Multiple Personalities – Disorder or Behaviour by Tricia-Lee Keller

When we observe a person in one environment and then another, we may notice the person’s behaviours change. In one environment, perhaps they appear quiet and focused, while in another, they are making jokes and moving about the room from person to person.

These behavioural observations are often associated with a personality or a mind-state. For example, the quiet and focused person at work is said to be ‘introverted’ and the social, joking person is labeled ‘extroverted’.

English: B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psycholog...

According to B.F. Skinner, personality can be thought of the repertoire of a person’s behaviour organized by the environmental conditions where they occur. We have categorized these various behaviours under personality traits – perhaps, in a way to share information more efficiently. These personality labels however, infer inner emotional and motivational states as the source or cause for behaviors.

This mentalistic view fails to take into account a person’s history with various environments and contingencies of reinforcement; information that is often not at hand to even consider. When you think about the potential for people to find themselves in many different environments, each with their own set of reinforcement contingencies, it is possible to think of someone as having ‘multiple personalities’.

Skinner believed that multiple personalities can be contained within one person (not thinking along the lines of “disorder”). A person goes through life coming in contact with various environmental demands and subsequent reinforcement contingencies. When the environmental conditions and thus, the availability of reinforcement change, then personalities can come into conflict with each other.

The behavioural repertoire labeled as ‘introverted’ may not function as expected at the company party. The people present might be the same, but the context has changed and the more social behaviours (e.g., making jokes, commenting on other’s stories) will receive reinforcement. A similar conflict occurs when the extroverted person is accompanying their friend to their loved one’s funeral. Joking and speaking loudly are behaviours not tolerated at a funeral and would be punished by, or fail to receive the attention from their friend. The person must act from another set of behaviours (i.e., personality) to be successful when in the company of people who are mourning.

When explaining personality, the behaviourist refers to a set of behaviours the verbal community has categorized as a personality trait. The behaviourist places emphasis on the operant conditioning of the person, where the environmental conditions and the history of reinforcement is the reason for their behavioural repertoire (i.e., personality).

Since the environmental conditions and the availability of reinforcement are so varied across people, it is possible for one person to express multiple ‘personalities’ (i.e., sets of behaviour). And if the combination of environmental conditions and sources of reinforcement can never be exactly identical for any two people, the human race as a whole expresses an infinite variety of ‘personalities’; all of which are unique.

I’m not discrediting the validity of multiple personality disorder here either. Rather, I wanted to provide a behaviourist explanation for why people behave differently depending on who or what is around, seeming as if they have “multiple personalities”.

References: Skinner, B.F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York, NY: Vintage Books. Retrieved 6/17/11, Behaviourist at Play Reprint by permission.

Related links

B.F. Skinner Institute

Operant Conditioning  (B.F. Skinner)

Leave a comment


  1. Altus

     /  08/01/2012

    @J. Bean…permission granted.


  2. J. Bean

     /  08/01/2012


    “…you’ll find them as entrenched as any peasant villager in Fatima during the apparition of the Virgin.”
    Okay, that really made me LOL. May I have your permission to steal that comparison for something I’m writing?


  3. Altus

     /  07/31/2012


    Yikes, you have Freyd, uncritical new age therapists and the conspiracy/RMT/satanic ritual abuse wingbat Marion Knox (thanks for the info J.Bean) all in your backyard. This confluence of RMT believers, new age therapists, and Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theorists is how the McMartin Preschool fiasco happened. Hope you can find some rational colleagues out there to keep that place from totally tipping over the edge.

    You might try the Center for Inquiry’s Eugene branch available through Meetup. Please keep blogging. Your critical questioning needs to be heard not only in Eugene, but elsewhere as well.


  4. Altus – I appreciate your excellent analysis. You seem to have a good understanding of my little town.

    Ms. Bartha – It is interesting that I did undergraduate and graduate coursework in the same department where J. Freyd and P. Birrell are ensconced and I am now finding they have some influence in the community, but I never took a class with either of them. I took psychopathology with Scott Monroe who had a very critical view of DID, but I see he is now at SUNY, a long way from Eugene.



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