Friday, May 27, 2011

Personality Analysis: Humanist/Existential and Learning Theories

Learning theory is defined as the process by which humans learn or how they accommodate a relatively permanent behavioral change or its potential (Feist & Feist, 2000). Learning theories within this analysis are Skinner's behaviorism, Bandura's social cognitive theory, Rotter and Mischel's cognitive social theory, and Kelly's psychology of personal constructs. Humanism and existentialism theories of Rogers, May, and Maslow adopt a holistic approach to psychological health and human existence by determining meaning, values, tragedy, personal experience and responsibility, human potential, spirituality, and self-actualization (Colman, ed., 2010). Combining the knowledge of both learning and humanist/existential theories paints a broad picture of human nature and personality as it develops by reaction to the external environment, especially within the social framework while accommodating the powerful affects of one's own internal climate.

Personality as it Affects Situational Behavior

According to learning theory, individuals behave according to the reciprocity of environmental, cognitive, and behavioral conditions. Personal beliefs of whether or not they can accomplish the task influence people's ability to do so. Bandura (1997) calls this expectation self-efficacy. He believed the strength of personal efficacy heavily influences how an individual reacts in a given situation. However, even though a significant influence, it is not the exclusive affect on behavior. In combination with the environment, previous behavior, and other individual variables such as personal expectations, cause behavior (Feist & Feist, 2009).

In the behaviorist learning theory, learning takes place in a trial and error fashion, and individuals try different behaviors until they engage in one that is reinforcing. Learning theory states individuals apply previously learned material as a means to developing specific expectancy and familiar reward values in similar situations (Feist & Feist, 2009). Before producing behavior in a new situation, the individual reviews similar experiences to determine the best action and chooses one that will evoke a similar outcome. In some learning theories, the learner is passive and simply responds to environmental stimuli. Cognitive learning theory believes people are thoughtful rational beings whose behavior is determined by complex thought processes. Rotter believed certain variables were applied in situational behavior: "expectancy, behavior potential, reinforcement, and the psychological situation" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 544). He thought people's situational behavior is a composite of their expectations of reinforcement and the amount of influence their needs demand in the situation (Feist & Feist, 2009). Mischel's cognitive-affective theory claims situational and other behaviors are produced from somewhat durable personal characteristics and cognitive processes that work together within a particular circumstance. Although he acknowledged this relative stability, he contended the setting has a powerful influence on behavior (Feist & Feist, 2009). Kelly thought people choose behaviors from various options within a personally constructed system, and they make such choices based on their anticipation of events.

Humanism is a paradigm approach that believes learning is implemented as a personal act to fulfill personal potential. The actions of individuals in situational behavior are dependent on the level of actuated potential from which an individual is capable of responding. In humanistic theory, learners have affective and cognitive needs by which they will respond to a situation. Within a cooperative supportive environment, an individual will learn and react appropriately in any situation. According to a humanist perspective, responses to a specific situation will be directly related to the current needs and satisfaction of the individual involved in the particular circumstance. The individual will respond in a way ultimately consequential to fulfilling current needs, or those to which the individual is aspiring.

Personality Characteristics within the Perspectives

The learning theories lean toward the belief that personality is an accumulation of learned inclinations that continue throughout the lifespan. Kelly believed present awareness guides the development of personality according to how one anticipates specific events and as such, all human activity is influenced by anticipation (Feist & Feist, 2009). Skinner thought genetics plays a significant role in the development of personality, and genetic variance accounts for unique personalities, but ultimately, environment shapes the personality (Feist & Feist, 2009). Skinner believed climate, geographical environment, and personal physical strength in relation to animals helped shape the general personality of humankind, but the social environment affects and produces unique personality types. Skinner noted personality as "at best a repertoire of behavior imparted by an organized set of contingencies" (Skinner, 1974, as cited by Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 472).

Bandura understood human nature as "self-regulating, proactive, self-reflective, and self-organizing" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 486). He recognized observational learning enables individuals to learn without performing behavior. Rotter believed people's personal history and experiences shapes their personalities and goals, but emphasized the similarities in people whereas Mischel considered individual differences and variations in behavior more significant. He thought human behavior adapts to the interaction of "stable personality traits and the situation, which includes a number of personal variables" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 546). Kelly's theory of dichotomy corollary determined personality constructs are double-sided and individuals choose the one they believe will extend their future options. Learning theories are criticized for neither accommodating "individual differences, intelligence, genetic factors, nor the whole realm of personality" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 472).

