major temperaments choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. In the twentieth century, British personality psychologist Hans Eysenck noted the similarities between Hippocrates’ temperaments and the modern-day theory of personality traits?

A sanguine individual, characterized as sociable, lively and carefree, combined the trait of extraversion with low neuroticism, a highly desirable pattern in Western societies. On the opposite side, a melancholic temperament, which describes someone as quiet, anxious and moody, and is characteristic of many artists, combines introversion with high neuroticism. A choleric individual is excitable, aggressive and optimistic, an explosive combination of high extraversion and neuroticism; and a phlegmatic person is controlled, reliable and calm, indicating an introvert with low neuroticism.

Looking through these personality characteristics and trying to attribute them to our own personality is not necessarily straightforward. I could say I have quite a lot of sanguine, but also some of choleric, and a small part of melancholic. Both Hippocrates’ temperaments and Eysenck’s traits are dimensions of our characters; our personalities are not black and white, and we all have elements of introversion-extraversion and neuroticism. What modern personality tests do is to quantify each and every character by positioning a person along a continuum how much of an introvert or neurotic are you from 0 to 100?

Such questions may sound like the content of quizzes in women’s magazines, rather than the measures of scientific instruments. However, the truth is they may have a place in both. Personality traits help us to make sense of other people’s behaviours, but they also help us to choose our friends and, crucially, our partners. If at 18 many of us think that we can change the person we love to better fit with our needs, by our late twenties we’re more inclined to try finding lovers and friends that match our personalities. People often say they want to ‘be loved for who they are’. It seems then that while we recognize unchangeability in our romantic partners, we also may have a deep-rooted understanding that who we are fundamentally is set in stone that nature ultimately wins out over nurture.

The idea that personality is rooted in our biology gained support with Eysenck. Like Francis Galton decades before him, Eysenck studied identical and fraternal twins. His conclusion was that our predisposition to be an extravert or a neurotic is mostly determined by the genes we inherit. Eysenck stirred the public mind when he extended the conclusions of his personality work to intelligence. He argued that it was not education or the environment that caused differences in intelligence scores between ethnic groups, but genetics. He gave the example of how Afro-Americans had lower IQ scores than white Americans, which implied that those genetically originating from northern Europe were intellectually more gifted than others. When giving public talks he was often confronted by angry protesters, and this hatred also extended to his old students and collaborators. Decades later Gordon Claridge, now a retired professor from Oxford University whom Eysenck had once supervised, told me that when in the 1970s he had applied to take up an academic position in Sweden, the student body were resistant to his appointment as a result of his (albeit past) association with ‘a racist psychologist’.

During the 1980s and 1990s, personality research evolved in different directions. Throughout the world studies looked at different age groups and did further research with twins, some of whom had been raised separately. The conclusions reinforced the nature thesis, demonstrating that personality did change from childhood, through adolescence to early adulthood, but after early adulthood it seemed that personality changed little?

Explaining Behaviorism: Operant & Classical Conditioning

Eric Charles Ph.D

There are many explanations that can be used to help people understand the Behaviorist Point of View. Some are very factual, others argue towards practical concerns, and still others are highly philosophical.

How to Explain Behaviorism: Operant and Classical Conditioning

Operant and classical conditioning are two different ways in which organisms come to reflect the order of the environment around them. They are not perfect processes and they certainly cannot explain every facet of human and non-human behavior. That said, they are surprisingly reliable processes, and they can explain much, much, more about human and non-human behavior than anyone would have thought before extensive study of those processes began.

It is probably best to think about Operant and classical conditioning as offering two different types of developmental stories. They are not stories about what a behavior is, but rather stories about how that behavior got to be that way.

Classical conditioning stories are about things happening around the animal, no matter what the animal does.

Operant conditioning stories involve consequences of the animal’s action, i.e., what happens when the animal operates upon the world as an active agent.

There is some debate about whether we need two types of stories. There are good reasons to go either way, including some recent genetic evidence that they can be disentangled. None of that really matters here; all that matters is that you understand the two types of stories and their consequences for future behavior.

Note below that “stimulus” can refer to any object, event, or situation that an organism could potentially respond to. Note also that “response” can be anything the organism does. For now a “response” could be an overt action (such as jumping up and down), a covert action (such as tensing your leg without moving it), or even a thinking or feeling, so long as we conceive of those as active, rather than passive.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning stories involve an animal doing something that changes the world in a way that produces, crudely speaking, a good or a bad outcome. When an organism does something that is followed by a good outcome, that behavior will become more likely in the future. When an organism does something that is followed by a bad outcome, that behavior will become less likely in the future. The action and outcome could coincide because of natural laws or social conventions, because someone purposely set it up that way, or it could be that the events followed due to random chance in this animals life history.

For example, in pretty much any animal’s it is good to stop touching overly, hot objects (natural law), in some worlds telling a parent you love them results in good outcomes (social convention), and in some worlds tapping a baseball bat five times on the left corner of the mound is followed by a home run (random chance).

Operant conditioning stories require that the outcome be reinforcing or punishing to the particular animal in question. (There are ways to specify that so it does not involve circular reasoning, but we don’t need to go that deep.) For example, candy might reinforce one person, but not another; some might find a graphic kill sequence in a violent video game punishing, while others find it reinforcing; etc.

