Essay on Stimulus Equivalence

What is a personality feature? Gordon Allport defined it as “neurobehavioural structure able to convert many functionally equivalent stimuli, as well as to stimulate and guide the equivalent (largely stable) form of adaptive and expressive behavior. Simply put, a personality feature is a predisposition to behave in a similar manner in a wide range of situations. For example, if someone is shy, that person will tend to remain calm and restrained in many different situations such as sitting in a classroom, taking a meal in the cafe, doing his homework in a dorm, making shopping with friends. If a person is basically good, he or she will be rather talkative and sociable in those same situations. Allport’s theory argues that human behavior is relatively stable over time and in different situations.

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Features are those psychological characteristics that transform a lot of stimuli and make many equivalent responses. This understanding of features means that a variety of stimuli can trigger similar responses, as well as many reactions (feelings, sensations, interpretations, and actions) can have the same functional value. To illustrate this thought Allport cited as an example the case with fictitious Mr. Mccarley, whose main feature is the psychological fear of communism. This feature makes equivalent to him such “social stimuli” as Russians, African-Americans, and Jewish neighbors, Liberals, most college teachers, peace movements, the UN, etc. He labels communist all of them. Mr Mccarley can support a nuclear war with the Russians, write hostile to blacks letters to the local newspaper, vote for extremist political candidates and right-wing politicians, join the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, criticize the UN and/or participate in any of a number of other such hostile actions.

Needless to say that a person can participate in such actions, not necessarily having excessive hostility or fear of Communists. And besides, anyone who votes for the candidates of the right wing or is a UN opponent, does not necessarily fall under the same personality category. However, this example shows that personality features are formed and are based on the awareness of the similarities. That is, many situations perceived as equivalent give impetus to the development of specific features, which then themselves initiate and build a variety of behaviors that are equivalent in their manifestations of this feature. This concept of stimulus and reaction equivalence, united and presented by feature, is the main component of Allport’s personality theory.

According to Allport, personality features are not associated with a small number of specific stimuli or reactions; they are generalized and persistent. Providing the similarity of responses to the numerous stimuli, personality features give considerable persistence to our behavior. Personality features is what makes it permanent, stable, typical for the variety of equivalent situations features of our behavior. It is a vital component of our “personal structure”. At the same time, personality features may be determinative in a person’s behavioral pattern. For example, dominance as a personal feature can occur only when the person is in the presence of significant others – his children, spouse or his close friend. In each case, he immediately becomes the leader. However, the dominance feature is not activated in the situation where this man finds a $10 bill at the door of his buddy’s home. Such a stimulus will cause rather manifestation of fairness (or dishonesty), but not dominance. Thus, Allport recognized that individual characteristics are in strengthened in such social situations and believed that any theory dealing with identity as something stable, fixed, immutable, is incorrect. Similarly, the water can be in the form and structure of liquid, solid (ice), or substances like snow, hail, slush, which physical form is determined by the temperature of the environment.

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