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Skinners theory, methodology and research in personality development

The field of personality development is a source of continuous scrutiny and criticism within the subject of Psychology. In particular, the basis of Skinner’s theory of personality has attracted a large amount of criticism, however, despite this its contribution regarding the development of personality cannot be disregarded, particularly when considering specific pertinent elements theorised that are still upheld within Psychological thought today. An ongoing debate of the most suitable personality theory has therefore shaped numerous different approaches and perspectives to the topic, with conflict occurring both between and within each differing psychological approach. Such debate portrays the complexity involved in the understanding of the field of personality development and its consequent application to human behavioural patterns.

When considering the field of personality development, Skinner (1953) maintained, despite the magnitude of criticism, that the notion of operant conditioning was a key principle in understanding human behaviour and its application to personality development. Any elements of free will or unconscious thought were rejected indefinitely and instead Skinner argued that an organism adopted patterns of behavioural response through a process of interaction with their environment. Disregarding its evidently determinist flaw, Skinner continued to suggest that such responses are acquired through the reinforcement of learning in either a direct, vicarious or observational manner. Thus, operant conditioning asserted that reacting to external stimuli is habitual and as behaviour is reinforced, either positively or negatively, the probability of reoccurrence of such behaviour adjusts through the associative learning of any expected future outcomes. Skinner upheld that there was no evidence for an inner world of unconscious activity that was relative to the understanding of behaviour as a function of external forces and reinforcement. As such, Skinner theorised that personality is slowly shaped by the influence of reinforcement schedules within the environment and that organisms will consequently behave in ways that are most likely to produce the expected rewards deriving from the reinforcement of their behaviour. Therefore, it became evident that Skinner dealt with only objective and observable behaviour within the field of personality development, he argued that subjective measures were to be rejected and advocated that objective analysis is the only rational justification. As such, the basis for the theory provides objective and unequivocal data, Skinner therefore proposed that there was to be no arguments regarding his thinking as his findings were absolute. However, by subscribing indefinitely to an empiricist approach, numerous criticisms have arose that suggest that Skinner’s theory of personality development is to be disregarded as it offers an incomplete perspective regarding the complexity of human behaviour.

Criticisms continue to arise when considering Skinners blatant rejection of the contribution of internal mediating processes involved in human behaviour, therefore, the over-determinist nature relied upon in the behaviourist perspective of personality development becomes increasingly evident. From a psychoanalytic perspective, Freud suggests that personality development should be considered with an idiographic viewpoint. As such, it is put forth that every human has a truly unique personality structure, a notion that is unarguably contradictory of Skinner’s theory in which personality derives from the external pressures exerted from within an individual’s environment. Freud (1949) maintained that to understand overt human behaviour it must first be recognised that the mind is a complex interaction of three basic structures common to all. Such structures were argued to consider the influence of the unconscious internal states that motivate external behavioural patterns. As a consequence of this Freud constructed a structural model of the mind that consisted of the three significant components named the id, the ego and the superego, all of which were suggested to manifest both conscious and unconscious desires within conscious behavioural representation. The previously mentioned model of behaviour is an evident contradiction to the beliefs persistently argued by Skinner and this therefore casts doubts towards the validity of his theory as a comprehensive explanation within the field of personality development. Freud characterised the id as the collection of all unlearned and innate strivings humans possess instinctually (Monte, 1980), it was argued by Freud that the id was present from birth and because of this gratification of needs is an impulsive behaviour frequenting human behavioural patterns. However, it is similarly considered that such instinctual demands gradually become socialised during human development and as a consequence shape the growth of each truly unique personality structure. Freud suggested that the ego operates in accordance with reality principles, it is argued to be the executive part of the personality and therefore operates on an organisational level, mediating between the instinctual drives of behaviour and what is realistically achievable through development. Finally, the third structure of personality develops called the superego, it is argued to be the development of a conscience within a child, the superego is suggested to act as an opposition to the id and assists in readdressing the instinctual impulses occurring within behaviour. Freud maintained that a balance between each of the three aforementioned structures is fundamental to the healthy development of personality. Therefore, Freud’s theoretical perspective made the criticisms of Skinner’s theory even more explicit by offering a contradictory argument within the field of personality development. The body of evidence would therefore suggest that by addressing the complexity of both the conscious and unconscious drives behind human behaviour, Freud highlights that the ignorance of thought processes throughout Skinner’s theory is naïve and absurd as humans are evidently influenced by complex mental processes and are able to make active choices regarding their own behavioural patterns and subsequently the development of their individual personality.

