Internal and External Influences on Human Behaviour and Performance
Research has examined the influence of a wide range of factors on human behaviour and performance. These may be linked to theoretical and technological developments (for example, the influence of behaviourism and conditioning, or brain imaging techniques in examining the structure and function of mental processes). These factors can also be split into those which are internal and external. Internal factors are more stable and linked to a person’s biological (or even genetic) make-up or core personality. External are those which act upon the person: for example, upbringing, social context and culture, and influence of peers. To explore the current brief, three broad types of influence will be discussed (personality, friendship and culture, and biology) and considered in terms of how they impact behaviour and performance.
Personality can generally be characterised as a potential internal factor for influencing behaviour and performance. Personality theories describe a set of traits and characteristics that are stable and enduring over time. Personality plays an important role in social psychology in terms of how people understand the behaviour of others, and the role of personality is generally overestimated in determining causes of behaviour and underestimating external causes. Ross (1977) defined this as the fundamental attribution error. In personality research, attitudes are important variables to measure and are considered to reflect underlying personality types.
Motivated by the events of the Second World War, a specific application of personality theory by Adorno et al. (1950) examined one personality type in depth. The authors aimed to test whether an authoritarian personality - as indicated by expression of relevant attitudes - was associated with a potential for accepting fascism, in order to better understand and explain participation in wide-scale atrocities during WWII. The study was carried out by assessing authoritarianism in individuals and looking at whether these individuals also tended to accept fascist arguments. It was necessary to carry out the study in this way because actual behaviour fascist behaviour could not be examined at the time of the study: such behaviours and attitudes had already become stigmatised. Instead the potential for fascism scale (called the F-scale) was used as an indicator that the individual may engage in such behaviour.
Adorno et al.’s study gained acceptance in showing how personality can affect behaviour: indeed authoritarianism has become an important variable in other areas of theory (notably the psychology of voting and political decision-making) and is also used in lay language. However, the design of Adorno et al.’s study illustrates some drawbacks and limitations of personality research. Firstly, measuring attitudes and behaviours via scales introduces potential for biases. For example, acquiescence response bias may cause a respondent to agree blindly with the presented arguments in the scales. Methods (such as reverse coding and blinding procedures) can circumvent these issues, but Adorno et al.’s study appeared to be suspect to response biases.
Furthermore, Rokeach (1960) provided an alternative explanation of authoritarianism. Rather than a unique attribute, Rokeach suggested that authoritarianism might be an expression of a distinct cognitive style, wherein some individuals may show less ability or willingness to evaluate the sources of information. This explanation is distinct from Adorno et al.’s because it suggests how behaviour may arise from general cognitive processes rather than set aspects of personality. Altemeyer (1981) later revised authoritarianism into three distinct scales of submission,...