Having given you some ideas of what should be included in your theory of personality, it seems only fair for me to propose my version. This is my theory as first presented in June 4, 2008. It is subject to change without notice. But I pretty much still agree with it.
We sometimes forget we are animals, subject to all of the principles that impact other animals. We sometimes forget we are more than just animals, hence I call my theory Animals PLUS.
I think of personality as a summary of what we know about people. So let me start with my top two basic principles: (a) people have a tremendous capacity to change, and (b) they seldom do.
We’re pretty consistent. We might be less impulsive when we’re old but probably not by much. We tend to do the same things in the same situations. We tend to act the same way when around the same people. We are remarkably reliable. You can almost always count on us to be the same as we’ve always been. We shouldn’t expect the person we’re dating to change dramatically after we’re married. We’re unlikely to reform them or change them. And they’re unlikely to change us.
Yet we can change. And do. Sometimes we make gigantic leaps toward. We grow up, wise up, sober up, and shake up our lives. We have the capacity. We have the ability. So why don’t we? That’s really what personality is about: what holds us together? Why are we so consistent?
I believe part of our consistency is hardware based. We are, of course, biological entities living in an environmental setting. And that biology gives us certain limits. Everyone seems to agree that biology and heredity do impact our behavior. The question is how much. Albert Ellis says it’s 80% but I think he just pulled that number out of his hat.
I don’t know how much biology determines behavior. I think of it more as limits that causation. This may come from my being disabled by congenitally poor eyesight. So I tend to think of biology as restrictions or a predisposition for certain parts to break. I use cheap ballpoint pens that have caps I always lose. These pens have a basic weakness in their design, from my point of view. If I put the cap on the back of the pen to avoid losing it, it’s not comfortable in my hand. Preferring comfort to neatness, I pull off the caps and toss them. It’s not that there aren’t other designs available (pens that click, fountain pens, chalk, crayons and pencils). This one works good enough for me.
Our bodies work good enough. They have limits. We can’t worry ourselves taller, or think ourselves a different color. Not that I haven’t tried. When I was about 10, I decided I was tired of being an albino. I didn’t want to stay inside on a hot summer day. So I simply decided things should not be the way they are. Consequently, I put on my cutoff jeans and went out to play with all the other kids. That night, my parents had to track down a doctor to treat my 3rd degree burns. I still try to pretend I don’t have restrictions but I’m not as stupid about it as I was.
Aside from general limits and predisposed organ failures, I believe biology gives us a commonality with other animals that we tend to ignore. I think we underestimate the importance of being an animal. We tend to think that dogs, horses, dolphins and the like are greatly impacted by certain factors, but ignore the impact those factors have on us. We think dogs and children respond to rewards, but act as if they don’t touch us. My impression is that lots of people, including therapists, believe their behavior is the result of thinking and not reinforcement.
I maintain that people are animals+. Before we get to the plus, let’s start with our animal side. Animals are great. They live in the moment. Your dog doesn’t ponder the origins of the universe. It enjoys the present. It barks at cars but doesn’t seem to wonder where they go. It marks its territory, sits up, shakes hands, and loves to be petted. And it sniffs at the ground, turns around three times, and lies down to sleep. But whatever it does, it does in the present. Dogs have existential purity.
Dogs are well explained by classical conditioning, operant conditioning, drive theory, heredity and habits. Let’s take them in order.
First, Pavlov and dogs go together. His classical conditioning starts with dogs. Dogs have a reflex for salivation. When presented with food, they salivate as part of preparing to eat. Pavlov shows this reflex can be triggered by adding a signal. If the signal (conditioned stimulus) is presented ½ second ahead of the unconditioned stimulus (food), dogs will eventually response to the signal (light or bell) in a reflex-esque sort of way. The conditioned response is not identical in size but its similar enough to be significant.
Watson showed that people are like dogs. We can be classically conditioned. We can respond to a stimulus that has been paired with a reflex. We can be triggered to blink our eye, jerk our knee, or cry with fear. All this happens at the top of the brain stem. We don’t need a cortex for classical conditioning. A stimulus hits the spinal cord, runs up to the medulla, and runs back to a muscle. No thought is required. No pondering allowed. It is a fast, automatic, built in response mechanism. Like dogs, humans can be classically conditioned. When we are afraid or anxious, it’s our classical conditioning system at work.
Second, dogs are well explained by operant conditioning. Skinner says the likelihood of a behavior depends on its consequences. A behavior is likely to occur again if it is followed by a reward. If you want to teach your dog tricks, rewards work great. Positive reinforcement also works on dolphins, whales, elephants, horses…and people. How often would you go to work if they didn’t give you a pay check?
