Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Personality, Personality "Theory" and Dissociative Identity Disorder: What Behavior Analysis Can Contribute and Clarify

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Personality, Personality "Theory" and Dissociative Identity Disorder: What Behavior Analysis Can Contribute and Clarify

Article excerpt


Behavior analytic accounts of Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, are rarely presented in depth. This lack of recognition is due to misunderstanding the applicability of the behavior analytic position on personality, abnormality, and related issues. Arguments are made here that a behavioral analysis of Dissociative Identity Disorder demystifies and clarifies these behaviors. Behavior analysts can communicate to a wider audience by addressing more phenomena of a clinical and popular interest.


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. …

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