Julian B. Rotter was born in October 1916 in Brooklyn, NY, the third son of Jewish immigrant parents. Rotter's father ran a successful business until the Great Depression. The Depression powerfully influenced Rotter to be aware of social injustice and the effects of the situational environment on people. Rotter's interest in psychology began when he was in high school and read books by Freud and Adler. Rotter attended Brooklyn College, where he began attending seminars given by Adler and meetings of his Society of Individual Psychology in Adler's home.
After graduation, Rotter attended the University of Iowa, where he took classes with Kurt Lewin. Rotter minored in speech pathology and studied with the semanticist Wendell Johnson, whose ideas had an enduring influence on Rotter's thinking about the use and misuse of language in psychological science. Upon finishing his master's degree, Rotter took an internship in clinical psychology -- one of the few available at the time -- at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts. In 1939, Rotter started his Ph.D. work at Indiana University, one of the few programs to offer a doctorate in clinical psychology. There, he completed his dissertation on level of aspiration and graduated in 1941. By earning his Ph.D. in clinical psychology after having done a predoctoral internship, Rotter became one of the very first clinical psychologists trained in what is now the traditional mode.
After service in the Army and Air Force during World War II, Rotter took an academic position at Ohio State University. It was here that he embarked on his major accomplishment, social learning theory, which integrated learning theory with personality theory. He published
Social Learning and Clinical Psychology
in 1954. Rotter also held strong beliefs about how clinical psychologists should be educated. He was an active participant in the 1949 Boulder Conference, which defined the training model for doctoral level clinical psychologists. He spoke persuasively that psychologists must be trained in psychology departments, not under the supervision of psychiatrists. His ideas are still influential today (Herbert, 2002).
Rotter has served as president of the American Psychological Association's divisions of Social and Personality Psychology and Clinical Psychology. In 1989, he was given the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution award.
Rotter was married to Clara Barnes, whom he had met at Worcester State, from 1941 until her death in 1985. They had two children.
[The above information is based on a biographical essay written by Julian Rotter [Rotter, J. B. (1993). Expectancies. In C. E. Walker (Ed.), The history of clinical psychology in autobiography (vol. II) (pp. 273-284). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole. Photos courtesy of University of Connecticut.]
Overview of Theory
When Rotter developed his Social Learning Theory, the dominant perspective in clinical psychology at the time was Freud's Psychoanalysis, which focused on people's deep-seated instinctual motives as determining behavior. Individuals were seen as being naive to their unconscious impulses, and treatment required long-term analysis of childhood experience. Even learning approaches at the time were dominated by drive theory, which held that people are motivated by physiologically-based impulses that press the individual to satisfy them. In developing Social Learning Theory, Rotter departed from instinct-based Psychoanalysis and drive-based behaviorism. He believed that a psychological theory should have a psychological motivational principle. Rotter chose the empirical law of effect as his motivating factor. The law of effect states that people are motivated to seek out positive stimulation, or reinforcement, and to avoid unpleasant stimulation. Rotter combined behaviorism and the study of personality, without relying on physiological instincts or drives as a motive force.
The main idea in Julian Rotter's Social Learning Theory is that personality represents an interaction of the individual with his or her environment. One cannot speak of a personality, internal to the individual, that is independent of the environment. Neither can one focus on behavior as being an automatic response to an objective set of environmental stimuli. Rather, to understand behavior, one must take both the individual (i.e., his or her life history of learning and experiences) and the environment (i.e., those stimuli that the person is aware of and responding to) into account. Rotter describes personality as a relatively stable set of potentials for responding to situations in a particular way.
Rotter sees personality, and therefore behavior, as always changeable. Change the way the person thinks, or change the environment the person is responding to, and behavior will change. He does not believe there is a critical period after which personality is set. But, the more life experience you have building up certain sets of beliefs, the more effort and intervention required for change to occur. Rotter conceives of people in an optimistic way. He sees them as being drawn forward by their goals, seeking to maximize their reinforcement, rather than just avoiding punishment.
Rotter has four main components to his social learning theory model predicting behavior. These are behavior potential, expectancy, reinforcement value, and the psychological situation.
