Becoming who we are: Personality as a process of learning
Miles Teller and J.K Simmons in the film, Whiplash
“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
For many of us, personality seems fixed, like an essence; the fully formed ‘me’ that sits in the driving seat of consciousness. But what if personality was more heavily shaped by learning and environment than we think? And what would the implications of this be for someone’s ability to change? The above quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald views personality as a series of successful gestures, and psychologists seem to agree; defining personality as the characteristic patterns of thoughts, behaviours and emotions that mould individual difference.
Chicken and the egg
Whilst this definition is useful, it begs the question: What is the starting point of these patterns of thought, behaviour, and emotion? The anthropologist Helen Fisher, states that these characteristic patterns are shaped by two fundamental traits: one being temperament, the other being environment. Fisher quotes the Spanish Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset who said, “I am, plus my circumstances”, stating through this quote that temperament is the container that that our character and personality grows out from.
What this implies is that personality is more malleable than we realise. That as we learn from our environment we have the capacity for change, but not infinitely so. As F. Scott Fitzgerald shows in The Great Gatsby, there is great folly in thinking that you can turn yourself into anything, regardless of your past. There is no clean break or blank slate. The paradox of this is that we also have the freedom to imagine who we would like to become and with an open mind, can unlearn old patterns and learn new ones, changing in accordance with our ideal.
The brilliant film Whiplash, riffs on this eternal chicken-or-the-egg like puzzle of nature versus nurture and of how much temperament and environment influence who we become. Toward the end of the film, the driven, yet by now traumatised jazz student played by Miles Teller confronts his tyrannical teacher, asking if the brutal environment he created may discourage the next jazz greats from emerging.
His teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, states that no environment would ever discourage a great from being great, that if the person has the drive, then they will drive through anything, no matter how unpleasant, to get there. Talking about the jazz great Charlie Parker, Simmons character describes the hostile musical environment he grew up in (almost being decapitated by a symbol for messing up a set) as the catalyst for Charlie Parker becoming Charlie Parker.
What is interesting in J. K. Simmons view is that despite the harshness of his beliefs, he is effectively saying that Charlie Parker needed both the temperament and the tough environment to become who he was. He required a certain obstinacy which allowed him to be shaped, and not crushed, by the difficult environment he grew up in. The view of this character is that there was a speck of a great jazz musician already there, yet it was the cauldron his environment, that forged him into who he became.
An instructive way of approaching this question of how we become who we are is by looking at the views of Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner, two giants of 20th century psychology. Carl Rogers and B. F. Skinner had antithetical and competing views to one another, however both viewed learning as critical to the development of personality and personal growth. A marrying of their views can go a long way to explaining personality in the context of learning experiences with beneficial implications for understanding a person’s potential for change.
B. F. Skinner and the ‘keys to human nature’
B. F. Skinner was a key figure in the psychological movement called Behaviourism, which originated at the start of the 20th century out of Pavlovian conditioning (the monitoring of instinctive reactions). For undergraduate psychology students, B. F. Skinner is often perceived as a villain, the stereotypical “man in white coat” that was pilloried in novels such as Brave New World, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Clockwork Orange.
Skinner famously denied the concept of personality entirely, claiming that what distinguished one person from another, didn’t emerge from internal mental states, but from learning experiences in the environment. His influence is still felt across psychology and education today, most notably in the use of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which is partly based on his theories.
Skinner was a seeker for the ‘mechanisms’ of human behaviour, believing that if this could be found, the keys to understanding (and predicting) human nature would be assured. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning held that all elements of human behaviour were shaped by the provision and withdrawal of rewards or punishments in the environment. According to this theory, administering a reward or removing a punishment would strengthen behaviour, whilst removing a reward or administering a punishment would weaken behaviour.
A simple illustration of this theory is the example of a child that has the desire and temperament to draw. If the child’s drawing is produced in an encouraging environment, then according to Skinner this will reward the behaviour of drawing. The child will learn from this, which then reinforces this behaviour into an important part of the child’s personality. An environment that doesn’t encourage drawing, or actively punishes it, would lead to a weakening and possible extinguishing of this behaviour, as the child is pushed into different behaviours.
