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Learning, from the Perspective of Behaviorism, Skinner

INTRODUCTION. The behavioristic approach has exerted a strong influence on American Psychology. The basic ideas of behaviorism are: human behavior is a product of the Stimulus-Response interaction and that behavior is modifiable. It has triggered scientific experiments and the use of statistical procedures. Most importantly, it has turned the attention of psychology to solving real behavior-related problems. The behaviorist believes behavior should be explained in terms of environmental stimuli. It is not necessary to go into the postulating of inner mechanisms or traits because it creates additional mysteries that need to be explained. Though with the behavioristic approach it’s known that certain environmental conditions tend to procedure certain types of behavior, and with this less tedious process. (Stevenson n.p.g) To get a better understanding of this theory I’ve selected two behaviorists, Gordon Allport and B.F. Skinner; well known for their approaches in the study of behaviorism.

GORDON ALLPORT. ALLPORT’S EARLY YEARS. Gordon Allport was born in Montezuma, Indiana, in 1897, the youngest of four brothers. A shy boy, he was teased and lived a fairly isolated childhood. (textbook 191) His father was a country doctor, and this meant that his father’s patients were always in the house. Everyone in his house worked hard. His early life seemed to be pleasant and uneventful. I have looked in many resources and I’ve come to the conclusion that not too many people went into depth about the childhood of Allport. What was known about him is Allport received his PH.D. in Psychology in 1922 from Harvard, following in the footsteps of his brother Floyd, who became an important social psychologist. (Allport 67) Though in all of the research I did, this was always mentioned: When he was 22 he traveled to Vienna. He had arranged to meet with Sigmund Freud. There was at first silence, though no longer be able to take the silence, Gordon blurted out an observation he had made on his way to meet Freud.

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He mentioned that he had seen a little boy on the bus that was very upset at having to sit where a dirty old man had sat previously. Gordon thought that this child had learned this from his mother, a very neat and apparently a domineering type. Freud, instead of taking it as a simple observation, took it to be an expression of some deep, unconscious process in Gordon’s mind, and said “And was that little boy you? (Boeree 98) This experience led him to his theory, it made him realize that depth psychology sometimes digs too deep, in the same way, that he had earlier realized that most importantly “Behaviorism often doesn’t dig deeply enough. His career was spent developing his theory, examining social issues as prejudice, and developing personality tests.

ALLPORT’S THEORY. Allport was against opportunistic functioning. His belief of this term was characterized as reactive, past-oriented, and of course biological. He felt it was unimportant when trying to understand most of the human behavior. He believed most human behavior, is motivated by functioning in a manner expressive of the self – which he called appropriate functioning. (Allport 37) Appropriate functioning can be characterized as proactive, future-oriented, and psychological. Appropriate comes from the word proprium. Allport’s name, for the essential concept, the self. Because it put so much emphasis on the self, Allport defined it as with care. He handled this task from two directions, phenomenologically and functionally. Phenomenologically is the self is experienced. He suggested that that the self is composed of aspects of your experiencing that you see as most essential, warm and central. His functional definition became a theory all by itself. The self has seven functions that arise at certain times of one’s life:

  • Sense of body develops in first two years. We have a body and feel its closeness, its warmth. It has boundaries that pain and injury, touch and movement, make us aware of.
  • Self-identity develops in the first two years also. Points where we recognize ourselves as continuing, as having a past, present, and future. We see ourselves as individuals.
  • Self-esteem develops between two and four years old. This is a time when we recognize that we have value, to others and to ourselves.
  • Self-extension develops between four and six. Certain things become to be thought of as warm, essentials to my existence. Some people define themselves in terms of the people who are close to them.
  • Self-image also develops between four and six. This is the “looking-glass self,” theme as others see me.
  • Rational coping is learned mostly in the years from six till twelve. Children began the ability to deal with problems rationally and effectively. This is analogous to Erikson’s “industry. (Allport 37)
  • Appropriate strives begins usually after the age of twelve. This is my self as goals, ideal plans, a sense of direction, a sense of purpose.
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Now, as the proprium is developing in this way, we are also developing a personal disposition. A personal disposition is defined as “generalized neuropsychic structure (peculiar to the individual), with the capacity, ability and functionally equivalent to guide consistent forms of adaptive and stylistic behavior. A personal disposition produces equivalences in function and meaning between various perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and actions that are not necessarily equivalent in the natural world, or anyone else’s mind. Another way to put it is to say that dispositions are concrete, easily recognized, and consistent in our behaviors. (Boree 98) It is important to remember that Allport believed that traits are essentially unique to each individual: One person’s fear isn’t the same as another’s. For this reason, Allport strongly pushed what he called idiographic methods – methods that focused on studying one person at a time, such as interviews, observation, analysis, and so on. These are now referred to as qualitative methods.