There is no precision to operant conditioning. Unlike classical conditioning, which links a specific stimulus to a specific reflex, an operant is a class of behavior and a reward increases the whole class. If rewarded for answering the phone, you are rewarded for phone-answering-ness: all phone answering, not happy-phone-voice or sad-phone-voice. To get more precise, you have to shape the behavior.
Shaping is selectively rewarding approximations over a period of time. Since no one acts exactly the same every time, shaping is like presenting overlapping rewards. In each trial, all behavior is rewarded but each trial will have different behaviors present because other things in life will have changed: different time of day, different attitude, different amount of sleep, etc. The idea is that on the first session, all behavior present will be rewarded. On the second trial, all behavior present will be rewarded but only those behaviors that were present on the first trial will have received more reward. Gradually only the desired behaviors will emerge.
I think of reinforcement as fertilizing plants. If you fertilize all the plants (weeds and flowers), both will grow. Because it’s a static situation, eventually the weeds will be tall enough to pull out, leaving you flowers. Plants are stuck in ground and the ground doesn’t change. However, with animals it is a dynamic situation; the soil is constantly changing. The context within which behaviors occurs shifts and changes. You can fertilize all behaviors (reinforce) and know that each day a new set of behaviors is occurring.
Skinner also showed that punishment works but badly. There are at least three problems with punishment: (a) it stops all behavior, (b) it causes unwanted emotional reactions, and (c) the punisher must be present. By their nature, punishments, like rewards, are general and diffuse. They cover a lot of behaviors. Unlike rewards, overlapping doesn’t work. Multiple punishments continue to suppress everything. And without behavior, no reinforcement can be given. So you can punish a dog into inaction, or punish a person into emotional shut down. But when you’re done punishing, there is nothing left. Your poison has destroyed both weeds and flowers.
Operant conditioning explains a lot of human behavior. Counselors who say they are getting people to express their emotions are simply shaping the behaviors they want. The client sobs, the counselor smiles, and sobbing is reinforced. In a less extreme example, counselors nod, lean forward, and soften their voices. All of these are reinforcers for subtle changes in client behavior.
Third, in addition to classical and operant conditioning, dogs are explained by drive theory…somewhat. Clearly, all animals have survival drives, such as hunger and thirst. Beyond those situations where physical survival is at stake, I’ll accept a general adaptation tendency in animals and humans. We adapt to the environment, and this automatic process could be thought of as a drive. But drive reduction is of limited explanatory value for animal and human behavior. It might explain Dollard & Miller’s rats running toward food in a maze but that’s a very limited, confined circumstance. And I don’t believe the complexity of animal or human behavior is well explained by drive theory.
Fourth, the impact of heredity on behavior is advocated by many but I don’t give much weight to it. It’s true that certain breeds of dogs are more likely to play with a ball or herd sheep. And it might explain why my dog turns around three times before lying down but I don’t think heredity is very helpful in explaining the majority of canine behavior. Similarly, I’ll accept that some people’s genetic makeup makes them more prone to certain hardware failures. Bipolar, OCD, and schizophrenia might have a genetic component, but it appears to me that there is a complex interplay of heredity and environment in those conditions. The frequency of schizophrenia, for example, follows the same pattern as flu season. A combination of heredity, flu in the third trimester of pregnancy, and other unspecified factors might be causal agents. But there usually are “unspecified factors” in these explanations. As specific predictors of behavior, I don’t believe heredity plays much of a role, particularly in humans.
Fifth, habits are noted in both animal and human behavior. But habits as causation is a circular argument. “I do this because of my habit; I got my habit because I do this.” Aside from saying that certain behavior patterns are difficult to change, I don’t find habits helpful in explaining why animals or people do what they do.
None of the factors that impact animals (classical, operant, drive, heredity or habits) requires a cortex. Classical and operant conditioning appear to be primarily located in the brain stem. They provide quick response to new input. Similarly, drive is a lower brain function. Heredity is a structural explanation of brain connections or processes. And habits are more descriptors of behavior patterns than causes, and don’t presuppose large amounts of cortical processing. This leads us to the Plus of animals+.
The plus of animals+ is having a cortex. Dogs have two hemispheres and a corpus collosum to connect them, but their cerebrum is quite simple in structure. You’ll have to do your own study of comparative anatomy but I think you’ll conclude that the human brain has significant design improvements. It’s true we don’t get the extensive olfactory bulb of the dog, but we get occipital lobes for incredible color vision, parietal lobes for processing pain and temperature, temporal lobes for languages, and frontal lobes for thinking. When it comes to brains, more complex is better.
