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Behaviourism

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Behaviourism

Behaviourism, also known as the behavioural approach to learning, suggests that changes in the behaviour of organisms are shaped by their interaction with and experience of their environment. In behavioural psychology, these changed behaviours are explained by classical and operant conditioning.

The behavioural approach to learning observes behaviours by focusing on what organisms are ‘doing and saying’. The approach does not acknowledge the mental processes involved in behaviours, as it considers them to be unquantifiable and objectively unobservable.

What are the assumptions of the behavioural approach?

The underlying assumptions of the behavioural approach to learning were summarised in an article by John Watson entitled, ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’ (1913):

  • Behavioural psychology studies behaviours that are observable and quantifiable.

  • The behaviours are mostly learnt from interaction with our environment; this supports the nurture approach.

  • Humans and animals exhibit very similar patterns of learning, so conclusions from experiments conducted on animals can be replicated on humans.

  • In line with its objective and scientific approach to psychology, experiments conducted by the behavioural approach are mostly lab-controlled.

The methodology of behaviourism

The methodology or laws of the behavioural approach were drawn from the experiments of several researchers. Two of the most significant explanations are those known as classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov (1897) and operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner (1948).

Classical conditioning: Pavlov

The principles of classical conditioning, observed through experiments on dogs, were published by Ivan Pavlov in 1897. Pavlov observed that repeated pairing of the sound of a bell (neutral stimulus) with food being given to dogs at the same time could generate a conditioned response, i.e., salivation at the sound of the bell even when no food is provided. The steps of Pavlov’s experiment were as follows:

  • The dogs salivated (unconditional response) when they were provided with food (unconditional stimulus).

  • Then the bell (neutral stimulus) was rung whenever the food was presented.

  • Gradually after repeated pairing, the dogs salivated at the sound of the bell even when no food was given. The bell became the conditioned stimulus, and salivation became the conditioned response.

The dogs learnt to associate the sound of the bell with being fed. The sound of the bell, therefore, became a trigger for the dogs that caused salivation even when no food was provided.

Behaviourism [+] Pavlov's dog [+] StudySmarterClassical conditioning, Pavlov's dog, commons.wikimedia

Operant conditioning: Skinner

When humans or animals respond to the environment, their actions are followed by a consequence. If the consequence is positive, the behaviour will be repeated. If the consequence is unpleasant, the behaviour will be avoided. B. F. Skinner understood this as a process of active learning that involved:

  • Positive reinforcement: when an action performed is rewarded. You might, for example, get ice cream for finishing all your homework before the weekend.

  • Negative reinforcement: when an action performed prevents an unpleasant outcome, as when you put on sunscreen to avoid sunburn.

  • Punishment: when an action performed has a negative consequence, for example, when you get suspended from school for breaking the code of conduct.

Skinner’s approach is famous for his rat experiment, in which he placed a hungry rat in a cage with a lever. Each time the lever was activated, a food pallet was dropped in the food dispenser (positive reinforcement). The rat quickly learnt this behaviour, and after the food was pushed into the dispenser several times, it would straightaway press the lever when hungry. It can be deduced from this experiment that positive reinforcement is more likely to cause the repetition of pleasant behaviours.

Behaviourism [+] Operant conditioning [+] Skinner [+] StudySmarterOperant conditioning, Skinner's rat experiment, commons.wikimedia

In a second experiment by Skinner, a rat was put in a cage and subjected to mild electric currents. While moving around due to discomfort, the rat pressed the lever, and the electric currents switched off (negative reinforcement). After a few times of being subjected to the same situation, the rat quickly learnt this behaviour to avoid the uncomfortable electric currents. This suggested that negative reinforcement is likely to lead to a repetition of behaviours that avoids unpleasant consequences.

Evaluation of the behavioural approach

The strengths of the behavioural approach might be summarised as follows:

  • It has scientific credibility. As all experiments are lab-controlled, there is little space for biased judgments of individuals or external variables to affect the objectivity of the study.

