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Dispositional and Learning Theories Essay

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Updated: Feb 27th, 2019


Disposition is a personal trait that is unique to the individual and influences any other trait presented by the environment. Personal disposition according to Allport are individual characteristics that are important in describing a person as a single entity different from another or similar to another (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Learning theory has emphasized that what individuals present as their traits have been acquired through a continuation of structuring and restructuring experiences during their social interactions. Learning is continuous and includes the individual’s emotions, cognition and environment aspects of the individual. The learning theory holds that all knowledge is obtained from experience (Mangal 2009). This essay breaks down the two theories and analyses their strengths and weaknesses.

Basic or underlying assumptions

The disposition theory places personal dispositions into a continuum that starts from those that are central to the person up to those that offer a non-significant influence. Those most central to the person have been referred to as cardinal dispositions. These are inborn traits that are clearly visible in their influence on every action that the person takes. A cardinal disposition is usually single when present in a person.

Second on the continuum are central dispositions which include a larger number of traits than cardinal dispositions, usually five to ten traits that the individual would be described with from another person’s point of view. The third and last on the continuum are secondary dispositions occurring regularly even though they do not influence the actions of the individual as much as the previous two dispositions. An individual may possess more than one secondary disposition (Feist & Feist, 2009).

The personalities attributed to learning theory cannot be permanent, as the environment shaping them is dynamic. Similar to dispositions, learning is initiated by a drive which creates a discomfort in the individual such as hunger. There are primary drives necessary for survival.

These are satisfied immediately before they become overwhelming. In addition, there are secondary drives learned from primary drives. In this case a person is driven to eat because of the primary drive of hunger, however the time at which the person eats is a learned behaviour from society as the appropriate meal time. Also similar to disposition theory, learning further divides drives based on what solves discomforts.

Primary reinforces directly reduce the discomfort caused by the drive while secondary reinforces must be associated with primary reinforces and therefore act indirectly. For example the discomfort of hunger is reduced by food and money is used to buy the food. Money in this case is the secondary reinforcer (Engler, 2009).

Determinism versus free will

Dispositions are also classified into motivational dispositions when they are influenced by basic needs and drive to initiate action and into stylistic dispositions when they guide the action taken by the individual. In an example, a person eats in order to suppress hunger, however what a person eats and how he eats will be determined by their stylistic dispositions, such that a carefree person may not care about what they eat as much as the responsible person will care.

Disposition theory therefore claims that an individual personality traits will remain constant irrespective of a change in their environment or when presented with an unexpected trigger. It puts a greater premium to inborn traits over those acquired such that a person with a high IQ is likely to have a better start in unfavourable environments than those who acquire a high IQ because of being in the appropriate environment.

In addition, a personality attributed to disposition is characterized by individual choice like what they will eat as opposed to a learned personality that withdraws the responsibility of decision from the person so that they choose based on what their environment presents (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Learning occurs in four stages of having the drive to act followed by a trigger or a cue to act and then acting or responding to the cue. Finally after several attempts of satisfying the drive, the best alternative is chosen and will be replicated every time the drive occurs.

An individual’s will or choice of actions therefore becomes predictable based the learned reinforcement of the appropriate response to the drive. A learnt personality is heavily dependent on the environment and an individual has little room to choose based on their values since even their values are subject to evaluation using social traits in the environment (Engler, 2009).

Awareness of self

In disposition theory, a person’s personality is a combination of his proprium behaviours which the person feels a sense of ownership and those that are at the periphery performed unconsciously.

Furthermore, it emphasizes that behaviour is concerned with the functionality of actions. Since a person personality is best described by their proprium behaviours, individuals then are more aware and actively choose how to act and their actions depict their inclination to certain life dimensions (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Learned behaviour has no provision for in grown traits and explicitly suggests that an individual automatically adopts traits that work in the given environment. This assumption is akin to declaring that individuals are programmed socially and are not aware of their self (Engler, 2009).


Learning theory is appropriate in describing a person’s public traits because it is mostly concerned with historical facts of the person’s behaviour. It further suggests that behaviours and traits can be unlearnt by replacing them with newer ones.

However when it comes to predicting behaviour, learning theory’s drive-reduction hypothesis becomes inadequate when there are no known similar encounters of the individual with the drive. It also fails to account for why some supposedly learnt traits like intelligence cannot be unlearnt. Finally, learned theory fails to explain why in the same environment, individuals react differently although they have all undergone the same conditioning.

The dispositional theory also fails on the grounds that individuals are able to successful mimic new personalities that they learn from their environment as a result of being motivated externally, such as the case of learnt intelligence that afterwards makes these born intelligent, and those who learnt to be intelligent the same (Feist & Feist, 2009).

Strengths and Conclusion

Learning theory explains why it is possible to change a person’s personality by social conditioning and is the main reason of structured education systems that seeks to develop citizens of desirable personality. The theory is best applicable to social professions that are concerned with past actions of individuals such as investigators.

Disposition theory draws its strength in its ability to accurately predict future actions of individuals when presented with known or unknown situations. To sum up, as personality theories, both dispositional and learning are extensive in their description, and at some point in individuals life, they are involved in formation of new traits. However they become inadequate tools of gauging a personality in times of danger and unusual events.


Engler, B. (2009) 8th ed. Personality Theories: An Introduction. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

Feist, J and Feist G.J. (2009) 7th ed. Theories of personality. Hightstown, NJ: McGraw Hill Higher Education.

Mangal, S. K. (1998). General Psychology. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Company

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