Learning theory describes personality not as traits, or internal constructs within our mind, but rather the interaction of external forces on our internal responses. So under learning theory, what we call personality is considered rather a collection of learned patterns of behaviors or habits, as we would call them.
This is how a habit is formed, so you can see how this relates to personality. So first, within the environment, there is some kind of drive or desire that motivates a person to act.
You might be angry, or experience fear, and those emotions motivate you to act in response to things that are going on in your environment. These are learned patterns.
A cue is something that a person notices within the environment that influences and encourages a type of action.
The presence or absence of something in the environment may lead to actions by the person.
The third element of the learning theory is response. This is the person's behavior or action, which is caused by the drive and the cue working together.
The final element is reward. The reward is something positive that a person gets because of the response they have.
Of course there can also be something negative that a person gets because of the response they have. That is punishment.
You see a bear within the environment, and rightfully, you feel some kind of fear. This fear is your drive in this situation. Now, you can run, you can fight, or you could play dead as different kinds of responses. These are all the different things you can do.
Cues within the environment will help you navigate and decide which response to choose. If a child is present, for example, then you will likely not choose to run anymore because you don't want to leave a child behind.
Or maybe the type of bear within the environment causes you to choose different kinds of responses. For example, you might run or play dead because of the bear. And the reward is that you get to live, which is a pretty good reward.
If you choose right and you get the reward, you're more likely to choose that response later on. If you choose wrong, then you would change your response the next time you're in a similar situation and hopefully get it right this time. Hopefully, you would never encounter yet another bear in your lifetime, but you understand the underlying idea here. If a choice rewards you, you're likely to make that choice again in that situation.
Behavioral learning theories are important because they stress how situations can affect behaviors given different external cues. A lot of other theories focus on the internal processes more specifically, and they look less at how the environment can affect the display of personality.
Even if a person is kind or compassionate, situations may cause this person not to act within those kinds of ways.
There is a famous experiment, the Good Samaritan experiments, which were a series of experiments in 1973 done by psychologists Darley and Batson.
These two psychologists asked a group of people to give a talk to a crowd within a different building. They had to move from one building to the other, and while they were moving from one building to the other, there was a person that was laying on the ground that clearly needed some kind of help. This person was part of the experiment.
Some of the people that were going to the other building were in a hurry. In other words, they only had a short period of time before their talk. Those people were far less likely to stop and help the person that was in trouble, even if they were sort of cued to be thinking in these compassionate kinds of ways.
They were actually giving talks on a Good Samaritan story and on altruism. So even though they're being cued for the traits of compassion, they were still affected by the hurriedness of the situation and did not to react in those kinds of ways.
A good middle ground to think of behavioral theory and trait theory is what we call trait situation interaction, which is where our environment affects the expression of different personality traits. So both of them work in conjunction.
Source: This work is adapted from sophia learning author Erik Taggart.
Environmental signals that direct different responses.
Any stimulus that impels a person into action.
Learned patterns of behavior coming from drives, cues, responses, and consequences (rewards and punishments).
Negative consequence that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.
Actions or behavior.
Positive consequence that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.
Tend to be nervous around other people and more comfortable alone.
Traits are not good predictors of behavior because the environment may have a bigger impact.