Behavior Potential. Behavior potential is the likelihood of engaging in a particular behavior in a specific situation. In other words, what is the probability that the person will exhibit a particular behavior in a situation? In any given situation, there are multiple behaviors one can engage in. For each possible behavior, there is a behavior potential. The individual will exhibit whichever behavior has the highest potential.
Expectancy. Expectancy is the subjective probability that a given behavior will lead to a particular outcome, or reinforcer. How likely is it that the behavior will lead to the outcome? Having "high" or "strong" expectancies means the invidual is confident the behavior will result in the outcome. Having low expectancies means the individual believes it is unlikely that his or her behavior will result in reinforcement. If the outcomes are equally desirable, we will engage in the behavior that has the greatest likelihood of paying off (i.e., has the highest expectancy). Expectancies are formed based on past experience. The more often a behavior has led to reinforcement in the past, the stronger the person's expectancy that the behavior will achieve that outcome now.
It is important to note that expectancy is a subjective probability, because one common source of pathology is irrational expectancies. There may be no relationship whatsoever between the person's subjective assessment of how likely a reinforcement will be and the actual, objective probability of the reinforcer occurring. People can either over- or underestimate this likelihood, and both distortions can potentially be problematic.
Reinforcement Value. Reinforcement is another name for the outcomes of our behavior. Reinforcement value refers to the desirability of these outcomes. Things we want to happen, that we are attracted to, have a high reinforcement value. Things we don't want to happen, that we wish to avoid, have a low reinforcement value. If the likelihood of achieving reinforcement is the same, we will exhibit the behavior with the greatest reinforcement value (i.e., the one directed toward the outcome we prefer most).
As with expectancy, reinforcement value is subjective, meaning that the same event or experience can vastly differ in desirability, depending on the individual's life experience. Punishment from a parent would be negatively reinforcing to most children, and something to be avoided. However, children who get little positive attention from parents can seek out parental punishment because it has a higher reinforcement value than neglect.
Predictive Formula. Behavior Potential (BP), Expectancy (E) and Reinforcement Value (RV) can be combined into a predictive formula for behavior:
BP = f(E & RV)
This formula can be read as follows: behavior potential is a function of expectancy and reinforcement value. Or, in other words, the likelihood of a person exhibiting a particular behavior is a function of the probability that that behavior will lead to a given outcome and the desirability of that outcome. If expectancy and reinforcement value are both high, then behavior potential will be high. If either expectancy or reinforcement value is low, then behavior potential will be lower.
Psychological Situation. Although the psychological situation does not figure directly into Rotter's formula for predicting behavior, Rotter believes it is always important to keep in mind that different people interpret the same situation differently. Again, it is people's subjective interpretation of the environment, rather than an objective array of stimuli, that is meaningful to them and that determines how they behave.
"Locus of Control". For many people, their only exposure to the ideas of Julian B. Rotter is his concept of generalized expectancies for control of reinforcement, more commonly known as locus of control. Locus of control refers to people's very general, cross-situational beliefs about what determines whether or not they get reinforced in life. People can be classified along a continuum from very internal to very external.
People with a strong internal locus of control believe that the responsibility for whether or not they get reinforced ultimately lies with themselves. Internals believe that success or failure is due to their own efforts. In contrast, externals believe that the reinforcers in life are controlled by luck, chance, or powerful others. Therefore, they see little impact of their own efforts on the amount of reinforcement they receive.
Rotter has written extensively on problems with people's interpretations of the locus of control concept. First, he has warned people that locus of control is not a typology. It is not an either/or proposition. Second, because locus of control is a generalized expectancy it will predict people's behavior across situations. However, there may be some specific situations where people, for example, who are generally external behave like internals. That is because their learning history has shown them that they have control over the reinforcement they receive in certain situations, although overall they perceive little control over what happens to them. Again, one can see the importance of conceiving of personality as the interaction of the person and the environment.
Psychopathology and Treatment. Rotter is very opposed to the medical model conception of mental disorders as being diseases or illnesses. Rather, he conceives of psychological problems as maladaptive behavior brought about by faulty or inadequate learning experiences. For Rotter, the symptoms of pathology, like all behavior, are learned. Therefore, treatment should be considered a learning situation where adaptive behaviors and cognitions are taught, and the therapist-client relationship is viewed as being similar to a teacher-student relationship. Much of current cognitive-behavioral treatment has its roots in Rotter's social learning theory, although these debts often go unacknowledged.
