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Decoding Behavior With Thoughts and Feelings

Understanding behavior requires an analysis of thoughts and feelings.

Key points

  • Personality is defined by an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior.
  • Behavioristic personality descriptions focus only on observable behavioral traits.
  • Behavioral traits are completely ambiguous in meaning without knowing underlying thoughts and emotions.
  • "Saying nice things" can imply optimism, people-pleasing, or manipulativeness, depending on associated thoughts and emotions.

David Funder (2019) begins his widely used personality textbook by defining personality as "an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior ... " Actually, his definition is a little bit longer, but I want to focus on what Funder calls the psychological triad: thought, emotion, and behavior.

In my own analysis of the layers of personality (Johnson, 1997), I point out that if we are asked to explain patterns of behavior that we see in another person, we typically speculate about the person's inner patterns of thought and emotion that give rise to the behavior. In fact, a particular pattern of behavior can mean completely different things, depending upon the thoughts and feelings that motivate them.

Behavioral patterns are ambiguous in meaning

For example, you might know a woman who has a behavioral pattern of saying positive things about others. She notices and compliments others on their choice of new clothing, hairstyle, or jewelry. When others succeed at something, she congratulates them heartily. When others are down on themselves, she reminds them of their good qualities. She seems to be always on the lookout for what is good in other people and eager to point it out.

But why does she do this? On the one hand, she might simply have an optimistic disposition. (Scheier & Carver, 2018). Optimism involves both thoughts and feelings. Optimistic thoughts include the belief that the world is a good place and the expectation that things will generally turn out well. Optimism is also a positive, hopeful emotion. Optimistic thoughts and feelings lead a person to notice good things, make positive comments, and encourage others about the future being bright. Genuine optimism is associated with many positive life outcomes, including good physical health, satisfying friendships, and career success (Forgeard & Seligman, 2012).

On the other hand, "people pleasers" say nice things, not because of an optimistic disposition, but because of deep insecurities about their own self-worth and a desperate desire to be liked by others. In this case, trying to focus on the positive is motivated by a belief that if I say nice things about other people, they might think nice things about me (which satisfies a deep emotional need to be valued). Same behavior, completely different meaning.

Another possibility is that saying nice things involves a darker, ulterior motive, a desire to manipulate others. Theophrastus, a philosopher who studied under Plato and Aristotle, became famous for writing a book of 30 character sketches. An English translation of this book by Jebb (1870) is freely available online. Among these sketches is "The Flatterer." The motivation of The Flatterer is summed up in the final sentence of the sketch: "In short, the Flatterer may be observed saying and doing all things by which he conceives that he will gain favour." In this case, saying nice things is uncaring manipulation by those with Dark Triad personalities (Klimstra, Jeronimus, Sijtsema, & Denissen, 2020), or even normal people seeking personal gain by false flattery. Again, same behavior, completely different meaning.

Once upon a time, American psychology was dominated by behaviorism, a school of thought that insisted that psychology should pay attention only to observable behavior in order to remain objective and scientific. The inner world of thoughts and emotions was described as unimportant or even nonexistent. How wrong the behaviorists were! All behavioral patterns are ambiguous in meaning. Until we understand the thoughts and emotions that direct behavioral patterns, we cannot even correctly describe the behavior much less understand a person's personality.


Forgeard, M., & Seligman, M. (2012). Seeing the glass half full: A review of the causes and consequences of optimism. Pratiques Psychologiques, 18(2), 107-120.

Funder, D. C. (2019). The personality puzzle (8th edition). New York, NY: Norton.

Jebb, R. C. (Ed. & trans.) (1870). The characters of Theophrastus. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Johnson, J. A. (1997). Units of analysis for description and explanation in psychology. In R. Hogan, J. A. Johnson, & S. R. Briggs (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology (pp. 73-93). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Klimstra, T. A., Jeronimus, B. F., Sijtsema, J. J., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2020). The unfolding dark side: Age trends in dark personality features. Journal of Research in Personality, 85, 103915.

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (2018). Dispositional optimism and physical health: A long look back, a quick look forward. American Psychologist, 73(9), 1082–1094.

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