Exploring Human Behaviour: External Influences vs. Personality Factors

  • 05 Pages
  • Published On: 09-11-2023

This essay will explore the debates around attributes of human behaviour. There are mainly two sides to the debate. On one side, human behaviour is attributed to external factors and on the side personality, an internal factor influences the behaviour. This essay will explore how they influence human behaviour and critically evaluate whether human behaviour is always a product of external influences

Personality is a factor in human behaviour that defines the stable, enduring traits and characteristics of a person, which lead him to a steady behaviour over time (McAvoy, 2012, p.25). Ross (1977) argues that apart from the standard attribute of personality to human behaviour, no importance is being given to situation (Ross, 1977). For example, before the 1983 general election, the then leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Kinnock was walking on a beach and he tripped and fell during a photo session opportunity. Some political commentators attributed this incident as a reflection of his character, which contributed to his party losing the general election. Ross (1977) termed such attribution as fundamental attribution error (McAvoy, 2012, p.26).


To explore further on whether human behaviour is always a product of external influences, it is relevant to discuss Psychoanalysis by Freud. Mr. Freud stated that a human personality has two elements: conscious and unconscious. Human behaviour and thinking is influenced by the drives, impulses and also motivations not accessible to conscious awareness. He explained citing the example of a child how his personality is formed by his experiences and reactions to people around him. For instance, a child relationship with his parents exercises a strong influence on the formation of his personality (McAvoy, 2012, pp.28-29). Per his theory, a person has both the conscious self where they can make decision on their own without having to do with the influence of a third factor. On the other hand, a person is also driven by the unconscious self, which appeals to impulses and motivation. Somehow, both the elements appear to be influenced by actions and reactions to the surrounding environment. Personality of a person is shaped by experience and exposure to events since childhood. However, it cannot be stated that human behaviour is always a product of external influences, but rather shaped by external influences in addition to the conscious element. This view could be discussed further with the theory of Adorno et al. (1950).

Adorno et al. (1950) highlighted a particular personality that makes humans prone to extremist ideologies and influence humans to commit violence in the name of political ideology (McAvoy, 2012, p.30). In the light of the holocaust by the Nazis during the 2nd World war, Adorno et al. (1950) explored the causes of authoritarianism by conducting survey using questionnaire to 2000 participants and selecting a sample of 150 participants (Adorno et al., 1950, p.291). They found that respondents scoring highly on authoritarianism reportedly grew up in a stricter family environment with harsher disciplinarian parents or guardians who demanded obedience, and were quick to punish contravention. Such children developed both love and hate towards their parents producing strong and conflicting emotions. Hatred is repressed in the unconscious, but it has continued influence, which led to displacement of the hate on to others, who are weaker (McAvoy, 2012, p.41). The study by Adorno et al. (1950) highlights existence of human behaviour in the way they act being embedded in their unconscious element. This is an intrinsic factor that defines human behaviour.

In relation to the mass atrocities conducted by the Nazis, the authoritarian personality of the Nazis could be considered the main cause. McAvoy (2012) observed that this indicates a higher prevalence of such authoritarian personalities in Germany as compared with other countries where Nazism was not in existence. In relevance, Thomas Pettigrew (1958), in his study of authoritarian personality across South Africa and the USA, found that participants in South Africa and the Southern USA were more racist than those in the Northern USA. They employed the F-scale developed by Adorno et al. (1950) to measure personality characteristics that underpins potential for fascism. They found that authoritarian personality levels were similar across all the participating groups. However, only around ten to fifteen per cent of the participants had ‘authoritarian personality’ (Pettigrew, 1958). This establishes that there is no link between prejudice and authoritarian personality within a society (McAvoy, 2012, pp.48-49). This disproves the psychoanalytic interpretation of causes of authoritarianism. The way people act cannot be stated to be hidden in the unconscious. Psychoanalytic interpretation requires authoritarianism to be unconscious and a person with this personality cannot direct them at will, and hence his ability to exercise free will and choice is limited. McAvoy (2012) thus observes that according to Psychoanalytic interpretation, humans repeat the same kinds of behaviour as their unconscious element keep them fixed in that particular personality. However, the study by Pettrigrew (1958) suggests otherwise that prejudiced thinking and other characteristics of authoritarian personality could fluctuate (McAvoy, 2012, p.50). This observation turns out to be evidence that external environment in which a person is subject to directs him the way he behaves. This was seen in the Nazi rule society where mass atrocities were conducted against the Jews. At the same time, people who are authoritarian, they remain so irrespective of the environment in which they are. This is established by the findings of Pettigrew where ten to fifteen per cent of the participants were found to be of authoritarian personality.