Humanistic psychology believes in the natural drive toward personal development, and people freely make decisions regardless of environmental factors. Free will is an important cause in the development of personality, and the drive toward self-actualization is a powerful motivation for the creation of the personality (Boeree, 1997). Humanism contends people make choices and actively participate in the creation of their personalities. Rollo May theorized three relationships form the basis for personality: one's relationship with the environment, with others, and with oneself. The influence of all three relationships produces and contributes to the personality's ongoing evolution (Feist & Feist, 2009). Maslow thought biological components provided the basic parameter for the individual; however, environmental and cultural affects shaped the ego identity or personality (Feist & Feist, 2009). Rogers recognized self-awareness in humans, and this awareness enabled them to make choices and actively participate in the creation of their own personalities (Boeree, 1997).

Explanation of Interpersonal Relations

According to the humanist/existential perspective, people associate with others and engage in productive and healthy relationships, although ultimately, they are alone. Abraham Maslow believed fulfilling love and belongingness was a primal need and must be filled by friendship, creating a family, having a mate and maintaining associations with others. He proposed fulfillment at this level was essential for other levels of human success (Feist & Feist, 2009). Carl Rogers believed having a caregiver who had positive regard for the child fostered positive self-regard that promotes psychological growth. Positive regard from others is essential for healthy development and success toward self-actualization (Boeree, 1997). May's existentialism proposed although people associate with others and form healthy relationships, they ultimately choose what they will become. The general perspective of humanism and existentialism viewed interpersonal relationships as an integral part of human life, without which growth and development may not be psychologically healthy (Hoffman, 2004). Humanism emphasized interpersonal relationships as an essential component to developing personality. Maslow believed people fulfilled in interpersonal relationships have confidence in social affairs and experience loving reciprocity with those important to them (Feist & Feist, 2009).

From a learning perspective, people associate with others because they receive some type of reward or reinforcement for doing so. Humans originally formed familial groups as protection from animals natural forces, or enemy clans or tribes. In the same way, people continue to form associations because they are reinforced for that particular behavior. Even when not reinforced, people will maintain memberships because of personal associations within the group from which they receive reinforcement (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Social constructivism claims knowledge, behavior, and personality are constructed from social engagement, and humans build new ideas and concepts that are based on current and past knowledge or experience (Feist & Feist, 2009). Bandura (1997) believed people learn from experience, although much of human learning is derived from the observation of others, and without social experiences, growth and development would be stunted. Rotter believed human behavior is "best predicted from an understanding of the interaction of people with their meaningful environments" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 510). Mischel agreed with Bandura in his belief that an essential component of personality development depends on the observations of others within one's environment. Rotter stressed the importance of learning within a social environment and Mischel agreed, but maintained the belief in the importance of genetic factors. Kelly thought social influences were more significant than biological ones. He believed humans are influenced by each other and in constructing their own personality they involve the constructs of personally significant individuals. Kelly did clarify however, "the actions of others do not mold their behavior; rather, it is their interpretation of events that changes their behavior" (Feist & Feist, 2009, p. 572).


Learning theories define human learning and its resulting behavior and personality as a response to the environment with some internal considerations, whereas humanistic theory believes in a greater tendency for internal human drive toward an ultimate human state of self that is predetermined or species-specific. The different perspectives regarding the affect of personalities on situational behavior, the distinct characterizations of personality and human nature, and the diverse explanations of interpersonal relations all provide an abundance of thought and a more dimensional understanding of humanity within the matrix of psychological thought and application.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Boeree, C. G. (1997). Carl Rogers. My Webspace Files. Retrieved April 27, 2011, from

Colman, A. M. (Ed.). (2010). Humanistic psychology. In Oxford Reference Online. Retrieved May 7, 2011, from

Feist, J. & Feist, G. J. (2009). Theories of personality (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Hoffman, L. (2004). Existential therapy. Existential Therapy Homepage. Retrieved May 08, 2011, from

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