Becoming who we are: Personality as a process of learning and un-learning

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Psychologist and personality theorist Hans Eysenck believed that personality was the fundamental enquiry of psychology1. Our personalities are the patterns of characteristic thoughts, behaviours and feelings that mould individual differences and the identities we cling to. For many of us, personality seems fixed, like an essence, the fully formed ‘me’ that sits in the driving seat of consciousness. But what if personality was more heavily shaped by learning and environment? And what would the implications of this mean for someone’s ability to change?

Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, two giants of 20th Century Psychology with antithetical views to one another, both viewed learning as critical to the development of personality and personal growth2. If we look at learning experiences as behaviour modification via interactions within a person’s environment3, we can begin to build a picture of personality as more malleable than commonly thought. This essay will argue that personality can be explained as the sum of a person’s learning experiences by exploring Roger’s and Skinner’s differing philosophical assumptions and how these informed their theories. It is argued that a marrying of their views can explain personality in the context of learning experiences with beneficial applications for coaching, counselling, and psychotherapy.

B. F. Skinner was a key figure in the psychological movement called Behaviourism, which originated at the start of the 20th century out of Pavlovian conditioning and remained predominant until the 1960’s. For undergraduate psychology students, B. F. Skinner is often perceived as a villain, the stereotypical “man in white coat” that was pilloried in novels such as Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning held that all elements of human behaviour were shaped by reinforcers in the environment4. According to this theory, positive reinforcers (rewards) increased or strengthened a behaviour, whereas negative reinforcers (punishments) decreased or weakened a behaviour.

Skinner’s behaviourism rejected the rival Freudian view that subjective unconscious and conscious “minds” were the agents’ driving behaviour, and as a result dismissed the concept of personality entirely.  Skinner believed that all learning experiences were objective, and that the development of what others call personality, was in fact the culmination of a complex process of reinforcement that shaped behaviour. Skinner didn’t deny that we had thoughts and feelings or propose that people were indistinguishable. Instead, he claimed that what distinguished one person from another, didn’t emerge from subjective, internal states, but from learning experiences in the environment that shaped patterns of behaviour.

In contrast to Skinner, Carl Roger’s view of personality held that the subjective experiencing of an individual was basic and fundamental for their own understanding of who they were and how they should act. The warm, avuncular figure of Carl Rogers and his development of person-centred therapy stands in stark contrast to the lab-coat image portrayed of Skinner. Carl Rogers is one of the most influential people in psychology and psychotherapy and one of the leaders of the Humanistic Psychology movement that grew out of opposition to Behaviourism’s in the 1960’s.

As a psychotherapist and researcher with decades of clinical experience, Roger’s had observed that individuals have the power, given the right conditions, to change their own lives. Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person posited that there was an ideal self within everyone. This axiom implied that a person could achieve a congruence with this self, and drive personality change by learning from their subjective experiences of thought, feeling and emotion5.  This type of learning he referred to as ‘true subjectivity’ and he viewed his responsibility as therapist to facilitate the right conditions for this learning experience to take place and personality change to occur6.

What is important to consider here is that these two leaders of psychology both viewed learning experiences as being critical to personality development, looking at these processes on either side of the objective/subjective divide. By synthesising the views of both we land at a view of personality that incorporates both environmental determinants and the inner thoughts, feelings and emotions as learning experiences that shape personality development.

One of the key assumptions of Skinner’s Behaviourism is the notion of determinism; that every observable behaviour is determined by some preceding event7. Determinism is closely linked with the objectivity of the physical sciences, and so it should come as no surprise that Skinner viewed all human behaviour (and any notion of personality) as determined by prior experience. Skinner’s response to Roger’s view of the fully functioning person, would be that feelings of incongruence are a negative reinforcer, a kind of internalised punishment, which leads to changes in behaviour. This change in behaviour moves the individual to greater congruence with their true self, subsequently removing the negatively reinforcing feeling of incongruence. The individual then learns from this satisfying outcome, modifying behaviours accordingly and ultimately shaping personality through the accumulation of these behaviours.

Rogers viewed the fully functioning person as the type of individual most likely to learn and adapt to changing environmental circumstances, but only when psychological freedom had been maximised8. In direct opposition to Skinner, free-will was a fundamental assumption for Rogers, believing that human beings were future-oriented, and it was the goals set in the future, which influenced how they responded to learning experiences. This future orientation was encapsulated in his notion of the ‘self-actualising tendency’ within each person, an innate drive toward the true potential of the ideal self or healthy personality.

Rogers suggested that this drive was based on learning experiences, with the innate, subjective processes associated with the self-actualising tendency evaluating and learning in accordance with what propelled a person toward this ideal. Rogers believed that this learning could only take place if the client had the psychological freedom to move in any direction, a freedom obtained by learning to fully experience their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

From either side of the determinism/free-will divide, Skinner and Rogers both emphasise that learning experiences are fundamental to understanding personality. The views of each, whilst diametrically opposed, complement each other by providing insight into how personality can be explained by the responses to learning experiences we can control and those that we can’t.

The view that personality can be explained by the sum of a person’s learning experiences has important implications in the field of coaching, counselling, and psychotherapy. Firstly, this is an optimistic view which implies that personality is not fixed and that given the right circumstances, people have the capacity to change. This is critical to the process of coaching or therapy, the success of which according to Rogers is to facilitate change in a way that concords with an individual’s goals9. Secondly, by investigating the views of Skinner and Rogers in how learning experiences shape personality, it has been shown that both objective observable behaviours and unobservable mental processes, along with the environmental processes within and without a person’s control, are critical for understanding personality development. By attending to the reinforcers in their environment and their subjective states of thoughts, feelings and emotions, individuals can become more aware of that which is satisfying or dissatisfying, moving toward a state of positive development and wellbeing.

On the surface, the views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers in relation to how learning experiences shape personality, appear to have little in common. However, the dichotomy of their philosophical assumptions, when combined, provide a useful framework for understanding how personality can be explained as the sum of a person’s learning experiences. By incorporating both views, coaches, psychotherapists, and counsellors can bring a holistic view to how conditions in therapy can be manipulated to maximise learning experiences and facilitate desired personality development for clients.

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