These hardware differences between humans and other animals result is massive differences in performance. The hardware makes it possible for the software to perform incredible feats. Let me use the letters of PLUS to illustrate some of those functions. For quick reference, PLUS = perception, logic, universals, and social interaction.
Perception was originally characterized as a linear process. Stimuli hit sensors (sensation) and then the brain interprets the data (perception). But it turns out that it is actually a bottom-up and top-down process at the same time. We don’t simple wait for data, we anticipate it. Consequently, what we expect to see impacts what we actually see. The Little Riding Hood Effect is a good case in point. If you see someone dressed like Gramma, lying in Gramma’s bed, you assume it is Gramma. That’s why you get confused when you greet the security guard at your office, only to discover that it’s not Calton after all. It’s someone new. This also explains why people get shot during hunting season. You expect to see a deer coming through the brush, so you ignore the fact that it’s wearing an orange vest, and shoot it. Our expectations can lead to tragic consequences.
Our expectations come from our schemas. Schemas are representations. They are thoughts but psychologists don’t like using that word. To say that people think is pretty broad. Of course, saying that we represent is imprecise too but we feel more scientific when we use words like it.
One benefit of using “represent” is that it reminds us that inside we make an inexact copy of outside reality. We can’t perceive enough of reality to input everything. So we make notes instead. We use a mental shorthand that is easier for us to handle. Instead of dealing with the world, we make a representation or model of it, and use that construction as the basis for making decisions. We don’t input all of the characteristics of a bridge; we make a quick sketch of it that we can use to aim our car over the bridge.
As sketches, schemas can be rough or very complex. They can be detailed and concrete representations, or broadly applicable abstractions. And like drawings, schemas can contain other schemas nested in them; sort of a picture in a picture. Also, schemas are summaries of knowledge and experience. They are not rules as much as they are filters for our perceptions.
For simplicity, let’s say there are two types of schemas. Person-schemas are composed of our knowledge of other people. This would include our beliefs about people’s consistency, honesty, and general characteristics. Similarly, self-schemas consist of our general knowledge about ourselves. We have many self-schemas, each of which would hold information about our abilities, goals or traits.
In a study on incidental encoding (Brewer & Treyens, 1981), people were put in a “waiting room” for less than one minute. The room was actually a utility closet with a desk and chair added. The subjects were taken from the waiting room and given a test of what they remembered about the room. About a third of them remembered books, but there were no books. Those who thought they had waited in an office tended to remember office fixtures, even if they weren’t actually present. In an earlier study, Pichert & Anderson (1977) found that people remember different details of a house depending on their schema. Subjects read a description of a house and were asked to recall details about the house. If told to recall it as if they were a burglar, they remembered different information than when they pretended they were buying the house. Their schema helped organize the information.
Probably the most famous study on schemas was done by Sir Frederic Bartlett in 1932. Bartlett (a Brit.) wanted to present his subjects (also British) with a story they didn’t know. He used a North American Indian folk tale called the War of the Ghosts. When faced with unfamiliar imagery, Bartlett’s subjects omitted features that didn’t fit with their prior experience or changed them. Instead of something black coming out of the mouth, it was remembered as frothing at the mouth.
Notice the importance of schemas. We actively filter the world through our schemas but destroy, omit or distort the information that doesn’t fit our experience. We would rather distort reality than change a schema.
Logic is another characteristic of human behavior. We make logical decisions. The trouble is that since we are multi-goal directed, the logic of one decision isn’t compared to that of another decision. Each sub-decision is logical but not integrated. The woman who moves out of the house so her husband will pursue her (thus proving his love) is using logic. Yes, it’s immature logic (if I leave, he will do what I want) but logic all the same. Our logic is often a series of if-then statements. We use a rule-based system. Understanding these rules is critical to understanding the individual.
Of course, our rules can be very complex. Even for unimportant things, we can have complex rules. We might have a rule that says to eat your lunch at the cafeteria on Tuesday, unless it’s tuna-casserole-day and/or there are more than three friends available for conversation. So it’s no surprise that we have complex rules for how to relate to each other, when to share our feelings, and what to be when we grow up.
Since we are rule-based entities, we use rules in addition to our simple hardware solutions. We respond very well to rewards but we use our massive computers to augment the impact of operant conditioning. Upon receiving a reward, we can use our logic to predict the future. We calculate the size of the reward, its availability, and the circumstances (friendliness of the giver, presence of a peer group, etc.).
Some rules are obvious: rewards are good, punishment is bad. But our rule system is not well managed. We make rules without checking to see what other rules currently exist. This gives us quick response: see a situation, make a rule. But it also gives us poor organization. Some parts of the brain are well organized (vision, motor cortex) and some are not so neat (pain and pressure). Rules seem to have a combination of both. We are vividly aware of some of our rules, and others are really organized, they’re just thrown into a shoe box.