Allport recognizes that some traits are more closely tied to the proprium (one’s self) than others. (Allport 67) Central traits are the building blocks of your personality. Words like dumb wild, shy, smart. There are also secondary traits, ones that aren’t quite so obvious, or so general or so consistent. Preferences, attitudes, situation traits are all secondary. Then there are cardinal traits. These are traits that some people have which practically define their life. Someone who spends his or her life seeking fame or fortune of sex is such a person. Relatively few people develop a cardinal trait. If they do, it tends to be late in life. Allport believed if you have a well-developed and rich, adaptive set of dispositions, you have attained psychological maturity, Allport’s term for mental health. He lists seven characteristics:

1. Specific, enduring Extensions of self, i.e involvement.
2. Dependable technique for Warm relating to others
3. Emotional security and self–acceptance.
4. Habits of Realitsitc perception
5. Problem – Centeredness, and the development of problem-solving skills
6. Self-objectification – insight into one’s own behavior, the ability to laugh at oneself, etc.
7. A unifying Philosophy of life, including a particular value orientation, differentiated religious sentiment, and a personalized conscience.

Allport didn’t believe in looking too much into a person’s past in order to understand his present. (Allport 37) This belief is strongly evident in the concept of functional autonomy: Your motives today are independent of their origins. For example, it doesn’t matter where you were when you were born, what matters is where you are today. Functional autonomy comes into two types: The first being perseverative functional autonomy, referring essentially to habits – behavior that no longer serves their original purpose but still continues. Appropriate functional autonomy is something a bit more self-direct than habits. The idea of appropriate functional autonomy lead to the development of categorization of values and a test of values:

1. The theoretical – a scientist, for example, values truth.
2. The economic – a businessperson may value usefulness.
3. The aesthetic – an artist naturally values beauty.
4. The social – a nurse may have a strong love of people
5. The political – a politician may value power.
6. The religious – a monk or nun probably values unity.

Most of us have several of these values at more moderate levels, plus we may value one or two of these quite negatively. (Boree 98). IMPORTANCE OF HIS THEORY. As a behaviorist, Allport is one of those theorists who was so right about so many things that his ideas have simply passed on into the spirit of times. Furthermore, Allport showed that a great deal can be learned about a person by using the straightforward methods of self-reports, personal documents, and the observation of expressive behavior. Allport was willing to use whatever method he believed contributed to learn and understand human behavior. (Allport 37) His theory is one of the most humanistic theories and would influence many others.

B.F.SKINNER. SKINNERS EARLY YEARS. Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born March 20, 1904, in the small Pennsylvania town of Susquehanna. His father was a lawyer, and his mother a strong and intelligent housewife. His upbringing was old-fashioned and hard-working. (Textbook 271) Burrhus was an active, out-going boy who loved the outdoors and building things and actually enjoyed school. Unlike Allport in life, he did have tragedies. His brother died at the age of 16 of a cerebral aneurysm. Burrhus received his BA in English from Hamilton College in upstate New York. He didn’t fit in very well, not enjoying social events in school. He wrote for the school papers, including articles critical of the school, the faculty, and even Phi Beta Kappa! To top it off, he was an atheist – in a school that required daily chapel attendance.

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He wanted to be a writer and did try sending off his writing. It didn’t work for him, even after he graduated. After some traveling, he decided to go back to school; he went to Harvard. He got his master’s in psychology in 1930 and his doctorate in 1931 and stayed there to do research until 1936. (Boree 98) He met his wife that same year when he moved to Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota. They had two daughters the youngest being famous for being in one of Skinner’s inventions, the air crib. In 1948 he was invited to go to Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his life. Even though he was not successful as a writer of fiction and poetry, he became one of our best psychology writers.

SKINNER’S THEORY. Skinner’s entire system is based on Operant Conditioning. The organism is in the process of “operating” on the environment, which means it is bouncing around the world doing what it does. During this “operating,,” the organism encounters a special kind of stimulus, called reinforcing stimulus. (Skinner 67) Operant conditioning – the behavior followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organism’s tendency to repeat the behavior in the future. (Boree 98) A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. Extinction – A behavior no longer followed by the reinforcing stimulus results in a decreased probability of that behavior occurring in the future.

Schedules of reinforcement: Skinner likes to tell about how he “accidentally came across various discoveries. He did a lot of experiments on lab animals especially rats. Continuous reinforcement is the original scenario: In a rat study, every time that the rat does the behavior (such as pedal-pushing), he gets a rat goodie. The fixed-ratio schedule was the first one Skinner discovered: There is a fixed ratio between behaviors and reinforcers: 3 to 1, 5 to 1, 20 to 1, etc. This is a little like a piece of rate” in the clothing manufacturing industry: You get paid so much for so many shirts. The fixed interval schedule uses a timing device of some sort. Skinner noticed one strange thing that happens is that rats pace themselves. They slow down the rate of their behavior right after the reinforcer and speed up when the time for it gets close.
Skinner also looked at variable schedules. Variable interval means you keep changing the time period i.e. first 20 seconds, then 5, then 35, then 10, and so on.

