Behavioral and Cognitive Personality Theories Mark Hatfield California Southern University

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is well known as an efficacious clinical approach for treating a multitude of mental disorders. Yet the theoretical underpinnings of a cognitive-based personality theory versus behaviorism are not always aligned. While the overlap between the two approaches includes a commitment to a scientific method and the principles of environmental influence on behavior, cognitive theorists favor an approach that recognizes the powerful role our thinking and beliefs have in directing behavior; this is opposed to a behavioral reductionist approach which emphasizes the environment as a sort of master controller for organisms.

Skinner and Environmental Influences

B.F. Skinner suggests that the environment is of paramount importance in shaping the individual, so much that psychology’s focus on emotion, thought, and self is not seen as so important or has even led researchers astray (Cervone & Pervin, 2016). Skinner’s behavioral perspective has led to significant discoveries without a doubt: astonishing experiments where behavioral principles are demonstrated, such as animals learning to perform complex tasks through behavioral shaping (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

Behavioral approaches have also quickly led to therapies helpful for humans in creating positive change in their lives (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

Operant conditioning, the fundamental learning action of Skinner’s behaviorism, and the most significant process by which he theorizes human beings are shaped by their environment assume that an organism emits operants, or spontaneous behaviors, which are not directly stimulated by the present environment (Cervone and Pervin, 2016); operants could be based on a combination of factors such as past learning or even randomness.

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These operant behaviors are then either reinforced or extinguished by the environment’s response.

An underlying hypothesis here is that as organisms become more and more complex, it is difficult to discern the origins of operant as it has been created by multiple layers of past learning. Chomsky is someone who has famously criticized this aspect of behaviorism as it is difficult to test the hypothesis (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). The conceptualization of this internalized past learning database is based on knowledge gained from the study of much simpler biological systems; an additional underlying assumption here is that the sum of all the simpler systems somehow is equivalent to the complexity of what we call a person; this, too, is difficult to verify, and often the whole of a complex system is greater than the sum of its parts. In a 1988 interview, Skinner states that he assumes that much of his work will someday be verified when more sophisticated scientific means exist (Biophily2, 2016). Oddly, this behavioral hypothesis is not unlike the concept of an unconscious mind (perhaps even a sort of behavioral unconscious reconceived as an operant emitter), as it affects our behavior in unexpected ways and can even do so without our awareness.

Skinner would even go so far as to discoveriesthatwhere that discover that free will is an illusion, as so many of our choices are dictated by what the environment creates in us. Yet at the same time, we have the will or ability to choose to change our environment so that it changes our personality, an apparent paradox, and one which scholars point out that Skinner may have overlooked (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). Skinner also acknowledges the apparent importance of a sense of freedom for the individual; he describes in this same 1988 interview how it’s more “fun” to directly learn from contingency-based environments rather than indirect rule-based environments (Biophily2, 2016). He also explains the disappointment we feel when losing a sense of accomplishment for hard work if we consider the impact of the environment upon our abilities and accomplishments (Biophily2, 2016). Both points seem to indicate that human beings function better when we perceive that we have a choice and perhaps even a sense of self-efficacy, something later addressed by cognitive psychologists. Nonetheless, Skinner’s work leads to more scientific psychology, as the complex relationship between organism and environment has been more elucidated through his work.

Kelly’s Constructive Alternativism

George Kelly takes a radically different approach compared to the aims of other personality theorists, as he does not attempt at defining an ultimate underlying psychic reality for a person. He instead suggests a relativistic point of view which he calls constructive alternativism: it is the nature of personality itself to hypothesize about the future with “constructs” of understanding, and it is somewhat irrelevant whether constructs are accurate (Cervone and Pervin 2016). What’s more important is whether a construct is consistent with the information previously encountered by a personality and whether this construct is useful in anticipating the future. When we encounter information contrary to what our consciously/unconsciously created constructs state, Kelly notes that we experience anxiety; this later evolves into fear and threat as we are forced to either revise our construct or discard the new information in some way, which sometimes leads to pathology (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

