Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How we get our personalities

     There is nothing novel in this post on how personalities develop, but I wanted to provide a brief overview of how our personalities are defined, and some factors that influence our personality.

     A personality is shaped by the environment. Specifically, sets of contingencies that are in place via naturally occurring contingencies and our verbal community. For example, if I were to spend all day running a ton of errands, someone may say "He is quite the mover!" I may then begin to identify as someone who is motivated to get things accomplished, and this may transfer into other realms of life such as my job or school. Once I contact others who observe this as well, the more they use their observations to define me, the more that becomes how I am viewed, and therefore I may begin to define myself in the same way.  Furthermore, if our word to describe someone who is productive were "lazy" instead of productive, then my verbal community would label me as lazy by observing me getting things done since that is the word that describes a trait that is attributed to a set of observable behaviors. Our personalities, according to Skinner (1974), are what we "say and do" (pp. 164).

     Rule-governance and contingency-shaped behavior are related in that we learn from the consequences of each. We learn much faster by rule-governed than contingency-shaped behavior, and the better defined the rule is, the more likely we will be able to follow it to produce reinforcement and avoid a potentially aversive consequence. Additionally, we are primed as a species to follow rules, especially at a young age (think of that, a child's mind is a sponge analogy). For example, the child who grows up along the Nile needs to heed the rule of their parents and elders to stay away from the water's edge or they may get eaten by a crocodile. If the child does not follow the rule and gets eaten, that child obviously does not get to learn from the contingency....

     Both rule-governed and contingency-shaped behavior relate to learning. The more we follow a rule and contact reinforcement or avoid an aversive situation, the more we will follow it in the future. Similarly, the more reinforcing the contingency, the more likely we will behave in similar ways under similar circumstance.

     Additionally, the rules of our cultures play a lot into how our personalities will be defined through our actions. The same is true of contingency shaped behavior. For the prior, if our society says it is impolite to burp at the table, we try not to burp to avoid social approval (if we buy into or care about the social norm, of course). Similarly for the latter, if we burp at the table anyway, and our dinner is removed, dessert is withheld, and we are made to do the dishes, we will think twice about burping again at the table, and therein follow the rule more strictly. Lastly, if we burp at the table, our verbal community may label us as rude or unpleasant. If we refrain from burping and engage in other polite, social dinner-table behaviors, our verbal community may label us as civil or well-mannered.

Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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