Into the Lion's Den: Incorporating Personality and Evolutionary Psychology to Expand Clinical Behavior Analysis

By Harrington, Jennifer A.; Fink, Brandi C. et al. | International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Into the Lion's Den: Incorporating Personality and Evolutionary Psychology to Expand Clinical Behavior Analysis


Harrington, Jennifer A., Fink, Brandi C., Dougher, Michael J., International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy


A person is not an originating agent; he is a locus, a point at which many genetic and environmental conditions come together in a joint effect. As such, he remains unquestionably unique. No one else...has his genetic endowment, and without exception no one else has his personal history. Hence no one else will behave in precisely the same way.

B. F. Skinner (1974, p. 185)

Personality is a topic that has been relatively neglected in behavior analysis (Dougher & Hackbert, 2000).There is a common misperception among psychologists that behavior analysts have neglected personality because they simply are not interested in the topic (Maddi, 1996). To quote from a graduate level personality text, "Do radical behaviorists really deny the existence of common, unchangeable aspects of human nature? No, but they will not speculate about them, and they consider them unimportant in behavior modification" (Maddi, p. 438). This apparent lack of interest also is commonly attributed to behavior analysts being extreme or radical environmentalists. As Meehl (1986) reports, a common assumption about behavior analysts is "that they don't like traits and they don't like genes" (p. 315). Meehl goes on to assert that while operant behaviorists often dislike trait language, they need not. We agree with this assertion. In fact, it is our contention that trait or personality language actually has something to offer a science of behavior, if we can come to understand it in a useful way. More precisely, if we can talk about personality in functional as opposed to structural terms. A functional understanding of personality is useful precisely because it advances the objectives of behavior analysis, i.e., prediction and control. Moreover, by ignoring an aspect of human behavior that most psychologists find both important and inherently interesting behavior analysis runs the risk of professional marginalization and misses an important opportunity to influence the field.

BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS AND PERSONALITY

The fact that behavior analysts do not spend much professional time talking about personality should not be considered evidence that we have nothing of interest or importance to say about the topic. Certainly, behavior analysts commonly use personality or trait terminology in casual discourse. As Meehl (1986) reports, even Skinner found some use for the measurement of personality traits as he routinely checked applicants' scores on the Miller Analogies Test before admitting a student for graduate study. Although sparse, there are references to personality in the behavior analytic literature (e.g., Harzem, 1984; Lamal, 1991; Lundin, 1974; Lubinski and Thompson, 1986; Poling, Schlinger, Starin, and Blakely, 1990; Parker, Boiling and Kohlenberg, 1998; Tustin, 2000; Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman and Richman, 1982). Harzem (1984) advocated that, "extension of the experimental analysis of behavior to the study of individual differences and personality is likely to be important both scientifically and for the future growth of behavior analysis" (p. 385). Despite this, behavior analysis has not embraced the study of personality or individual differences, and it is fair to ask why. One possibility is that personality is not easily studied. It is necessarily historical and does not readily lend itself to laboratory based experimental analysis. Furthermore, the study of personality often involves considerations of genetic or phylogenetic variables. Although Skinner (e.g., 1977) made it explicitly clear that, "The behavior of organisms is a single field in which both phylogeny and ontogeny must be taken into account" (p. 1012), the relative influences of phylogenetic variables and the processes by which they affect behavior has been relatively neglected by behavior analysts. This neglect likely has served to perpetuate the misperception that behavior analysts insist that all behavior is the result of conditioning or ontogenetic variables. Given this situation, the purpose of this paper is to address from a behavior analytic perspective some data from the personality and evolutionary psychology literatures and to illustrate the implications of this conceptual analysis for clinical behavior analysis. …

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