Over time, the story goes, if a certain type of outcome consistently follows a particular behavior, this will affect the rate of future behaviors.

Example Traditional Story: A cat is put in a “puzzle box”. It performs a wide range of behaviors, because cats don’t like to be in cages. Eventually one of its flailing limbs pulls a lever that opens the cage door. This happens many times, and each time the lever gets pulled a little bit quicker (there is no “a ha!” moment).

Tradition vs. Necessity:

Traditionally operant conditioning stories start with a relatively “random” behavior, but they could start with any behavior. Traditionally the story then introduces an arbitrary consequence, but in real-life situations we usually care about socially mediated consequences. Traditionally many cycles for the consequence to make big changes in the frequency of future behavior, but sometimes the changes can be quite quick and others it can take a very long time.

In the traditional story the consequence always follows the behavior, but there are many cool affects that we know about when it does not, the consequence is intermittent (i.e., the “schedule of reinforcement”). Traditionally the consequence has to be immediately following the behavior, though there are some exceptions, you probably want to stick with the traditional version here.

Enhanced Traditional Story:

Often operant conditioning stories are enhanced by adding a “discriminative stimuli”, which indicates that a particular contingency (a particular connection between action and outcome) is in effect. For example, an experimenter working with rats might have a light that, when on, means that lever pressing will result in food. Similarly, a special education instructor might have a picture of a hat that, when held up, means that saying “hat” will result in an M&M.

Other Classical Conditioning Stuff:

You can do amazing things with discriminative stimuli. You can train people to respond to very specific stimuli, or to very general ”categories” of stimuli. For example, we can get pigeons to discriminate early Monet’s paintings from Picasso’s. Also, by drawing out the “schedule” of reinforcement, you can also train animals to respond for many, many times without getting reinforced. For example, we can get people to pull slot machine levers scores of times without a win.

After Conditioning:

After the events of an Operant Conditioning story, a behavior either has an increased or decreased rate of occurrence. Often there is a big increase or decrease specifically when a particular stimulus is present. So, if you know the world that a person has lived in before, you know something about why they respond now in certain ways in the presence of certain objects, events, or situations.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning stories involve (at least) two things that coincide “out there” in an animal’s world. Those things could coincide because they are causally related due to natural laws or social conventions, or it could be that the events occur at random in relation to each other and this animal just happens to be the animal that experiences them together.

For example, in pretty-much any animal’s world lightning is followed by thunder (natural law), in some worlds hearing “say cheese” might be followed by a camera flash (social convention), and in some worlds eating lamb dinners could coincide with hearing bad news from loved ones (random chance).

Classical conditioning stories also require that the organism already have a developed response to one of the two events. For example, thunder could make you flinch, a bright flash could make you wince, and bad news from loved ones could make you cry.

Over time, the story goes, if two things are repeatedly paired together out there in the world, the organism will come to respond to one as they already respond to the other.

Example Traditional Story:

When Mary was a child her father liked to take many pictures of her. He always said “Say Cheese” before he took the picture, and he always used a flash. Every time the flash hit Mary, she winced slightly. Now, whenever she hears “Say cheese“ she winces.

Tradition vs. Necessity:

Traditionally classical conditioning stories start with a response that seems unlearned (an Unconditioned Response to an Unconditioned Stimulus), but they could start with any response the animal already has. Traditionally the story then introduces something the animal has no existing response to (a Neutral Stimulus), but it usually still works for stimuli that already elicit some response. Traditionally the neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response associated with unconditioned stimulus after several pairings (thus becoming a Conditioned Stimulus), but sometimes only a single pairing is required, and sometimes neutral stimuli fail to convert to conditioned stimuli even after many, very close together in time, but sometimes you can create conditioned stimuli when the pairings are far apart.

In many cases, where the traditional story does not hold, there has been a lot of research into the exceptions, and we have very good understandings of why such exceptions should exist. For example, after a single event many animals will learn to avoid novel tastes that were associated with becoming sick quite a bit later. This makes a lot of evolutionary sense; poison food present a big risk, and one dose not normally experience the full effects until quite a bit after ingestion.

On the other hand, when dealing with fairly arbitrary pairings of stimuli, as we get all the time in our modern world, the structure of the traditional story holds. For example, why should anyone ever have become excited by hearing a computerized voice say “You’ve got mail!”? Because of several pairings, that’s why.

Other Classical Conditioning Stuff:

You can do amazing things here with generalization and discrimination training, and there are many other interesting phenomenon that scientists have discovered.

After Conditioning:

After the events of a Classical Conditioning story, the presence of a conditioned stimulus elicits a conditioned response. So, if you know the world that a person has lived in before, you know something about why they respond to certain things in certain ways now.

A Bit of Light Theory

Philosophical behaviorism can be very deep. In this context, all I will say is that most behaviorists believe we can explain a great deal about human behavior using the types of stories above. That is, the preferred style to a run of the mill “Why did he do that?!?” question will begin with “Well, in the past history of that person, doing that behavior resulted in….”

Because these explanations are all about the way the world around the person works, and the person’s past history in that world, you don’t need to include traditional “mental” explanations.

That doesn’t mean that traditional “mental” stuff doesn’t exist, but it does suggest that we can explain an awful lot about human behavior before we would need to start talking about them.


Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.


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