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Archetypes Through a Psych Lens: Behaviorism

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 27, 2021

The father of behaviorism is B. F. Skinner. Yet another founding father of Psychology that one cannot bypass when talking about theories of personality.

The man himself, known for having said “give me a child, and I'll shape him into anything”

Skinner's theory was radical and groundbreaking in that it is a theory of personality as an aggregate of a person's learning experiences.

That means that behaviorism does not recognize free will. It does not recognize traits or characteristics. Behaviorism only recognizes “reinforced behaviors” (more about that in a bit). Skinner has a quote that illustrates his approach to the human experience, and how people are shaped to be who they are, very succintly:

“I did not direct my life. I didn't design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That's what life is.”

Before we can go any further, I must explain what learning means in behaviorist terms. For behaviorism, learning is the change of behavior.

For example, when you touch the hot stove, get burned, and then never touch the stove again before checking if it's hot, learning has taken place.

If behavior doesn't change in any overt manner, then learning hasn't taken place. For example, if you eat bad oysters, have a horrible food poisoning episode, and then as soon as you are okay again and get access to oysters, you eat them again, learning has not taken place.

How do we learn, then? Why do we learn some things, while we don't others?

Skinner posited that we learn because we are driven to survive. Anything that helps us survive in some manner, becomes reinforcing to us and the behavior that produced the reinforcement is likely to happen again. When this link between reinforcement and reinforced behavior is solidified, learning has taken place, and this learning experience is added to all our others. These learning experiences then shape our personality.

An important thing to note is that “what helps us survive” and “what is reinforcement” CAN BE ANYTHING. That includes what we would estimate/value as positive AND negative. Here is an example:

A mom giving her kid a sweet for being good at the doctor's is positive reinforcement for calm behavior at the doctor's. Enough of these types of learning experiences and the child is likely to develop a calm, behaved demeanour.

A mom giving her kid a sweet to shut him up because he's throwing a tantrum in the supermarked is ALSO positive reinforcement for throwing tantrums at the supermarket. Enough of these types of learning experiences and the child is likely to develop a loud, obnoxious, and demanding attitude whenever he/she wants something.

Also- a mom that neglects her child, and only punishes him/her when he/she acts out is ALSO positive reinforcement for acting out, because she gives her kid attention that he/she craves, even if that attention is negative since it's punishment, thus reinforcing the kid's acting out behavior.

The above examples are positive reinforcement: engaging in/enhancing behavior to gain access to a stimulus that is rewarding in some way. The ones I'm about to give now are examples of negative reinforcement: engaging in/ enhancing behavior to AVOID or REMOVE a noxious stimulus. So-

When a mom gives her kid a sweet to stop him/her from throwing a temper tantrum in the supermarket, the mom receives negative reinforcement: by giving her kid the sweet, she REMOVES the noxious stimulus of his/her temper tantrum and receives peace and quiet instead.

When you put on a hat because it's very sunny outside, you are doing it because you seek to REMOVE the potential of the noxious stimulus of getting sunstroke and thus you are negatively reinforced to keep on doing it.

In the end, Skinner and behaviorists in general are saying that this is the mechanism that controls us:

The ‘learner’ is us, and the ‘instructor’ is anything that can make us change our behavior: our parents, our teachers, the weather, a virus, a plague, abundance of food or famine, war or peace, our pet, the table we stump our toe against and then kick in anger, and so on.

Bottom line, according to Behaviorism and behaviorists in general, we as individuals are a product of our environment 100%. Nothing else shapes us and we can't go against our own learning experiences.

Now, there are a lot of learning mechanisms, from classical conditioning (Pavlov's dog) to operant conditioning (lever pressing rats) to a lot more variations that I invite you to explore if you like. But for the purposes of writing, these are the principles you need to keep in mind.

When building a character through the lens of Behaviorism, you need to account for EVERY TRAIT (which isn't a ‘trait’ but a result of a bunch of learning experiences) as having been yielded by stimuli that yielded some kind of reinforcement in the past which netted the behavior you want.

Is your character generous? - where/how did they learn that? Was it learning by imitation? What reinforced that behavior rather than a tightwad's behavior?

Is your character an introvert? - where/how did they learn that? In what way were they reinforced to be introvert rather than an extrovert?

Is your character prone to shoplifting? -where/how did they learn that? How were they reinforced to keep doing it despite potentially noxious stimuli like getting arrested? (or is getting arrested reinforcing in some way for them?)

Skinner's school of thought is one I have a lot of respect for, even though I dislike it too: first off, because it's quantifiable. Second off, because it does bring forth results when used properly. Why do I dislike it? Because it fails to account for certain things and seeks to explain all behavior in a very sweeping manner inspite of the things it cannot account for- such as motivation. But a very big element of how we are shaped IS through behavioral principles and that cannot be ignored. It only needs to be added to, and that is what Cognitive Theories did.

PS: it is the end of this article and I realised I skipped Freud's second part about the oral/anal/phallic stages of psychosexual development. I apologize for that. I'll come back to it when I'm done with all the theories. Promise.

