Individual Differences


Introduction to
Learning Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
29 Sep 2003

“The experiences of life change us, and they do so in ways that are lawful and predictable.”
- Carver & Scheier (2000, p. 310)

The learning perspective lies at the ‘nurture’ end of the nature-nurture debate.  In terms of the person-situation debate, the learning perspective lies at the 'situation' end of the spectrum.   Personaliity, from this point of view is an accumulated set of learned tendencies over a lifetime (Carver & Sheier, 2000).  The learning perspective draws on the traditions of behaviourism as well as social psychology.  Concepts you may have heard of relating to the social learning perspective include ‘modeling’, ‘reinforcement’, ‘social norms’, etc.  This perspective also implies that personality is “susceptible to molding, grinding, and polishing by the events that from the person’s unique and individual history” (Carver & Scheier, 2000, p. 311).

The underlying assumption of the learning perspective is that all behaviour is learned through experiences and by interaction with the environment.  The learning perspective views a person as entering the world as a tabula rasa (blank slate), although it acknowledges that there are instincts and pre-set responses to stimuli, as well as a preference for pleasure and a desire to avoid pain.  Primarily, however, the learning perspective differ from perspectives that propose that a person is born with an innate nature or personality structure -- some biological theories call it temperament, trait theories call it dispositions, psychoanalysts call it drives or instincts and the humanists also use the term drives.

Learning theories believes that your personality (individual differences) essentially arose from the moulding (learning experiences) you receive in your environment - i.e., your patterns of behaviour are shaped by experience. This was an exciting concept when first postulated, because many were frustrated by the abstract, difficult to see and measure nature of psychoanalytic theory.  Learning theories emphasized environmental influences and events which were tangible and could be identified and scientifically studied.  With this approach, behaviour could also be manipulated in the laboratory which was a plus for psychology and its quest for using the scientific method

Because it was hypothesised that there were basic building blocks to learning and behaviour, which was posited to cross species, the ubiquitous ‘lab rat’ could be used as a model for understanding human behaviour. Almost all variables could be controlled using lab rats which made good scientific research but left open the unanswerable question – but can you extrapolate animal behaviour to humans? Is human behaviour this simple or is it more complex?

From a strictly behavioral perspective, introspective information is considered invalid because it can’t be verified. From the learning perspective, personality is merely the sum of everything you do, not what you think or feel. Thus, the causes of behaviour were those which could be be observed directly. Theoretically, a person's behaviors derived from the paired associations (Classical or Pavlovian Conditioning) and the rewards and punishments (Instrumental or Operant Conditioning) found in the social and physical world.

However, many learning theorists came to believe that this was too simplistic, so a more elaborate theory was developed in which the humans are seen as more self-directive. We can learn quickly and, importantly, our cognitions are seen to affect our learning. Thus Social Learning Theory and Social Cognitive Theory views internal (cognitive) and social events as being important as well as external  behavioral events.

According to social learning perspectives, personality consists of all learned tendencies a person has acquired, including those from social influences. Thus, for example, one of arguments for differences in personality across cultures is different social practices, particularly during childhood.  Would you have been the same person you are today had you been brought up in vastly different circumstances in a different country?  At the very least, you would probably have quite different beliefs and views of the world and yourself.  This is because some cultures encourage and reward certain behaviours, whilst other cultures value and emphasize certain other behaviours.

Because of such criticisms, there has been considerable development of learning theories allowing for integration of the role of social learning and cognition.


Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2000). Perspectives on personality (4th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Feist, J. (1985).  Theories of Personality (3rd ed.).  New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Funder, D. C. (1997). The Personality Puzzle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Phares, J. E. (1991).  Introduction to Personality (3rd ed.).  Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.