Dollard and Miller Stimulus Response Theory of Personality

John Dollard and Neal Miller’s Stimulus Response Theory provides a valuable foundation for understanding how learning shapes personality. It is also called as S-R theory.

Stimulus Response Theory is a blend of the major contributions of two apparently contradictory theorists: Freud and Pavlov. They replaced the psychoanalytic pleasure principle with the more exact behaviorist concept of reinforcement.

It takes a behaviorist approach to understanding personality. It emphasizes learning through experience and the formation of habits that shape our behavior, ultimately personality .


Basics of the Dollard and Miller Stimulus Response Theory of Personality.

Here are some basics of Dollard and Miller stimulus response (S-R) theory of personality

Drive – An innate internal state, which leads to goal directed behavior aimed at reducing the drive. These are internal motivations that push us to act. They can be biological (hunger, thirst) or psychological (need for approval).

Cue – Any stimulus in the environment that either triggers a drive, or determines the nature and direction of the goal-directed behavior.             For example, hunger pangs (cue) would lead you to look for food (drive).

Response – The behavior of the individual, who is guided by the cue, towards reducing the drive by attaining a goal, in the appropriate direction. Example: Finding and eating food reduces hunger.

Reward – The reinforcement attained after reaching the goal – drive reduction.                                                                                                          Example: A delicious meal makes you more likely to seek out similar food in the future when hungry.

In their own words “. . . in order to learn one must want something, notice something, do something, and get something. Stated more exactly, these factors are drive, cue, response, and reward.”

According to these theorists, we are born with a set of innate needs  – for food, water, oxygen, and warmth, to name but a few. We would have died if these needs had not been satisfied during our early life, yet now we can perform the necessary responses to obtain them ourselves.

Obviously, although the needs may be inherited, the responses to meet them are learned.

Habit Hierarchy

Habits are learned associations between cues and responses. The more a particular response is rewarded for reducing a drive, the stronger the habit becomes. It is the likelihood of responding in certain ways.

Dollard and Miller argued that personality is essentially a collection of habits. Our unique experiences shape the cues we respond to, the responses we make, and the rewards we find reinforcing.

Types of Habits – John Dollard and Neal Miller proposed two types of drives or habits
  1. Primary Drives/ Habits- hunger
  2. Secondary (Acquired) Drives/Habits- approval from others

Habit Hierarchy – According to the theory, there is a learned hierarchy of likelihood behaviors that a person will produce particular responses in particular situations.

Through the process of learning, the innate drives (primary habits) extend to similar situations (secondary habits).

The hierarchy of these secondary drives within the individual gives rise to a unique set of habits within that individual at a given point of time.

  • Learning and Hierarchy of Drives/ Habits of Dollard and Miller Stimulus Response Theory of Personality

At birth we have a series of organized (often-reflexive) responses we can make. These can be our initial response hierarchy.

Once a drive arouses, cues guide you. They encourage you to respond; determining when and where you will respond and even which response will be made.

 Learning – which Dollard and Miller view as central to the development of personality – can lead to changes in that initial response hierarchy.

The latest order, the one you are using now, is the resultant hierarchy. Drives accompanied by cues guide the organism to respond in a particular way and place, and referred to as the personality of that organism.

  • Conflicts in the Hierarchy of Drives

  1. Approach – Avoidance Conflict

2. Approach – Approach Conflict

3. Avoidance – Avoidance Conflict

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References in APA style:

  1. Dollard, J., & Miller, N. E. (1950). Personality and Psychotherapy: An Analysis in Terms of Learning, Thinking, and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned Reflexes. London: Oxford University Press.
  3. Dollard, J., & Miller, N. E. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Dollard, J., Doob, L. W., Miller, N. E., Mowrer, O. H., & Sears, R. R. (1939). Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  5. Miller, N. E., & Dollard, J. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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