Maladaptive behavior in Rotter s social learning theory is any persistent behavior that fails to move a person closer to a desired goal. It frequently, but not inevitably, arises from the combination of high need value and low freedom of movement: that is, from goals that are unrealistically high hi relation to ones ability to achieve them (Rotter, 1964).
For example, the need for love and affection is realistic, but some people unrealistically set a goal to be loved by everyone. Hence, their need value will nearly certainly exceed their freedom of movement, resulting in behavior that is likely to be defensive or maladaptive. When people set their goals too high, they cannot learn productive behaviors because their goals are beyond reach. Instead they learn how to avoid failure or how to defend themselves against the pain that accompanies failure. For example, a woman whose goal is to be loved by everyone inevitably will be ignored or rejected by someone. To obtain love, she may become socially aggressive (a nonproductive, self-defeating strategy), or she may withdraw from people, which prevents her from behig hint by them but which is also nonproductive.
Setting goals too high is only one of several possible contributors to maladaptive behavior. Another frequent cause is low freedom of movement. People may have low expectancies of success because they lack information or the ability to perform those behaviors that will be followed by positive reinforcement. A person who values love, for example, may lack the interpersonal skills necessary to obtain it.
People may also have low freedom of movement because they make a faulty evaluation of the present situation. For example, people sometimes underestimate then intellectual abilities because, in the past, they have been told that they were stupid. Even though then need values are not unrealistically high, they have a low expectation of success because they wrongly believe that they are incapable, for example, of performing well hi school or competing successfully for a higher level job.
Another possibility is that people have low freedom of movement because they generalize from one situation hi which, perhaps, they are realistically hiadequate to other situations in which they could have sufficient ability to be successful. For example, a physically weak adolescent who lacks the skills to be an accomplished athlete may erroneously see himself as unable to compete for a role in the school play or to be a leader in a social club. He inappropriately generalizes his hiadequacies in sports to lack of ability in unrelated areas.
In summary, maladjusted individuals are characterized by unrealistic goals, inappropriate behaviors, hiadequate skills, or unreasonably low expectancies of behig able to execute the behaviors necessary for positive reinforcement. Although they have learned inadequate ways of solving problems within a social context, they can unlearn these behaviors and also learn more appropriate ones within the controlled social environment provided by psychotherapy.
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