Why Do We Behave The Way We Do?


There have been several attempts to find a more or less accurate answer to this question of why. Psycholanalysts, led by Freud, contended behavior was mostly a result of our past experiences, particularly our childhood. Behaviorists suggested most of how we act is steered by our drives- physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, sex, etc. Social learning theories followed a slightly different approach. Out of the several theories under this school of thinking, there was one proposed by Rotter that gave a distinct formulaic explanation to help understand behavior more crucially.

Rotter contended that behavior was a culmination of the internal and the external. In other words, how we behave is determined by our internal tendencies, some of which are inherited genetically, as well as our external environment. Human beings, according to the law of effect, seek out positive stimulations from the environment, and avoid negative ones. We act to get the best out of our situations and would try our utmost to get out of something we know is not good for us. This basic tendency frames how we behave on a whole. To explain the prime parameters that determine the way we behave, Rotter came up with one simple formula.

Rotter postulated that how we behave is determined by the probability of it resulting in an outcome we expect and the desirability of this outcome. To understand this complex jumble of words, three terms were coined by Rotter. The first was Behavior Potential (or BP) which is quite simply, the likelihood of us behaving in a particular manner in a given situation. BP in turn, is determined by Expectancy (E), which is the probability of a behavior leading to a particular outcome. Finally, BP is also determined by Reinforcement Value (RV), the desirability of a particular outcome. Consider the following example to understand the correlation. A person in a meeting can either react in a calm and composed manner or get carried away and act unstably. He/she will choose how to act on the basis of the Expectancy of each of these behaviors, and the Reinforcement Values attached to it. He/she expects a calm behavior will lead to a good response of his bosses, and this outcome is highly desirable, thus has a high reinforcement value. Therefore, for the person concerned here, the Behavior Potential of being calm is more than that of being unstable.

Of course, the above example is a highly simplistic way of elaborating on the theory. In real life, both the variables that determine behavior are highly subjective- that is, they vary from person to person. Some person may decide to act unstably in a meeting to derive attention and because this sort of outcome is more of importance to him/her, and some other person may choose to act in a different manner altogether to achieve his/her motive. Subjectivity is a pertinent clause underlying both Expectancy and Reinforcement Values because we all tend to think differently, and have had different past experiences. A combination of these makes each of us unique and gives us varied opinions of what we expect and what we desire.

Rotter also provided a generalized hypothesis in addition to this specific formula. This was the idea of the ‘locus of control’. It divided people into ‘internals’ and ‘externals’. Internals tend to believe that whether they get reinforced or not is because of themselves. They take responsibility of their own actions and believe it directly governs what outcome they receive and how good it is. In contrast, those with an external locus of control believe that all reinforcements are controlled by circumstances and only circumstances. This classification is far from perfect, and rather represents two ends of a broad spectrum of behavioral tendencies.

It must be remembered that Rotter is only one of many theorists who posited an explanation to understand behavior and that his theory is certainly not to be believed as the most ‘correct’ explanation. It is one among many, and knowing the intricacies of his theories is just an attempt to understand what seems like a plausible elaboration to understand what has confounded all theorists for years– what it is that makes us behave the way we do.

-Contributed by Tinka Dubey

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