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PaulEberhardt at 2:35AM, March 29, 2021

Case in point: I remember a scene from the Simpsons where Lisa experiments with Homer and Bart, only to find that classic conditioning doesn't quite work with them. (And principal Skinner is suspiciously responsive to operant conditioning by his mom, isn't he?) The episode writers clearly know what they're doing. My point is, you don't have to be familiar with behaviorism to get these kinds of gag - it matches our daily observations so well that people more or less instinctively expect characters to behave according to the patterns behaviorism predicts. To consciously create this kind of gags (and other more serious things), and perhaps insert one Easter egg or another for those in the know, having done your homework about behaviorism is very, very helpful indeed.

PaulEberhardt at 2:25AM, March 29, 2021

Another theory I'm not a great fan of either, but which I apply just about every single day in my line of work. I guess we're getting along really well, Tantz. Then again, I'm not the greatest fan of Chomsky either (who is a genius in linguistics and is also famous for picking behaviorism apart, basing his arguments on language acquisition, as well as a few other things; don't get him started on politics ;) ). For writing characters and especially about the way they develop, behaviourism is a really great tool. I'll second Bravo on that 100%. It works especially well here, (1) because characters aren't persons but models of persons and (2) because everyone instinctively expects it to work.

PIT_FACE at 6:17AM, March 28, 2021

(con't) the least any of us can do as commentators is to stay on the topic at hand and engage with it in a good-faith manner. Please keep this in mind and otherwise, please continue to feel free to interact on The Duck.

PIT_FACE at 6:16AM, March 28, 2021

Criticization of the theories is one thing but please (Huscicho in particular, because you seem to have a habit of being needlessly critical of Tantz's series, here) remember what this series of newsposts is about. Please discuss the topic under the framework of which it was presented, which is that of writing characters. Not going to lie, you sound very arrogant and up on your high horse with each of these articles and by now, I'm kind of wondering if you're either trying to prove something to the rest of us or if you have a chip on your shoulder since you are utterly unable to talk about to topic in the context of which it is presented and often divert to stuffy, spuedo-critical non-engagement. While criticization is welcome on the forums and the newsposts, this is starting to sound a lot like there's something more going on and i would like to remind EVERYONE here (though most of you are just fine) that our article writers do this service for us of their own will, without payment.

Tantz_Aerine at 2:56AM, March 28, 2021

Well said, Bravo! I would think people would remember my intro where I explain exactly that.

Tantz_Aerine at 2:55AM, March 28, 2021

Hushicho: If the behaviorist approach isn't for you, don't follow it for building your characters. But to call behaviorism a flimsy theory, or a flimsy framework to build your character with just implies you either haven't studied it enough (and this article is only an invitation for you to do so) or don't want to do the work in creating a detailed background that connects directly to your character's behavior. I don't call even Freud's theory flimsy, despite disliking it so, because it would be superfluous and laughable to do for anyone realizing the sheer scope of its influence and impact. Even more so for Behaviorism which produces QUANTIFIABLE RESULTS that can be REPLICATED. So to do so for Behaviorism is something I don't advise you if you don't want to be laughed out of the room in other company. Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems Theory are my favourites and up next, so perhaps don't jump the gun before I call this series done ;)

bravo1102 at 9:45PM, March 27, 2021

Are you writing fiction or a self help book? If fiction behavioralism is a tool. So this reinforcement yielded this result and we get this character. It's all hypothetical and all in your imagination so it's still a valuable tool for figuring out how someone got to where you bring them out in a story. We're talking fiction here and using psychology to craft characters not using psychology on real people. Knowing the theories you can also break down how other writers have created characters using this methodology. It's a great tool, but like any tool it has the place where it's appropriate and the place where it's not. A screwdriver isn't the best tool to pound in a nail but can work when there's nothing else.

hushicho at 3:49PM, March 27, 2021

It's fundamentally a "nature versus nurture" debate, and Skinner is kind of a giant monster. His theories also have giant holes in them that really need a whole lot more discussion and development. I don't think it's a particularly viable approach, especially with such flimsy theory being applied here, to creative anything, really. Bring on something like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, if you want to look at major elements of developing a character's motivations that are a bit more accessible and a bit less arguable and often dehumanizing. Skinner's theories also take away a huge amount of agency, and they thus undermine motivation of a character entirely...neither of which are a great help in the development of said character or story.

Tantz_Aerine at 9:48AM, March 27, 2021

Well said!

Corruption at 8:54AM, March 27, 2021

Firstly to deal with the PS; Freud had his own mental issues that made every focus on sexual desires (Yes, I have studied that) When it comes to behaviorism, using it to help explain characters is a good idea, but just remember that a person could go an unexpected way when given reinforcement A parent beats a kid to make them subservant and to scared to disobey them may drive them to get tough and rebel, maybe even killing them, or to look for others to help them. Another may endure it and flee when possible. And a mindf**k for childhood stories: A Hero of common birth beats and kills a great evil, slaughtering their minions. For this he is rewarded along the way and marries the princess, eventually becoming king with no training. (Positive reinforcement for violence and killing.) How would he deal with any problems during his rule?

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