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Behaviorism Essay

John B. Watson founded behaviorism in 1913. The theory of behaviorism concentrates on the study of overt behaviors that can be observed and measured (Hothersal, 2004). It views the mind as a “black box” in the sense that response to a stimulus can be observed quantitatively. Some key players in the development of the behaviorist theory were Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike, and Skinner. For most people, the name “Pavlov” rings a bell. He is best known for his work in classical conditioning. Pavlov’s most famous experiment involved food, a dog, and a bell. Edward Thorndike did research in animal behavior before becoming interested in human psychology. He set out to apply “the methods of exact science” to educational problems by emphasizing “accurate quantitative treatment of information”. “Anything that exists, exists in a certain quantity and can be measured” (Johcich, as cited in Rizo, 1991).

His theory, Connectionism, stated that learning was the formation of a connection between stimulus and response (Wikipedia). John B. Watson was the first American psychologist to use Pavlov’s ideas. Like Thorndike, he was originally involved in animal research but later became involved in the study of human behavior. Watson believed that humans are born with a few reflexes and emotional reactions of love and rage. All other behavior is established through stimulus-response associations through conditioning (Wikipedia). Behaviorists believe that learning takes place as the result of a response that follows a specific stimulus. By repeating the S-R cycle the organism (may it be an animal or human) is conditioned into repeating the response whenever the same stimulus is present. Behavior can be modified and learning is measured by the observable change in behavior (Coon, 2001).

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They also believed that behavior can be described and explained without making reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. The sources of behavior are external (in the environment), not internal (in the mind). Like Pavlov, Watson, and Thorndike, Skinner believed in the stimulus-response pattern of conditioned behavior. His theory dealt with changes in observable behavior, ignoring the possibility of any processes occurring in the mind. Skinner’s work differs from that of his predecessors (classical conditioning), in that he studied operant behavior (voluntary behaviors used in operating on the environment) (Coon 2001; Grey1991). In classical conditioning, a stimulus becomes associated with a reflex. The bell (in Pavlov’s experiment), a natural stimulus, becomes associated with the reflex of salivation.  In operant (instrumental) conditioning, the learner “operates” on the environment and receives a reward for certain behavior (operations). Eventually, the bond between the operation and the reward stimulus is established (Good & Brophy, 1990). Skinner’s operant conditioning integrated four conditioning mechanisms:

  • Positive Reinforcement or reward: Responses that are rewarded are likely to be repeated. (Good grades reinforce careful study.)
  • Negative Reinforcement: Responses that allow escape from painful or undesirable situations are likely to be repeated. (Being excused from writing a final because of good term work.)
  • Extinction or Non-Reinforcement: Responses that are not reinforced are not likely to be repeated. (Ignoring student misbehavior should extinguish that behavior.)
  •  Punishment: Responses that bring painful or undesirable consequences will be suppressed, but may reappear if reinforcement contingencies change. (Penalizing late students by withdrawing privileges should stop their lateness.)
    (Nye, 2000)
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If placed in a cage an animal may take a very long time to figure out that pressing a lever will produce food. To accomplish such behavior successive approximations of the behavior are rewarded until the animal learns the association between the lever and the food reward. To begin shaping, the animal may be rewarded for simply turning in the direction of the lever, then for moving toward the lever, for brushing against the lever, and finally for pawing the lever. Behavioral chaining occurs when a succession of steps need to be learned. The animal would master each step in sequence until the entire sequence is learned (Coon, 2001). Once the desired behavioral response is accomplished, reinforcement does not have to be 100%; in fact, it can be maintained more successfully through what Skinner referred to as partial reinforcement schedules. Partial reinforcement schedules include interval schedules and ratio schedules.

  •  Fixed Interval Schedules: the target response is reinforced after a fixed amount of time has passed since the last reinforcement.
  • Variable Interval Schedules: similar to fixed-interval schedules, but the amount of time that must pass between reinforcement varies.
  • Fixed Ratio Schedules: a fixed number of correct responses must occur before reinforcement may recur.
  • Variable Ratio Schedules: the number of correct repetitions of the correct response for reinforcement varies.
    (Nye, 2000)

Variable interval and especially, variable ratio schedules produce steadier and more persistent rates of response because the learners cannot predict when the reinforcement will come although they know that they will eventually succeed. Some criticisms made on behaviorism were by Gibson, Chomsky, Blanshard. Gibson rejected behaviorism based on his own work in which he supported the idea that animals ‘sampled’ information from the ‘ambient’ outside world (e-paranoids). Chomsky in a critique he wrote on B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior argued that language was merely a “behavior.” Skinner argued that language, like any other behavior — from a dog’s salivation in anticipation of dinner, to a master pianist’s performance — could be attributed to “training by reward and penalty overtime.” Language, according to Skinner, was completely learned by cues and conditioning from the world around them language-learner (Chomsky, 1959).

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Blanshard was strongly critical of reductionist accounts of the mind” (e.g. behaviorism), he strongly believed that the mind is the reality of which we are in fact most certain. Thought, he held, is that activity of mind which aims at truth, and the ultimate object of thought is a full understanding of the Absolute. Such understanding comes about, in his view, through a grasp of necessity: to understand (or explain) something is to see it as necessitated within a system of which it is a part (Wikipedia). I personally believe that Skinner and other behaviorists had a good theory going. It’s true that a lot of our behavior is conditioned and the majority of the time we don’t even know it!

High school students when they hear a bell ringing may find themselves ready to rush to class for they have been conditioned to do so with the ringing of a bell. Commercials to the same to us. But it seems to me that behaviorists have oversimplified human behavior. They completely left out culture and other external factors that do affect our behavior. Most importantly, personality and consciousness were left, out. I find it a little “unprofessional” avoiding difficulty to state that what can’t be observed shouldn’t be “talked about”. I believe that everything is important when it comes to psychology every factor and stimulus around us is important to forming who we are and how we behave, we can not omit things for we may be losing an important factor.

Works Cited

  • Coon, Denis.(2001) Introduction to Psychology Gateways to Mind and Behavior
    9th Ed. California: Thomas Learning Inc.
  • Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Language, 35(1), 26-58.
  • Good, T. L., Brophy, J. E. (1990). Educational psychology: A realistic approach. (4th ed.).White Plains, NY: Longman
  • Grey, Peter.(1991) Psychology 3rd Ed. Boston: Worth Publishers Inc,
  • Nye. R.D.(2000) Three Psychologies (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/ Thomson
  • Learning.
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Behaviorism Essay. (2021, Mar 20). Retrieved June 24, 2022, from