  • Classical and operant conditioning have practical applications in psychological treatments, as, for example, in the systematic desensitisation for treating phobias, which is based on classical conditioning.

However, the behavioural approach does have its limitations and problems, which include the following:

  • All experiments are conducted only on animals, which may not always make them generalisable to humans who have more complex cognitive functions and might also be affected by social influences.

  • The behavioural approach portrays humans as passive beings whose cognitive thought processes have no influence on their behaviours.

  • It rules out biological causes of learning and performing behaviour. For example, low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin affect the symptoms of depression and OCD.

  • It fails to explain internal mental processes, such as memory, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities, which are likely to play an important role in human behaviours.

  • The behavioural approach subjects animals to various unethical conditions to derive results that may be beneficial for humans.

Behaviourism - Key takeaways

  • The behavioural approach to learning argues that changes in the behaviour of humans and animals are shaped by their interaction with and experience of their environment.

  • The behavioural approach to learning observes behaviours by focusing on what organisms are ‘doing and saying’.

  • The methodology or laws of the behavioural approach were mainly drawn from the experiments of classical conditioning by Ivan Pavlov (1897) and operant conditioning by B. F. Skinner (1948).

  • Classical and operant conditioning have practical applications in psychological treatments, such as in the systematic desensitisation treatment for phobias (classical conditioning).

  • Experiments are conducted only on animals, which raises questions about the generalisability of findings for humans who have more complex cognitive functions than animals.

Frequently Asked Questions about Behaviourism

The behavioural approach to learning suggests that changes in the behaviour of organisms are shaped by their interaction with and experience of their environment.

Some examples of behaviourism are:

  • A student is rewarded with a certificate for good behaviour in class (positive reinforcement). This student is likely to sustain his good behaviour or improve it further to receive more appreciation.

  • Putting on sunscreen to avoid sunburn (negative reinforcement).

  • Rewarding a cat with its favourite food every time it follows the litter rules in the house.

The two types of behavioural learning are:

  • Classical conditioning

  • Operant conditioning


Behaviourism is used in developing new skills, rewarding desired behaviours, and treating mental health conditions, such as phobias, OCD, or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In the last example, the aim is to weaken learned mental responses. In general, mental responses can be strengthened or weakened by using rewards or punishments.

Final Behaviourism Quiz

Question

What is the behavioural approach?

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Answer

The behavioural approach to learning suggests that changes in the behaviour of organisms are shaped by their interaction with and experience of their environment.

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Question

Which of these statements about the behavioural approach is false?

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Answer

Mental processes explain more about human behaviour

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Who laid down the assumptions of the behavioural approach?


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Answer

Watson, in his 1913 article entitled, ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’

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Which assumption is true about the behaviourist approach?


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Answer

Experiment conclusions from animal studies can be easily replicated on humans

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Question

According to the behavioural approach, the behaviours of organisms are explained by:

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Answer

Both

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Question

Give two main assumptions of the behavioural approach.


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Answer

  • Behaviourist psychology studies behaviours that are observable and quantifiable.
  • Behaviours are mostly learnt from interaction with our environment, which supports the nurture approach.

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Question

Who suggested the theory of operant conditioning?


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Answer

Skinner (1948) proposed the theory.

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Question

Who suggested the theory of classical conditioning?


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Answer

Pavlov (1897) propsed the theory.

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Provide an argument in support of behaviourism.


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Classical and operant conditioning have practical applications in psychological treatments, as, for example, in the systematic desensitisation for treating phobias, which is based on classical conditioning.

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Question

Provide an argument against behaviourism.


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Answer

The behavioural approach portrays humans as passive beings whose cognitive thought processes have no influence on their behaviours

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What, according to Skinner, is positive reinforcement?


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Answer

Positive reinforcement is when the action performed is rewarded.

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Give an example of negative reinforcement.


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Answer

Brushing your teeth every night before going to bed to avoid cavities.

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Question

What animal was used in Skinner’s 1948 research?

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Answer

Skinner used Rats

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Question

What animal was used in Pavlov’s 1897 research?

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Answer

Pavlov used Dogs

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