Behaviourism – A Psychological Perspective of Learning through Conditioning

Behaviourism is a psychological perspective that emphasises the study of observable behaviour. It is based on the belief that all behaviour can be explained by environmental factors and learning experiences.

Behaviourists believe that the only way to understand behaviour is to observe it directly, and that mental states (such as thoughts and feelings) cannot be studied scientifically.

The Origins of Behaviourism

The Russian psychologist Pavlov is often credited with being the founder of behaviourism. He conducted experiments in which he conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, by ringing the bell every time they were given food. After a period of time, the dogs began to associate the sound of the bell with food and would salivate even when there was no food present.

This phenomenon became known as classical conditioning. The dogs in Pavlov’s experiment were said to be classically conditioned to respond to the bell.

The Evolution of Behaviourism – from classical to operant conditioning

Behaviourism was spearheaded in the US by John B. Watson (1878-1958), who popularised the term ‘behaviourism’ and argued that the study of behaviour should be the sole focus of psychology. He conducted an infamous experiment in which he conditioned a young boy, known as ‘Little Albert’, to be afraid of a white rat by making a loud noise every time the child came into contact with the rat.

Watson’s work led to the development of operant conditioning, a type of learning in which behaviour is controlled by the consequences that follow it. If a behaviour is followed by a positive consequence (such as a reward), it is more likely to be repeated; if it is followed by a negative consequence (such as punishment), it is less likely to be repeated.

Watson’s views were strongly opposed by Gestalt psychologists, who argued that behaviour cannot be understood without taking into account mental processes such as perception and cognition.

B. F. Skinner, another influential behaviourist, developed the theory of radical behaviourism, which argues that all behaviour is determined by environmental factors and that free will does not exist. He conducted experiments using a device called a ‘Skinner box’, which he designed to study operant conditioning in rats. The Skinner box contained a lever that the rat could press to receive a food reward. Skinner found that the rats would quickly learn to press the lever in order to get food, and that they would continue to do so even when the food was no longer given as a reward.

Skinner’s work led to the development of Applied Behaviour Analysis, a type of therapy that uses operant conditioning to change problem behaviours.

The debate between behaviourists and Gestalt psychologists led to a split in psychology, with behaviourism becoming its own separate field of study. In the mid-20th century, behaviourism was replaced by cognitive perspectives as the dominant approach to psychological research.

Behaviourism has been very influential in the development of psychological theory and research, but it has also been criticised for its insistence on studying only observable behaviour and for its reductionist approach, which fails to take into account complex mental processes. Many important aspects of human experience, such as thoughts and emotions, cannot be observed directly and so are difficult to study using behaviourist methods.

Related terms:

Cognitive Psychology – a psychological perspective that emphasises the study of mental processes such as memory, perception, and decision-making.

Gestalt Psychology – a psychological perspective that emphasises the importance of perception and cognition in understanding behaviour.

Operant Conditioning – a type of learning in which behaviour is controlled by the consequences that follow it.

Pavlovian (or Classical) Conditioning – a type of learning in which an animal or person learns to associate a particular stimulus with a particular response.

Radical Behaviourism – a type of behaviourism that argues that all behaviour is determined by environmental factors and that free will does not exist.

Skinner Box – a device used by B. F. Skinner to study operant conditioning in rats. It contains a lever that the rat can press to receive a food reward.

Stimulus – any environmental factor that affects an organism’s behaviour.

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