According to Rotter, pathology can develop due to difficulties at any point in his predictive formula. Behavior can be maladaptive, because the individual never learned more adaptive behaviors. In this case, the therapist would make direct suggestions about new behaviors to try and would use techniques such as role-playing to develop more effective coping skills.
Expectancies can lead to pathology when they are irrationally low. If people have low expectancies, they do not believe their behaviors will be reinforced. Consequently, they put little effort into their behaviors. If they don't try to succeed, they are likely to fail. And when they fail, it confirms their low expectancies. This process of decreasing expectancies is a common occurrence in pathology known as a vicious cycle. When clients have low expectancies, therapists attempt to increase clients' confidence by using their therapeutic influence to help clients (a) gain insight into the irrationality of their expectancies, and/or (b) attempt behaviors they have been avoiding out of fear of failure. In general, social learning therapists always attempt to raise their clients' expectancies for reinforcement.
Lastly, reinforcement value problems can lead to pathology. Reinforcers are the goals we seek in life. If people set unrealistically high and unobtainable goals for themselves, they are likely to experience frequent failure. This failure can lead to the development of the vicious cycle described above. In this situation, therapists would help clients to develop reasonable, achievable goals for themselves. It is better to strive, step by step, to achieve a series of goals than it is to set one distant, lofty goal for oneself.
Importance to the Field of Psychology
A recent article has cited Julian B. Rotter as one of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Rotter was 18th in frequency of citations in journal articles and 64th in overall eminence. You can download this article in PDF format from Review of General Psychology.
- Haggbloom, S. J. et al. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6,139-152.
Rotter has numerous publications spanning over seven decades. This section will highlight his most important contributions to the literature. Interested parties should consult these works for a more in-depth description of the concepts introduced on this web page.
- Rotter, J. B. (1942). Level of aspiration as a method of studying personality. II. Development and evaluation of a controlled method. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 31,410-422.
- Rotter, J. B., & Rafferty, J. E. (1950). The Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank manual: College form. New York: Psychological Corp.
- Rotter, J. B. (1954). Social learning and clinical psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.
- Rotter, J. B. (1960). Some implications of a social learning theory for the prediction of goal directed behavior from testing procedures. Psychological Review, 67,301-316.
- Rotter, J. B. (1966). Generalized expectancies for internal versus external control of reinforcement. Psychological Monographs, 80. (Whole No. 609).
- Rotter, J. B. (1970). Some implications of a social learning theory for the practice of psychotherapy. In D. Levis (Ed.), Learning approaches to therapeutic behavior change. Chicago: Aldine Press.
- Rotter, J. B. (1971). Generalized expectancies for interpersonal trust. American Psychologist, 26,443-452.
- Rotter, J. B. (1971). On the evaluation of methods of intervening in other people's lives. Clinical Psychologist, 24,1.
- Rotter, J. B., Chance, J. E., & Phares, E. J. (1972). Applications of a social learning theory of personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Rotter, J. B. (1975). Some problems and misconceptions related to the construct of internal versus external control of reinforcement. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43,56-67.
- Rotter, J. B. (1978). Generalized expectancies for problem solving and psychotherapy. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2,1-10.
- Rotter, J. B. (1980). Interpersonal trust, trustworthiness and gullibility. American Psychologist, 26,1-7.
- Rotter, J. B. (1981). The psychological situation in social learning theory. In D. Magnusson (Ed.), Toward a psychology of situations: An interactional perspective. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Rotter, J. B. (1982). The development and application of social learning theory. New York: Praeger.
- Rotter, J. B. (1989). Internal versus external control of reinforcement: A case history of a variable. American Psychologist, 45,489-493.
- Rotter, J. B., Lah, M. I., & Rafferty, J. E. (1992). Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank Second Edition manual. New York: Psychological Corporation.
For more information on a line of research based in Rotter's social learning theory, Go to the NMR Research Page.