Like other social learning theorists, Julian Rotter (1916-present) combines behaviorism plus cognition. What we know about the environment impacts what we do. And the best way to predict what people will do is to understand how they think.
Rotter maintains that the likelihood of a particular behavior is influenced by our cognition of rewards. Skinner was essentially right: we do respond to rewards but his system was to simple. We don’t turn off our brains when we’re rewarded. We use our brain power to make calculations about ourselves, the environment and rewards themselves.
There are three component parts to Rotter’s system. First, as Skinner would predict, we look at the size of the reward. We prefer big rewards over small rewards. Given a choice, we prefer to make more versus less money, bigger versus smaller houses, and faster versus slower cars. If we’re going to receive compliments, we want lots of people to give them. If we’re going to lose weight, we want everyone to notice. In general, we want the biggest reward we can get.
Second, there is the expectancy of the reward. We like rewards but we really like rewards we know we can get. We’ll turn down a bigger reward if a smaller reward is closer, faster or more of a sure thing. We do risk assessment and determine the likelihood of a receiving a reward. The reason we choose immediacy of rewards is they have a higher expectancy of coming true.
Rotter’s main point is that we combine our calculations of expectancy (likelihood) and reinforcement value (reward size). I don’t usually play the lottery but I know the likelihood of winning is very low. I don’t expect to win. But when the jackpot is over $20 million, I’ll buy a ticket…just one. I still don’t expect to win but I figure it’s worth the shot for a large prize. We will take a risk on a situation with low expectation if the reward it high. Similarly, we tend to settle for less reward if expectation is high. This explains why people stay is safe low-paying jobs, and why people stay in predictable unhappy marriages.
According to this model, if you believe your chances of getting a job paying $200,000 a year is 20%, the job is worth $40,000 to you. Consequently, you might well choose to apply for $50,000 jobs that you are 90% sure you can get. In your mental calculations, you’d be $5,000 ahead by going for the lower paying job.
Our experience isn’t that we’re making mathematical calculations. But we are aware of wrestling with security versus reward. We realize that there are many more jobs available at mid-management than upper-management. More available jobs means more likely. We know that actors who set out to be multi-billionaires probably won’t reach that goal. A few megastars make huge salaries but most actors make very little money. Rotter is suggesting that we are more rational than we realize. We use value and expectancy to make major life decisions.
We don’t behave randomly. We not only responders to Pavlovian stimuli or solely influenced by rewards. As our environment changes, we use rules to determine what to do. Even in novel situations, we apply our knowledge of the past to the current conditions. Rotter suggest that we have two basic, relatively stable rules: (a) the bigger the reward the better, and (b) safer is better.
Rotter’s approach is optimistic, goal-driven, and adaptive (interactive with the environment). You will notice that the likelihood of a particular behavior in a specific situation is based on subjective probabilities. We calculate what we think the odds of an event occurring. We don’t know what will happen; we make subjective guesses. Our inconsistencies in action show that from time to time we interpret the same situation differently.
Rotter expanded his concept of expectancy to a broader, more generalized expectation: locus on control. Although we calculate the likelihood of specific events, our general tendencies of calculation can be described. Life’s situations aren’t independent. We actually use a relatively stable set of potentials for responding to situations. Overall, we can be described as primarily relying on internal or external expectations (locus of control).
Our locus of control is our view of the contingency between what we do and what we get. If we have an internal locus of control, we tend to believe that what we do helps us get rewards. An “internal” tends to be more political, proactive, and optimistic. They assume they will be successful because expect their behavior to produce rewards. Consequently, internals try to gather more information, change their environment, and influence others. They are also more likely to be anxious. Since they believe what they do matters, they take responsibility for everything…whether it’s their fault or not.
In contrast, “externals” tend to conform, and don’t expect much of life. They believe life is a matter of chance, fate or luck. Externals tend not to take responsibility for anything. Since they believe that what they do doesn’t impact what they get, there is little reason to work too hard at changing the inevitable. They are more susceptible to what Selligman called “learned helplessness.”
Rotter put his theory into a formula:
BP = f(E & RV)
The formula summarizes Rotter’s belief that behavior is a function of likelihood and reward size. Behavioral potential (BP) is the probability of a behavior occurring. And it is a function of expectations (E) and reinforcement value (RV). This formula predicts behavior, and consequently is a guide of how to conduct therapy. For Rotter, symptoms are learned, so therapy should be a learning situation. The focus of therapy can be on any component in Rotter’s model.
The first source of trouble might be a client’s behavior (BP). Neurotic behavior might simply be maladaptive itself and need to be changed. Neurotic behavior also can be caused by unrealistic expectations (E). The cure for this condition is to explore why the client sets expectations so high or so low. People tend to have a minimal goal: a hallmark of success and failure. Achieving less than the minimal goal would be considered failing, even if the minimal goal had been set unrealistically high. RV is reinforcement value. Here is the recognition that systematically over- or under-valuing rewards can lead to trouble. Corrective therapy might focus on the nature and size of desired rewards. Clients might examine why it is not enough for them when people say that they look good.
Therapy could also revolve around one’s locus of control. Our cross-situational expectations about how life works impacts much of what we do. If we believe “life isn’t fair,” how does that affect what we do? Do we use our external locus of control as an excuse for not taking responsibility for our actions? Does our internal locus of control cause us to be overanxious about things we can’t control?
Check out my video on Julian Rotter.