Behavior Analysis and Personality Psychology


Applied Behavior Analysis and Personality Psychology at first glance have very little in common. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) comes from the behaviorist tradition of the purely observable, and Personality Psychology features variables that are often seen within the individual and outside of direct measurement. As time moves on in the field of psychology, and the behavioral fields specifically, there is a call for greater breadth and understanding from practitioners across more than one domain. Behaviorism as a field of psychology is alive and well, but sometimes practitioners can pigeonhole themselves (pardon the pun) into the strict traditionalist ideas of the early 20th century, leaving the cognitive revolution and relevant psychological progress aside.

Few people realize, that this is not too a large gulf to bridge.

The topic of personality and temperament in individuals was touched on by B.F Skinner himself in “Science and Human Behavior” (1951) and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1971), but as many would suspect, the meaning of the word personality was operationalized to a series of observable concepts such as “response tendencies”. These tendencies of responding were used to explain how individuals varied in their sensitivity to stimuli. It stands to reason that everyone in their life has come across another individual who was not impacted by a stimulus in the same way as themselves. This is a basic part of humanity. This is the reason we need to clinically perform preference assessments. Individual differences occur regardless of standardized stimuli. No matter how precisely we form a potential reinforcer, no matter how accurate the degree of the amount, or intensity, or even how carefully a schedule is arranged; one person may respond differently to it than another. And that is not including motivating operation factors like deprivation and satiation. Sometimes people are affected by different things in different ways, and they respond to different things in different ways.

Personality Psychology concerns itself with these individual differences. It is a field that is interested in the unique differences of the thinking, behaving, and feeling of individuals. Personality Psychology studies traits or factors based on the similarities and differences of individuals. Some feature traits such as Extraversion, Neuroticism, and Psychoticism (Eysenck Personality Inventory), Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (The Big Five). Others add in the traits of Honesty and Humility (HEXACO). Although there are many different theories on how these personality traits are formed, are measured, and are predictive; they still aim to explain something that strict observation of antecedent or consequence stimuli appears to miss. Behaviorists and practitioners of Applied Behavior Analysis may look at these things and pump their brakes. After all, it seems like a challenge to align the methods found in Personality Psychology to the dimensions of behavior analysis that Baer, et al. constructed in 1968. How does personality fit into a strictly behavioral framework? What about making personality framework conceptually systematic? Or could an experimenter even demonstrate control in a way to be analytic? Baer, Wolf, and Risley themselves said that a self-reported verbal behavior could not be accepted as measurable unless it was substantiated independently. How do we do it, then?

First, we may want to take a step back and work on defining what we are looking at. Behaviorists and ABA practitioners are used to a functional analytic approach which aims to identify exactly that; functional relationships between the environment and clinically targeted behaviors. Personality Psychology, on the other hand, is a little more topographical in how traits are defined. They look at classifying traits by what they present as, how they appear, and reports of how people act, and think, with less emphasis on that environment link. One of the great researchers to bridge these two ways of studying personalities, tendencies, and behavior, was Jeffrey Gray who looked at the personality inventories and questionnaires of Hans Jürgen Eysenck, and developed a theoretical model which related these personality and temperament factors to behavioral inhibition (behaviors likely to be inhibited where cues of punishment or lack of reinforcement are found), and behavioral activation (behaviors likely to be activated in the presence of possible reinforcement or cues of no punishment). Here, personality traits of extraversion and introversion, for example, were related to dimensions of anxiety or impulsivity which could be easier to define and study behaviorally. Gray (1981) was interested in how these traits could explain “sensitivity” (higher responding) or “hypo-responsiveness” (lower responding) to punishment and reinforcement stimuli.

Would someone who was rated higher in extraversion/low-anxiety respond a certain way to social positive reinforcement?

Would someone who was rated higher in introversion/high-anxiety respond a certain way to social negative reinforcement?

These are some questions that might pique the interest on both sides of the fence, both Behavior Analytic, and Personality Psychology. Take any one of those personality traits above, and you may find similar ways to study it behaviorally. The literature on this type of work is impressive. Gray’s work which began in the 1970s, went on for over 30 years. There is a wealth of literature on the topic of his theoretical models, and the topics of the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) which relates factors that impact a reduction of responding, and Behavioral Activation System (BAS) which relates factors that impact an increase in response activation, from Gray’s work in 1981. In 2000, Gray & McNaughton presented a third theoretical system called FFFS (fight-flight-freeze system) to explain responses to unconditioned aversive stimuli in which emotionally regulated states of “fear and panic” play a role in defensive aggression or avoidance behaviors. These took into account neuropsychology and went even further to suggest links to conflict avoidance in humans in day to day life. The literature on this is absolutely fascinating in how it finds a way to bring behavioral analytic concepts to a new arena.

Could it be possible for one day to see Personality Psychologists talking about reinforcement and punishment sensitivity? How about Behavior Analysts talking about traits when considering consequence strategies? At the very least, it’s a conversation that neither field might have had without knowing. We can only hope to gain from stepping outside of traditional boundaries and broaden our intellectual horizons.

Comments? Questions? Thoughts? Leave them below!


Baer, D. M., Wolf, M. M., & Risley, T. R. (1968). Some
current dimensions of applied behavior anlysis. Journal of
applied behavior analysis, 1(1), 91-97.

Big Five personality traits. (2018, April 19). Retrieved from
Farmer, R. F. (2005). Temperament, reward and punishment sensitivity, and clinical disorders: Implications for behavioral case formulation and therapy. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy,1(1), 56-76. doi:10.1037/h0100735
Gray, J. A. (1981). A Critique of Eysenck’s Theory of Personality. A Model for Personality,246-276. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-67783-0_8
Gray, J. A., & McNaughton, N. (2000). The neuropsychology of anxiety: An enquiry into the functions of the septo-hippocampal system. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hans Eysenck. (2018, April 14). Retrieved from

HEXACO model of personality structure. (2018, April 22). Retrieved from

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.
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