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What is personality in behavioral terms?
- Personality, Personality “Theory” And Dissociative Identity Disorder: What Behavior Analysis Can Contribute And Clarify

In Phelps (2000) an argument was made that behavior analysis has more relevance to personality and especially “multiple personality” than is commonly presented. Some of the arguments of Phelps are reiterated here and expanded upon.

When behavior analytic accounts of personality or abnormal behavior are introduced, the discussion is usually brief, with references to faulty learning, inadvertent conditioning experience or aberrant behavior models. The brevity is to be valued; it shows the behavior analyst’s hesitation to speculate in the absence of data as to how a particular behavior was acquired (Thompson & Williams, 1985). Further, behavioral theorists are reluctant to attribute explanatory or causal status to mental or intrapsychic or other variables inherent to the individual as a cause of the individual’s behavior (Skinner, 1974). Nevertheless, this hesitation to speculate has led many writers to conclude that since behavior analysts have little to say or they say the same things repeatedly about different behaviors, behavior analytic contributions are irrelevant (Phelps, 2000). On the other hand, psychoanalytic, humanistic and cognitive theorists can also be accused of saying the same things about very different behaviors. A proposal is made here to re-evaluate behavioral accounts of personality and their relation to Multiple Personality Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 1987), now called Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).


In 1937, Gordon Alport catalogued some 50 definitions of personality. Little has changed except there are now more definitions and theories of personality; most refer to internal or intrapsychic variables that in vaguely defined ways cause a person's behavior but do not refer to personality as being behavior (Hayes, Follette, & Follette, 1995; Pronko, 1988). Conversely, few behavioral theorists have written extensively about or defined the behaviors of personality (Phelps, 2000). Since personality is behavior, other writings are pertinent without specifically addressing personality or granting privileged status to personality. Behavioral theory is personality theory. For instance, Skinner (1953) argued that personalities represent "topographical subdivisions of behavior" and that a particular personality was "tied to a particular type of occasion . . . a given discriminative stimulus," (p. 285). Some twenty years later, Skinner echoed his prior position: "a self or personality is at best a repertoire of behavior imparted by an organized set of contingencies." (Skinner, 1974, p. 149). In their extensive treatment of personality and learning, Dollard & Miller (1950) stated that “Human behavior is learned… We also learn fears, guilt, and other socially acquired motivations… factors which are characteristic of normal personality,“ (p. 25.) Correspondingly, Eysenck (1959) stated his position on personality as being, "personality as the sum total of actual or potential behaviour patterns of the person, as determined by heredity and environment," (as quoted in Chesser, 1976, p. 291). Bijou & Baer (1966) saw personality as the acquisition and effects of contingencies between "social reinforcement for social behavior, under social SDs," (p. 721). In 1984, Harzem interpreted a personality (characteristic) as being "a cluster of functional relations between (1) a set of variables and (2) the already-established behavior patterns of an individual," (p. 391). In his own behavioral system, Staats (1993) gave a definition of personality as, "personality is composed of specifiable, learned behaviors," (p. 10).

Interbehavioral theorists have defined personality as Kantor (1924) wrote, "we cannot consider personality to be anything more than the individual's particular series of reaction systems to specific stimuli," (p. 75). In comparable terms, Pronko (1980) defined personality as "the total series of a given individual's interactions with the relevant stimulus objects," (p. 201). In consonant papers, Keller & Schoenfeld (1950) and Kohlenberg & Tsai (1991) addressed the term "self" much as others above defined personality. Keller & Schoenfeld described the self as "a word that is meant to designate the ability to speak of (be `aware' of) one's own behavior, or the ability to use one's own behavior as the SD for further behavior, verbal or otherwise," (p. 369) and "the `Self,' in short is the person, his body and behavior and characteristic interactions with the environment, taken as the discriminative objects of his own verbal behavior," (p. 369). Kohlenberg & Tsai discussed self from the perspective of the individual, as one who reports self-observations of their specific personality, "the experience of the self lies in specification of the stimuli controlling the verbal response `I'," (p. 128-129). Lastly, Hayes (1984) and Hayes, Kohlenberg, & Melancon (1989) discussed how our verbal environment shapes our behavior into having a sense of self or to experience our environment (seeing, feeling, hearing, etc.) from a distinct perspective of "you" (Phelps, 2000).

Here, these theorists argued that the people composing our social milieu refer to us with the term "you" used in different ways; on some occasions, you is used to refer merely to us as a physical body, as a person may say to us, "I saw you bleeding in the emergency room,"; in other circumstances, our verbal environment shapes our behavior and models for us to see ourselves seeing from our own perspective, i.e., from a perspective of you, where seeing refers to experiencing and interacting with the world (feeling, hearing, moving, etc.). Now consider the following question from different perspectives, "If you lost your arms and legs, would you still be you?" (Hayes, 1984. p. 103). From the perspective of one as mere physical body, or "My body is me," the answer would be no. The answer, from the outlook of the individual with a perspective of you is yes; you could still envision yourself seeing yourself as you. That is, our verbal environment teaches us a general tendency to respond to our own observations of our own behavior verbally and give us "a sense of self" or to acquire and have self-knowledge as a result.

The commonalties in these behavioral definitions are obvious. Personality consists of behavior-environment contingencies, being subject to control and modification by the environment. Further, personality or the self cannot be given explanatory or causal status for other behaviors, except as part of a behavioral chain or as discriminative stimuli for further behavior. Instead, the terms personality and self are behaviors in need of explanation and identification of their causal variables, (Skinner, 1974). Finally, each of these definitions points to personality as being highly consistent yet still malleable, within limits imposed by the environment and the individual's heredity. Pronko stated: "everything is in a state of flux; so is personality. An inventory of one's personality would stop only with the death of the individual." (Pronko,1980, p. 201). Our personality repertoires are stable and variable as a function of historical or present environmental events; the concept of any individual having “multiple personalities” is implicit in behavioral definitions of personality, (Kantor, 1924; Skinner, 1953). Skinner (1957, 1989) also discussed different repertoires of personality or self observable either by other individuals or the person so behaving, traceable to environmental contingencies. Although amongst the definitions cited here only Eysenck explicitly acknowledges the role of genetic variables, other behavioral writers do not dismiss hereditary factors as being a distal yet functional variable in determining behavior (Skinner, 1974). Some readers may not agree with including Eysenck as being a behavioral theorist but Eysenck’s definition of personality describes personality as behavior.

Other “behavioral” writers that have addressed personality have seemed reluctant to define personality in precise behavioral terms but instead have proposed that personality is a product or output of a complex interaction of internal (but not necessarily genetic) and external variables (Bandura, 1999; Mischel and Shoda, 1999).

In contrast to the behavioral views of personality, the spectrum of conventional “personality theories” approaches the subject matter as though it were something we can only speculate about, as if we were studying exobiology. This loose speculation leads to the multitude of personality theories and a field that hardly seems to have human behavior as its referent. Perhaps someday a new specialty in psychology will emerge as the investigation of “Theories of Personality Theory” to study and perhaps rationalize the proliferation of personality theories.

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