Skinner would claim that the child’s desire and temperament has been shaped by an uncountable number of reinforcing experiences going all the way back to parental genetics. Whilst it may feel to the child that this desire to draw emanated from his personality, Skinner believed this was a delusion, claiming that this desire was shaped by the micro-learning experiences of the environment. Coming back to the Whiplash example, Skinner would say that Charlie Parker didn’t become who he was because of some essential, fateful drive; rather it was his environment that had shaped and determined who he became.
Carl Rogers, Free-Will and Potential
Carl Rogers is one of the most influential figures in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. He was one of the leaders of the Humanistic Psychology movement that grew out of opposition to Skinner in the 1960’s. As a psychotherapist and researcher with decades of clinical experience, Rogers observed that individuals have the power, given the right conditions, to change their own lives. His view of learning as fundamental to personality development is encapsulated in his theory of Learner-Centred Teaching which emphasised an approach to learning that gave students more freedom to learn what was valuable to them. For Rogers, temperament would have been primary to how a person responded to their environment.
In direct opposition to Skinner, free-will was a fundamental assumption for Rogers. Rogers believed that human beings were future-oriented, and it was the goals set in the future that influenced how they responded to learning experiences in the present. Roger’s concept of the fully functioning person posited that there was an ideal self within everyone, a guiding potential to which they were oriented. Popularising the term incongruence, his clinical experience demonstrated to him how an individual learnt from their personal experience of whether they were living up to their potential and adjusted accordingly.
For Rogers, it was this guiding, future-oriented-will that shaped the individuals responses to the environment. Rogers would have agreed with J. K. Simmons character from Whiplash, alluding to the fact that nothing would have stopped Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker; that his future-orientation to being a great jazz player was what allowed him to learn from his environment in the way he did. The feelings of shame and humiliation of not living up to his potential were what led him to hone his skills and become who he was. However, without the initial ideal, there would have been no guiding principle to guide his practice. Where he would disagree was in the way the environment had been structured. If Charlie Parker had had the freedom to learn how he had wished, would he have been even better?
These differing views of Skinner and Rogers view psychological agency or freedom very differently. Skinner’s view implies a lack of free-will, as though our personality was completely at the mercy of our environment. In contrast, Rogers viewed the fully functioning or self-actualised person as the type of person most likely to learn from environmental circumstances, but only when psychological freedom had been maximised.
In a further deviation from Skinner’s determinism, Rogers believed that psychological freedom could only be achieved by learning to fully experience one’s own thoughts, behaviours and emotions. A famous quote of his states:
We cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are. Until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about unnoticed.
This speaks directly to Roger’s experience that someone comes to accept themselves by learning to fully experience and reflect on who they are. If we are in the process of learning anything, there is a necessary phase of observation before we can take any action. We need to see what is being done, or how it is being done, before we take the necessary steps to do it ourselves or do it in a new way. For Rogers, his view of the importance of learning experiences leads to the conclusion that to change into something we desire, we need to be aware of what we are changing from.
Bringing it all together
Looking at learning as a key to change is an optimistic view. Firstly, it implies that personality is not as fixed as we think and that given the right circumstances, people can transform their lives. This is critical to the process of teaching, coaching or therapy, the success of which according to Rogers is to facilitate change in a way that concords with an individual’s goals. For both Rogers and Skinner, the environmental processes within and without a person’s control, are critical for understanding personality development. By attending to the reinforcers in their environment and their thoughts, behaviours, and emotions; individuals can become more aware of that which is satisfying or dissatisfying and subsequently move toward a state of positive development.
On the surface, the differing views of B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers have little in common. However, the dichotomy of their philosophical assumptions, when combined, provide a useful framework for understanding how personality can be shaped by our learning experiences. By incorporating both views managers, teachers, coaches, and psychotherapists can bring a holistic understanding to how the process of learning and unlearning can help employees, students and clients achieve their potential.