Citing both the perspectives above, it surely shows that behaviour is influenced by both the internal and external influences. Accordingly, human behaviour changes as per the environment driven by the unconscious element of personality. Toates explored the concept of change in behaviour. He explains the concept by seeking the impact of altering the consequences of one’s behaviour (Toates, 2012, p.162). He cites Burrhus Frederic Skinner and his theory of reinforcement. Skinner (1953) demonstrated this theory by experimenting on a rat kept in a box, where the he rewarded the rat food whenever it pressed the lever inside the box (Skinner, 1979). He accordingly cites the factor of consequences of behaviour that could change behaviour. He explains this in the form of positive reinforcement, which is in the form of food that follows the act of the rate pressing the lever. He also cites an example of negative reinforcement when an animal deprived of water could be trained to press the lever for reward of small units of water. Such reinforcement, Skinner argues, increases the frequency of demonstrating the concerned behaviour (Toates, 2012, p.173).

Toates (2012), however, rejected the theory of reinforcement and states that it is based on determinism. It rejects free will. Rats are not humans. Humans have the capacity to exercise free will and have insight into their behaviour. They can make free and spontaneous choices. They are responsible and accountable for such choices. Thus, human behaviour cannot be simply be subjected to reinforcement (Toates, 2012, pp.179-80). This view point could also be drawn to the traditional explanation of behaviour. It is relevant to mental events driven by introspection. For instance, For example, if a person donates money to a charity, it is due to his intention of reducing suffering, having consideration of the plight of those who are suffering. They exercise a free will to extend their help (Toates, 2012, p.181). The exercise of free will, as an internal element, which defines human behaviour could also be found intrinsic in human infants. Bowlby (1979) theory on attachment will show that infants have inbuilt tendencies to forge powerful emotional ties to stimuli with properties (Custance, 2012, p.203). Infants possess inbuilt mechanisms that encourage caregiving responses from the parents (Bowlby, 1979). This characteristic was also seen in the experiment conducted by Konrad Lorenz with goslings, which upon hatching saw first his wellington boots. They followed him in his wellington boots (Custance, 2012, pp.204-05). This study shows that there is certain inbuilt characteristic in a child that defines their behaviour, as for instance the infants discussed here. According to Bowlby, a person childhood’s attachment forms the foundation for their future relationships. Such attachment impacts their life relationships (Custance, 2012, p.233). However, Further study was conducted by Rutter and others by observing the orphans after the downfall of the Romanian Communist regime in 1989 (Rutter, 1981). From the sample of 111 of the orphans, who were adopted in the UK, they found that infants adopted after they were 2 years old showed high levels of disinhibited attachment. When they turned 11, only half of them had recovered, which means that if they are adopted in a loving family, they could recover (Custance, 2012, p.234).

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The studies discussed here shows that a person has intrinsic quality such as inbuilt tendencies, and the unconscious element that defines their behaviour. They are also influenced by family members, peers or the environment in which they grow or live. This essay shows that the intrinsic quality and external factors collectively influence a human behaviour and create the personality and the person that humans are. Discussion human behaviour without discussing their psychology, which is the mental element, cannot be sufficient. As seen in the essay, human behaviour is an outcome of the interaction between the conscious and unconscious or the internal and external factors.


  • Adorno, T., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. & Sanford, N., 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. Harper.
  • Bowlby, J., 1979. The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. Tavistock Publications.
  • Custance, D., 2012. Determined to love? In N. Brace & J. Byford, eds. Investigating Psychology key concepts | key studies | key approaches. Oxford University Press.
  • McAvoy, J., 2012. Exposing the authoritarian personality. In N. Brace & J. Byford, eds. Investigating Psychology: key concepts | key studies | key approaches. Oxford University Press.
  • Pettigrew, T., 1958. Personality and socio-cultural factors in intergroup attitudes: a cross-national comparison. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2(1), pp.29–42.
  • Ross, L., 1977. The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz, ed. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. 10th ed. Academic Press.
  • Rutter, M., 1981. Maternal Deprivation Reassessed. Penguin.
  • Skinner, B.F., 1979. The Shaping of a Behaviorist. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Toates, F., 2012. Changing behaviour. In N. Brace & J. Byford, eds. Investigating Psychology key concepts | key studies | key approaches. Oxford University Press.

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