Other sciences such as physics have multiple theories to organize various data; for example, there is not yet a unified field theory for physics; in this sense, having multiple constructs for perceiving reality is not such a foreign concept. Kelly simply acknowledges this multiplicity of theories as fundamental to the human experience. Constructive Alternativism is also a theory both flexible and practical, as there is evidence for the effectiveness of Fixed-Role Therapy, a practice based on Kelly’s theory where the client invents a new role to act out and embody for two weeks (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). The therapist serves as a “director” here, assisting the “actor” with assuming the new role (Cervone and Pervin, 2016); notably, there are parallels here with psychodrama theory regarding the concept of over and underdeveloped roles (Dayton, 2005).

In a way, Kelly simply defines what we know for sure about ourselves: humans have a desire to understand the world through conceptual models; otherwise there would be no theorizing about personality and the very words on this page wouldn’t have been written. A relativistic point of view may seem unscientific on the surface, yet Kelley has clearly defined and supported his theory with an assessment to evaluate the existence of constructs: the Role Construct Repertory Test (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

One weakness is that Kelly’s theory may not be comprehensive in that he does not address the significance of biology, neuro systems, and brain regions; nor does he address the development of the person – except to say that our constructs increase with complexity through time as we encounter new information in life (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). Later researchers have explored such connections with limited success. In a relevant brain region experiment, researchers concluded that Kelly’s hypothesis that increased construct complexity would be reflected in specific brain regions was not supported, as the imaging didn’t correspond with the same brain region used by individuals tested with hypothetical complexity (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). However, it’s worth pointing out that there was evidence of increased complexity within the brain as a whole, as more of the brain was used by individuals who presumably had greater construct complexity; when reframing in this way, the outcome appears to be consistent with his theory.

Above all, Kelly is observant of the apparent natural endeavor of personality to understand itself: we create constructs about ourselves so that we can predict our development. The scientific study of personality includes the participation of personality itself; we cannot escape the fact that our research and study is an aspect of the metaphorical equation. Kelly goes so far as to say that it is as if we are all scientists looking forward in anticipation of the future (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

Skinner Versus Social Theory

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) addresses issues perhaps left out by the theory of behaviorism and further develops the cognitive aspects of Kelly’s theory, which is relevant to organisms with more complex cognitive abilities like human beings. As mentioned previously, most behavioral research has been done using animals; this is an approach to studying less complex systems to understand the whole. One premise of SCT is that the parts of a cognitive-affective system (CAPS) create a coherence of behavior that is unique as a whole, despite the simplicity of the parts (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

An additional feature addressed is the capability of complex organisms to alter their behavior through observational learning: a sort of virtual learning environment with less severe consequences (and rewards) compared to an actual environment; this might be what Skinner refers to as a rule-based environment. An example is learning to drive a car without having to endure dangerous mistakes; one can learn through observing the practices of other drivers, receiving instruction, etc. (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). People have the capability of not only learning directly from the environment but also from a virtual environment of social learning which is also stored in the brain.

Expectancy regarding the ability to perform a behavior has a significant impact on the performance of behavior and whether it is continued or reinforced. Various research efforts support this: what we believe about our ability to do impacts what we choose to do and the proficiency level at which we perform (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). Self-efficacy beliefs can also be altered to impact behavior, irrespective of present environmental circumstances (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

All of these components illustrate how different people can react differently to the same environment. To be fair, behaviorism likely has an explanation for the same variance: that human beings are shaped according to their past environment rewards/punishment experiences and behave accordingly in the present environment; no two people have had the same rewards experience so they may react differently and their operants will be different. However, SCT has research supporting the significant impact that competency, expectancy, evaluative standards, and personal goals do have on behavior (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). These psychological elements require a complex cognitive system that is in a co-creative relationship with the environment; this principle of “reciprocal determinism” differs from the behaviorism point of view that the environment is the master controller. Instead, personality, behavior, and the environment engage in something like a dynamic system, one in that where which the components impact one another and the entire system can evolve (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

