Individual Differences


Critique of Learning
Perspectives on Personality

Last updated:
29 Sep 2003

Strengths of the learning perspectives on personality:

  • Impressive experimental evidence (Scientific, testable, supported by research findings)

  • Importance of the environment: explains situational variations in behaviour

  • Building blocks can explain complex behavioural patterns

  • Social cognitive concepts have many useful applications

  • Bandura’s theory has been open to change and now incorporates and increased emphasis on cognitive process

  • Useful for explaining emotional reactions and action tendencies

  • Has useful therapeutic applications (e.g., Behaviour therapy is focused and effective for a variety of behaviour problems: Cognitive Behavior Therapy methods are popular)

But do learning perspectives cover the whole story of personality? For example language is certainly acquired to some degree via learning processes: i.e. operant conditioning, reinforcement and shaping all play a part. But according to Noam Chomsky (1959) these concepts simply DON’T explain fully how a child learns to speak. How for example do children come up with sentences they’ve never heard before? Why the incredible similarity in language development across cultures?

Basically, does behaviour = personality?

What about the subjective qualities that seem so important to personality?

One of the essential underlying questions about theories based on animal research in laboratories is ‘does human behaviour fit in among this forced choice paradigm?’ Experiments using animals usually have one or maybe two possible solutions and the animal essentially just has to make a choice between two variables – i.e. go left or right, press the left or right button etc. But is this how we make choices? Is the possible list of solutions to a problem limited to one or two choices?

Also, because of the obvious lack of investigating the role of cognition, learning theorists had to adapt their theories and move on. Hence the adaptation to social learning and social cognitive theories.

 Limitations of the learning perspectives on personality:

  • tend to explain specific behaviour and behaviour changes but not a comprehensive theory of personality

  • the ‘personhood’ seems missing

  • role of biology ignored: overlooks individual differences present from birth

  • in depth case studies are lacking, partly because comprehensive personality assessment tests have not been developed from the learning perspective