Psychology is defined as a science that focuses on the study of and explain the way human’s think, behave and feel. The behaviourist school of psychology is concerned with the explanation of behaviour through observable outcomes without making reference to mental events. Behaviourism is very narrow and can be strongly objected to in its approach to psychology, as it does not consider the mental thought process involved in behaviour. This school of psychology is very much about nurture rather than nature. (Harre and Lamb, 1983). In the early 20th century, there was a surge of interest in explaining how learning takes place by exploring the observable mechanisms of learning. This new interest focused on observable forms of behaviour, which included bodily movement that was visible by an observer, and also the internal physical processes connected to overt bodily movement and how these could be modified.
This interest developed into the psychological theory of behaviourism. (McInerney, 1998) Behaviourists believe that behaviour is simply learned habits and reactions of humans and animals and personality merely a collection of these habits. Therefore the goal of behaviourism is to predict, modify and condition human behaviour (” The Behavioural Approach”). A behaviourist psychologist aims to recondition patients’ behaviour and reactions to stimuli. These goals would be used in circumstances such as drug abuse, alcoholism, overcoming phobias and teaching children and teenagers. According to behaviourism basically, all behaviour can be explained as the product of learning and all learning consists of conditioning (Colman, 2001).
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The belief is that human behaviour can be trained because human emotions are so malleable therefore personality is forever changeable (Cohen, 1979). Behaviour is simply a reaction to a stimulus which once learned becomes part of the learned habit. It was also believed learning occurs through the reinforcement of certain aspects of the situation. Reinforcement is when something is added to the situation which makes the same reaction in that situation more likely in future (McInerney, 1998). The belief was that most of the behaviour is a result of what has been learnt, which is to say that it is the result of the environment rather than biological influences. Therefore the study of learning and the conditions under which it occurs is the core project of behaviourism (Tennant, 1997)
Behaviouristic therapy is aimed at the modification of behaviour especially undesirable ones by mainly reinforcing the desirable behaviour and suppressing or punishing the undesirable and unwanted behaviour. Once the therapist has identified the behaviour and triggering factors they may employ several techniques to condition or recondition the person’s behaviour. These methods of therapy have been derived and adapted by experiments done by earlier behaviourists such as Pavlov, Watson and Skinner. Methods used today include desensitization, aversion/sensitisation therapy and flooding (“Changing States”). A desensitisation is a form of reconditioning focused on progressively relaxing the patient towards the feared stimulus even when the stimulus is not present.
Desensitisation is especially useful in people who have phobias and are fearful of potential presence. In these cases, the person is slowly encouraged to relax and re-establish a reaction to the thought of the stimuli’s presence (“Changing States”). Aversion/Sensitisation therapy is basically the opposite of desensitisation. The focus of this therapy is for the subject to dislike the stimulus that the subject perceives as pleasurable. This is achieved by associating a negative stimulus with the ‘pleasurable’ one in order to recondition the behaviour of like to hate in response to the stimulus. This therapy is useful in smoking habits; alcoholism and drug abuse (“Changing States”.) The ‘flooding’ technique involves the subject focusing their thoughts on the worst possible outcome or event.
The purpose of this is that the subject focuses so much on this that they are literally flooded with these great fears. Because the subject is thinking so much about this fear, the stimulus loses its potential to create such fear and anxiety (“Changing States”). Ivan P.Pavlov was the first initiator of behaviourism as he formed the basis and groundwork of behaviourism. Pavlov was a Russian scientist who was particularly interested in conditioned reflexes which led him to his infamous experiment of dogs and their salivary glands. In Pavlov’s experiment, he found that a dog’s behaviour can be conditioned. Firstly when the dog was given food it would salivate, then the next time the dog received food a bell would be rung. This continued until the dog would salivate by the mere sound of a bell. This experiment provided the basis for Pavlov’s idea that behaviour and responses could be conditioned (Tennant, 1997)
John B. Watson drew from Pavlov’s ideas and was the man to launch behaviourism. Watson was a psychologist from the United States. His infamous experiment was on a human baby code-named Albert B. When Albert was exposed to a rat he showed no sign of fear but then a loud banging when there was a presence of a rat, which made Albert cry. Therefore every time Albert saw a rat he would associate it with his past experience and immediately cry whether there was a banging or not (Tennant, 1997) B.F Skinner was a major contributor to the school of behaviourism and believed that behaviour is maintained and produced by its consequences. Skinner believed that rewards and positive reinforcers have a greater effect on behaviour. He demonstrated this through his famed ‘Skinner Box’ where animals were placed inside a box and were given an option of levers which they could press, one gave them food, the other an electric shock or similar.
The animals soon learned which lever not to press and this demonstrated Skinner’s theory of learned behaviour (Van Versal and others, 2005). Behaviourism is not the stimulation in psychological science as it once was. Psychologists and much of the public prefer more cognitive explanations of human behaviour. Thus the application of behaviour analysis is still active and successful in fields such as child development, education and drug abuse but is not reliable, as technology and scientific advances have proved otherwise to the denial of internal processes. Behaviourism is very much about nurture when it comes to the nature vs. nurture debate as it focuses on external stimuli affecting behaviour. Where behaviourism applied behaviour can be controlled, as action and external operations are controllable. Behaviourism can only explain a small part of human behaviour but it can no fully describe it. (Kazdin, 2000).
To explain human behaviour an updated perspective is needed and not one convention is 100% right. The best approach is to take a little from each (McIerney 1998). Behaviourism was extremely influential in the early 20th century as it was the most up to date information available. Since scientific advances in brain chemistry and thought processes, behaviourism has become outdated. Pavlov, Watson and Skinner had major impacts on not only behaviourism but also psychology. Their techniques can still be applied today. Although behaviourism can explain a bit about behaviour it is far too narrow as it does not encompass or consider the mental working of a human and brain functions which is a very important role in behaviour. Even though it is outdated behaviourism is still an interesting convention of psychology and can still be useful in explaining behaviour and treating behaviour problems.
- ‘The Behavioural Approach’: Class Handout
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- Tennant, M. (1997) Psychology and Adult Learning. New York: Routledge
- Van Iersal, H and others. (2005) VCE Units 1&2. Australia: Thomas Nelson
- Van Iersal, H and others. (2005) VCE Units 3&4. Australia: Thomas Nelson