A question Skinner had to deal with was how we get to more complex sorts of behaviors. He responded with the idea of shaping, or “the method of successive approximations. (Skinner 67) Basically, it involves first reinforcing a behavior only vaguely similar to the one desire. Once that is established you look out for variations that come a little closer to what you want, and so on. Skinner and his students have been quite successful in teaching simple animals to do some quite extraordinary things. Shaping can also account for the most complex of behaviors. You are gently shaped by your environment to enjoy certain things, do well in school, and take certain things. Averse stimuli are the opposite of a reinforcing stimulus, something we might find unpleasant or painful.

A behavior followed by an aversive stimulus results in a decreased probability of the behavior occurring in the future. (Boree 98) This both defines an aversive stimulus and describes the form of conditioning known as punishment. If you remove an already active aversive stimulus after a person does a certain behavior, you are doing negative reinforcement behavior followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. Skinner didn’t approve of the use of aversive stimuli – not because of ethics, but because they don’t work well! That’s because whatever enforced the bad behaviors haven’t been removed, as it would’ve in the case of extinction.

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Behavior modification – often referred to as b-mod – is the therapy technique based on Skinner’s work. It is very straight – forward: Extinguish an undesirable behavior (by removing the reinforcer) and replace it with a desirable behavior by reinforcement. (Bjork 97) It has been used on all sorts of psychological problems; addictions, neuroses, shyness, autism, even schizophrenia and works particularly well with children. (Skinner 67) There is an offshoot of b mode called token economy. This is used primarily in institutions such as psychiatric hospitals, juvenile halls, and prisons Certain rules are made explicit in the institutions, and behaving yourself appropriately is rewarded with tokens; poker chips, tickets, funny money and etc. There is a drawback to the token economy. When an inmate leaves they return to an environment that reinforces the kinds of behaviors that got them into the institution in the first place. (Bjork 97)

IMPORTANCE OF SKINNERS THEORY. Skinner believed that the study of behavior must rest on what organisms do and do not do, and that is all one needs to pay attention to. Most importantly concentrated on the observation and manipulation of behavior. A good theory and it’s evident because explains synthesizes large amounts of information generates new information and can be used as a guide in solving practical problems. Skinner’s theory gets high marks in all of these categories. The only reason Skinner was criticized is that he was quick to generalize human behavior with his experiments in the lab with “lab animals”.

CONCLUSION. When looking at these two behaviorists it is evident that these two had two completely different approached to psychology, though the two did share a strong quality; their uniqueness when explaining their theory. Allport was the first to describe the personality in terms of traits. . Allport theorized that traits provided the structure, the uniqueness, and the motivation that characterize a person’s personality In Allport’s theory, traits are inferred from behavior and then are used to explain the behavior of the individual. Allport’s uniqueness was, he was willing to use whatever method he believed contributed to an understanding of human behavior. He showed that a great deal can be learned about a person by using straight methods of self-reports, personal documents, and the observation of expressive behavior. Allport’s major concern was with the dignity and uniqueness of each human being. Allport’s anything unhealthy, children and unlike Skinner animals. He was interested in studying healthy adults.

Skinner’s theory is complex and very difficult. No personality theory considered thus far is so intimately tied to experimental research a Skinner (textbook 297). Skinner’s position falls into the behavioristic camp because it stressed the study of overt behavior and not internal, mental, or physical events. His efforts focused on efforts to modify behavior involved in changing reinforcement, and contingencies. Being far off from the beliefs of Allport, Skinner believed that much if not all of what is learned by studying non-human animals applies to humans and well, and well, unlike Allport many of the attributes thought to be uniquely human are essentially ignored in the Skinnerian analysis.
As I end my conclusion please remember even though the two theories talked about are completely different. The comparison of the two is very important because, of their understanding, and the complexity of the learning theory; behaviorism and the complexity of the theorist and their theory.


  • Allport, G. W. (1967) Autobiography. In E.G. Boring G. Lindzey (Eds), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol 5, pp 1-25). Ney your: Appleton-Century- Crafts.
  • Allport GW (1937) personality: A psychological Interpretation: New York Henry Hott
  • An Introduction to Theories of Personality 5th edition B.R. Hergen Bahn and Mathew H”. Oloson – Sihed (pp 271-301, 189-201).
  • Boree, George C Dr. (1904-1990)B.F. Skinner Biography pg 1-6
  • Boree, George C Dr. (1897-1967) Gordon Allport Biography pg 1-6
  • Bjork D.W. (1997) Allport: A Life in Washington D.C. American psychological association
  • Stevenson, Harold W. Behaviorism and Instructional Technology “Online” http:1129.7.160115/inst5931/behaviorism.html pg 1-6
  • Skinner, G. W. (1967) Autobiography. In E.G. Boring G. Lindzey (Eds), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol 5, pp 387-413). New York:Appelton-Century- Crafts.

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Learning, from the Perspective of Behaviorism, Skinner. (2021, Mar 17). Retrieved May 18, 2022, from