Social Cognitive Theory, Problem-Focused and Emotion-Focused Coping

SCT explains the existence of mood issues like depression and anxiety through a concept similar to constructs called schemas: patterns of thought and emotion that are used to interpret information encountered in the world, created by prior experiences and observational learning. Schemas are a concept that originated with the philosopher Kant, who recognized how we make sense of the world through preexisting ideas (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). One simple example of a schema might include the scenario of hearing a new song on the radio for the first time; some songs might be easier to like as they are similar to the music we have heard before and easily relate to (or more quickly dismissed as something we don’t like). Yet there are also songs that self-schemas take longer to “grow” on you, presumably as a new schema is being created.

SCT posits (and supports through research) that we have “self-schemas,” which are patterns of thought and feeling about ourselves. These self-schemas can influence behavior and mood as they might involve different beliefs about self-efficacy concerning particular task completion. As mentioned previously, low self-efficacy generally translates to poor outcomes despite skill level.  the Personas may enter a sort of feedback loop creating their distorted reality. It starts with a distorted sense of self-efficacy, then the impacted performance confirms this, and the result is disappointment or depression; discrepancies between ideal and actual self are linked with a depressed mood (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). Appropriate goal setting is another factor potentially impacting mood; a person may set unreasonable goals, have a low sense of self-efficacy, and as a result negatively evaluate themselves (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

Motivation is also impacted by SCT identified factors such as “ought self” expectations and “ideal self” expectations, concepts partially originating with Rogers (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). Ought self is generally an expectation which is that more from a desire to fulfill outside expectations as opposed to an internal sense of motivation. Ought self discrepancies, where the ought self doesn’t align with the actual self, are linked with anxiety, whereas ideal self discrepancies usually result in depression (Cervone and Pervin, 2016).

Self-schemasthainvolvefor problem goals, evaluative standards, and self-efficacy can potentially have distortions that impact mood and increase anxiety. Schemas can also affect the way we approach both problems for problem-focused used coping styles and emotion-focused problem-focused coping. A problem-focused coping style is a way of altering situations to be less stressful, whereas an emotion-focused emotion-focused chowthateon way really in which we manage our associated internal state (Cervone and Pervin, 2016). Having a positive sense of self-efficacy can help us to respond to problems creatively both externally and internally. Anxiety itself can become a problematic experience when our expectations about our ability to cope with it are low.

Both Freud and Skinner take a reductionist perspective on the human organism; for Freud, it’s an energy system associated with libido; for Skinner, it’s a similar biochemical system that is systematically altered by the environment. Though perhaps the environment doesn’t create a response in the organism like grooves made in a record, the organism sympathetically changes its neurobiology based on experiences (such a change is not a conscious one). This is a subtle difference in language and perspective, but the change implies a more cooperative and reciprocal relationship. Perhaps what we’re doing with personality theory is slicing up smaller segments of a whole picture of the human experience so that our prefrontal cortex is capable of processing and comprehending the full reality of human complexity. If this is the case, then the question of personality is fundamentally about the economy: what is the most efficient way of conceptualizing human behavior? For example, in our solar system, it’s possible to describe the organization of planetary bodies where the earth is the center. While this is relatively true, greater economy and simplicity are found with the sun as the center. Perhaps this is true among personality theories as well; psychoanalytic theory and behaviorism can both explain a lot about personality, but the SCT perspective currently seems to do so with greater economy and specificity.


  1. Biophily2 (2016, Sep 19). B.F. Skinner – philosophy of behaviorism (1988) [Video file].
  2. Retrieved from
  3. Cervone, D. & Pervin, L.A. (2016). Personality theory and research (13th ed.). New York: Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.
  4. Dayton, T. (2005). The Living Stage: A step by step guide to psychodrama, sociometry, and experiential group therapy. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

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Behavioral and Cognitive Personality Theories Mark Hatfield California Southern University. (2022, May 13). Retrieved from

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