Universals are global rules. They include beliefs (assumptions) and values (ratings of importance). Beliefs are propositions in which we place our trust. We assume that when we enter an elevator that it is going to go up and down, not left and right. So when you take an “inclinator” in the Las Vegas Luxor hotel, going up the pyramid at an angle (39 degrees) can be quite confusing. Similarly, we might believe life should be smooth and painless. This assumption might work well when you’re a child. But as an adult, the bumps of life make it more difficult to maintain that view. To understand an individual, we must understand their belief system. In particular, we must understand their distortions and assumptional jumps.
Assumptional jumps are the leaps of faith we take, our irrational beliefs. You’ll notice that in my world irrational is not the same as illogical. I think of irrational as a glitch in the logic. In computer terms, the program is working logically, step by step. But we’re running code that has not been complied. We start with “I’m not getting along with my parents, I don’t have any friends, so I’m going to run off and join the circus.” it starts out as a straight path (A is bad, B is Bad) and then jumps not to “I should work on my relationships” but “I’m outta here.”
Irrational is also un-examined. We write these little programs and run them without reviewing them. Essentially, we produce beta-ware instead of refined software. So we over-generalize a specific failure as a belief that we will always fail. Our rules can be quite unrealistic (I must do well or I must be perfect), restrictive (all or nothing), and self-punishing (I ate a donut, so I’m a bad person).
Beliefs can be about what other people do (you should be nice to me and do things my way) or about the world in general (life should be fair). They are assumptions we don’t usually test or question. Since beliefs form the basic structure, we tend to leave them be. We see no need to question our prejudices. We see them as being built in.
Similarly, we use values as universal statements too. Like beliefs, values are generalized rules. In particular, values are ratings of importance. Importance is, of course, relative importance. A value implies a comparison. We might value cleanliness, friendliness and fun. We hold these values all at the same time. What we see in behavior is how those values are ranked. If you’re wearing a brand new outfit, do you take the hug offered by a muddy child? Behavior reflexes the relative importance of our values.
I have two boxes on my computer desk to support a monitor and hold junk. One was right in the middle to support the monitor. The other sat on the corner. There was nothing on the opposite corner. I decided to add a third box but new one was a different color. Could I add it to the empty corner of the desk? No, I had to rearrange everything on the desk so that it was symmetrical: the black one in the middle, and a gray one on each end. This, of course, is normal. It’s not unusual. Everyone does this. Okay, maybe it’s not normal. But it’s normal for me. I like things organized. I like everything in its place. I value symmetry.
I am clear about my enjoyment for symmetry but values are not always articulated. Values clarification is the process of trying to identify what is important to you, and how it relates to other things that you value. For example, although I love symmetry and order, my office is often a mess. I have stacks over there and boxes over here. So there is an interplay between my values. Apparently I value symmetry over order. I’m happy with piles of books and papers, as long as they balance each other out.
Social interaction is the last component of my acrostic. Most theories of personality don’t do a very good job of explaining human interaction. Consequently, most theories of counseling focus on the individual, not on couples, families or groups. Let’s see if I can help correct that.
From my point of view, social interaction is so important that we have a whole system to manage it. We don’t leave it to chance. We like to know what to expect in any situation, and make detailed patterns of what to expect. These scripts are a basic part of our culture and personality.
A script is collection of cultural assumptions (Schank & Abelson, 1977). They are conversations. We develop them for common social events, and use them to predict what should come next. For example, if you enter a room and someone says “Hi,” you are supposed to say “Hi.” Then they say “How are you?” and you say: ___________ (You know you’re supposed to say “Fine, thanks. How are you?”). This is a normal social interaction. And if you break this script, people get confused and unsettled.
We have scripts for many common social interactions. We have a script for catching a bus: you sit or stand at the designated area, wait patiently until the bus arrives and stops. You take turns getting on the bus, smile but use minimal language upon boarding. You find a place to sit, keep to yourself and don’t talk incessantly to the person beside you. You don’t yell and wave; no screaming is allowed.
We have scripts for restaurants. You know when you go to fast food outlet that you don’t stand at the door and wait to be seated by the maître’d. You know you should step right up to the counter and order your food from the menu on the wall.
When couples fight, they tend to follow the same script they always use. And when you go back to your childhood home, you and your siblings tend to follow the scripts developed in childhood. When we find ourselves not feeling ourselves, not able to act as adult as we want, not as in charge of our lives, we are following an old script.