Comparing and Contrasting Behaviorism and Cognitive Theories of Personality

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Both cognitive and behaviorist theories share some common axioms towards the development of personality traits or personality theory. They try to explain the concept of human behavior and find themselves in the category of old personality theories. However, the two theories differ with respect to their key milestones used in illustrating the learning approach or personality development of an individual (Abelson & Tannenbaum, 1968, pp. 27-32). Psychologists or scholars in personality theory view the behaviorist approach as a method that concerns individual observable behaviors based on the key assumption that learning is associated with particular events, their consequences as either desirable or positive response or undesirable or negative responses. Further, behaviorism concept shows that related events take place coherently or together to trigger similar responses towards influencing an individual’s behavior. Meanwhile, this theory treats both human and animal in a similar way of response towards their responses to stimuli and does not note any variance between human beings and animals as the partakers of behavior change during learning activities (Bandura, 1989, pp. 8-11).

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Conversely, cognitive theory contributes towards the development of personality theories for explaining why individuals exhibit different personality traits and associate it with an internal formation of an individual that accelerates its learning process (Abelson & Tannenbaum, 1968). This theory holds on unique maxims that perceive human beings as having the potential to process and establish information in a distinct way of their mind setting. The theory is unique to behaviorism theory as it negates the concept of observable behaviors but rather assesses the process behind the visible behaviors of human beings or of an individual. the major concept of cognitive development based on the study of the memory and process of an individual’s decision-making.

Therefore, in a nutshell, this analysis will compare and contrast the concept of behaviorism theory and cognitive theory with respect to personality theories of learning (Demirezen, 1988). The major tenets that hold the application of each theory will be well articulated and the constraints or strengths of each theory will be explored to showcase their relevance in the psychology of personality therapy. In regard to behavioral theory, the main concepts holding the existence and relevance of this theory will evaluate the classical conditioning and operant conditioning. The classical conditioning of Ivan Pavlov experiment illustrates the behaviorist concept in relation to response to stimuli in which the specimen (dog) response or salivation acts as the cornerstone of human and animal behavior (Rescorla, 1988). The operant conditioning or the instrumental conditioning is mainly about regard for good behavior. On the contrary, the cognitive theory develops on chaining concepts of breaking tasks into components for efficient learning progress, prompting or the use of desired responses, shaping concept or rewarding behavior, modeling and Systematic Desensitization process of helping an individual to overcome his/her phobias.

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The construct of behaviorism theory is very distinct and unique as compared to other personality theories. The behaviorist approach emphasizes visible or external observable change in an individual or animal with respect to its environment. The behavioral concept of learning negates the importance of the internal state of an individual as a factor towards behavior change in learning aspects (Demirezen, 1988). The application of behavioral theory is anchored on classical conditioning, reinforcement and punishment or responses associated with every action related to an individual’s behavior. According to behavioral approach, it alludes that all behaviors are adopted through the learning process as illustrated by the Ivan Pavlov experiment. The salivation manifestation of the dog used by Ivan indicated the responses that every individual will exhibit while undergoing certain learning activities. The salivating dog indicates the positive response of a behavior change for an animal or human being. Further, Ivan Pavlov experiment of classical conditioning justifies the behavior change of the dog in which the dog salivates when the bell is ringing at the exact time, hence indicating that human or animal can be conditioned to certain activities and respond positively based on the reinforcement of stimuli. Behaviorism concept emphasizes on continuous reinforcement as a fundamental aspect of learning or behavior change especially when an individual or animal is being introduced to new events or learning concepts. According to Ivan Pavlov, it is necessary to apply intermittent reinforcement when the desired behavior has been achieved to maintain the establishment of such behaviors (Rescorla, 1988).

The intermittent reinforcement of the desired behavior impacted on the acquisition and establishment of the desired behavior to prevailing upon an animal or human being (Demirezen, 1988). In this context, the behavioral psychology approach undergoes various scenarios such as the acquisition of the expected behavior in which the learning process is expedited. The acquisition of any behavior commences at an initial point of learning in which the response is initiated and intermittent reinforcement is prompted for the effective gradual strengthening of the behavior (Rescorla, 1988). Thereafter, extinction or decrease of conditioned response prevails, spontaneous recovery or reappearance of the conditioned response appear, stimulus generalization or the occurrence of similar responses after conditioned responses and discrimination or the differentiation of conditioned stimuli and unconditioned stimuli.