Another critical perspective derives from the humanistic approach toward human behaviour and personality development. Humanism adopts the belief that human nature instinctually emphases a natural gravitation towards personal growth and development; it is therefore argued that contradictory to Skinners theory humans have free will and freedom of choice despite the external pressures within an environment. Thus, it could be argued that a subjective understanding of human behaviour is more relevant than the objective reality Skinner argued to be imperative within the field of personality development. Maslow (1943) possessed the belief that personality development is heavily reliant upon human potential and the active role played in determining behavioural patterns; he rejected the extreme view of Skinner in which people are born with no direction or worth and are simply products of a reinforcement schedule. As such, the Hierarchy of Needs was conceptualised to offer an alternative approach to personality development. Maslow suggested that needs are hierarchically organised and that the most instinctive physiological needs were prepotent to those above and such behaviour cannot emerge until the basic needs of human development have been fulfilled. The fulfilment of each level of needs, consisting of physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs and esteem needs, lead to what Maslow believes to be an exemplary personality integration called self-actualisation. If needs are not satisfied all human behaviour is consciously directed towards its active fulfilment. It becomes increasingly evident that the contradictory nature of Skinner further emphasises the failures of such an over-reductionist and determinist behaviourist theory. The body of evidence therefore suggests that the ignorance of any human element in the development of personality is an anathema and cannot entirely account for the development of human personality structure.

Perhaps the most notable criticism derives from the fact that critics consistently argue that Skinner’s contribution to the field of personality development cannot be validly generalised to human behaviour. The basis for Skinner’s theory derives from his extensive laboratory work on animal behaviour and it is evident that the behavioural repertoire of an animal is far too simplistic in comparison to that of a human. Therefore, critics argue that the generalisation made is far too anecdotal and the extrapolation of behaviour invalid. Despite this, Bandura (1969) was initially in agreement with the experimental methods concerned in Skinner’s theory of personality development. He recognised that environment did in fact shape human behaviour, yet argued that it was far too simplistic for the complex phenomena being studied and as a consequence the concept of reciprocal determinism was suggested. Bandura (1977) argued that the relationship between the self system and the world is interdependent in influencing the field of personality development. Subsequently, Bandura established the observational learning theory that consisted of four component parts; attentional processes in which a model of behaviour is observed, retention processes in which behavioural responses are coded in the long term memory, reproduction processes in which the coded responses are used to guide behaviour and motivational processes in which reinforcement is implicated to establish behavioural patterns within an individuals personality structure. It could be argued that Bandura attempted to correct the myopic view of the determinist account of human behaviour established within Skinner’s radical-behaviourism. Bandura therefore allowed for human capacity, something that Skinner consistently, and evidently, ignored. Evidence would therefore suggest that, unlike Skinner, Bandura attempts to account for the influence that more complex behavioural patterns have upon the development of the personality construct.

Another criticism derives from the concept of the collective unconscious within Jung’s analytic perspective of personality development. Jung (1917) theorised that the collective unconscious consists of primordial images that are common within all human behaviour; such images act as an unlearned tendency to experience specific external events in a particular way. Jung termed the previously mentioned images as archetypes and maintained that archetypes serve to organise and shape human behavioural interaction with their external environment. Subsequently, it is argued that archetypes shape the emotional reaction that occurs to external stimuli through the implication of unconscious templates within the development of personality. The body of evidence would therefore suggest that as we are argued to possess preconceived images of behavioural patterns, the concept of operant conditioning is essentially irrelevant. Jung continues the argument by suggesting that a merely mechanistic approach of personality development is far too determinist. The basis for Skinner’s theory is therefore argued to be fundamentally flawed, instead it is suggested that the consideration of teleology is more relevant. The development of human behaviour is not simply reduced to schedules of reinforcement and alternatively considers that personality development is driven by personal goals and ideas governing an individual’s future state.

In conclusion, the body of evidence would suggest that Skinner’s theory of personality development is essentially flawed as an explanation of human behavioural patterns. Yet its contribution cannot be entirely disregarded, even today Skinner is still an extremely influential figure in the understanding of Psychology and elements of his theory are consistently present within society. However, despite how tangible and attractive the theory initially appears, it evidently ignores the complexity regarding human behaviour and merely reduces behavioural patterns to a schedule of reinforcement concerning external pressures. As a consequence it would be more relevant that its contribution only be considered as a building block with which to progress alternative understandings of personality development and underpin more explanatory and in-depth theories, as opposed to being regarded as a comprehensive theory within the field of personality development.

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