The cognitive theory assesses the reason why people behaves in a particular way and illustrate the internal process of how individual’s mind operate with regard to the state of the mind and decision-making process (Bandura, 1989). As a psychological theory, cognitive approach to personality theory emphasizes on the concept of the mind on which it assesses the pattern of human thinking, the process of perceiving and process information, remembering certain events and reinforcement of learning activities. Most importantly, the fundamental aspect of cognitive approach to human behavior is how humans acquire, process and store information for accurate retrieval of the stored information. Further, cognitive theorists believe that learning or acquisition of certain behavior or generally behavior change is a matter of internal process for integrating information in intellectual structure (Abelson & Tannenbaum, 1968). Many processes for the acquisition and retaining of new information or behavior depend on the internal state or mental state of an individual. The cognitive initial stage of behavior change or acquisition of information for the learners involves various sequences for the reliance of learning process.

Secondly, a cognitive approach for behavior change undergoes fixation behavior change in which an individual or a learner starts to acquire certain behaviors or personality traits. Cognitive approach is essential in evaluating behavior change since it involves human mental state and intellectual capacity towards the development of certain individuals. There is the wide application of the cognitive theory of personality. Through assessment of an individual’s behavior, the accuracy of decision-making and structure of curriculum for behavior change is essential in neuroscience and sociology (Abelson & Tannenbaum, 1968).  Precisely, cognitive theory is a reaction to the behavioral theory that engages the internal state or mental understanding of humans as opposed to external observable features put forward by behavioral theory.

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The two theory movements assert that learning or acquisition of behavior must be objective and focus on the result of the research. The two theories do not acknowledge the effect of personal experiences as part of learning or factors behind the influence of an individual’s behavior. Generally, the two theory movements acknowledge the change of behavior basing the response on the change of stimuli as either external or internal changes. Behaviorist theory perceives human behavior as more of acquisition of new behavior with respect to the environment and its stimulus that aids the change in behavior through reinforcement. Behaviorist theorists include Pavlov of 1849-1936, Skinner of 1904-1990 and Watson of 1878-1958 (Demirezen, 1988). Conversely, cognitive approach views change in behavior or acquisition of new traits through the learning process as a conscious process that involves mental activities such as decision-making process and intellectual interpretation of information. For instance, the behavioral theory viewpoint on language acquisition or learning holds that acquisition of language is an unconscious and automatic process as opposed to cognitive theorists’ viewpoint. In regard to cognitive notions about responses, it asserts that responses are as a result of intuition and deliberate patterning. The major contributors to cognitive theory includes Jean Piaget, Robert Gagne and Lev Vygotsky (Abelson & Tannenbaum, 1968).

Behavioral concepts do not note any difference between human and animal and therefore generalizes its subject of research on both animals and human beings while cognitive theory’s subject of research is based on human orientation. As behavioral theory emphasizes on external visible behavioral changes observed in both animal and human, cognitive theory evaluates human personality as an abstract of mental process influencing human behavior (Demirezen, 1988). Both theories apply the subjective metaphors in which the behavioral approach uses stimulus and responses metaphor science while cognitive uses information processing to interpret human behavior. The two theories use mechanisms as essential assumptions of behavior change such as the classical conditioning approach. On the other hand, the two theories differ on various concepts such as behaviorism’s notion that reflexes and reinforcements do not account for exceptional human behavior. Moreover, cognitive skills illustrate how human reasons process information, make a decision while behaviorism strictly emphasizes on external factors such as the effect of environmental stimuli or observable features of animal and human that portrays their behaviors.

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Obviously, there are similarities and differences between behavioral theory and cognitive theory of personality as shown above. It is undoubtedly that the two theories try to explain personality traits or an individual’s behavior, as well as being some of the old psychological theories of personality and behavioral learning approaches. On the other hand, the two theories differ on the basis of their principles and subjects on which the assumptions were made. Behaviorism theory applies to both human and animal, hence generalizing its palpability in behavioral assessment (Demirezen, 1988). On the contrary, cognitive strictly emphasizes human beings as the basic subject for the mental evaluation for behavior change (Bandura, 1989). The behaviorist approach is, therefore, more of stimulation as compared to the cognitive approach that stands to be more of considerations on intellectual constraints. Thus, in the case of the behavioral approach, the concept of free will remains an illusion or imaginary since the subjects are geared towards responding to stimuli and environmental orientation, hence making a response or human behavior to be automatic to an environmental stimulus (Demirezen, 1988). Contrariwise, cognitive theory encounters the multifariousness of the mind and observes human as people with the ability to make considerations or decision-making at their own free will and draw answers through judgments and reflections based on mental or intellectual concepts (Abelson & Tannenbaum, 1968).

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  1. Abelson, R. P., & Tannenbaum, P. H. (1968). Theories of cognitive consistency. A sourcebook.
  2. Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American psychologist, 44(9), 1175.
  3. Demirezen, M. (1988). Behaviorist theory and language learning. Hacettepe Üniversitesi Eðitim Fakültesi Dergisi, 3, 135-40.
  4. Rescorla, R. A. (1988). Behavioral studies of Pavlovian conditioning. Annual review of neuroscience, 11(1), 329-352.
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