Behaviourist approach - assumptions


Humans are born like a blank slate

Behaviour learned through conditioning

  • Behaviourists believe that when we are born our mind is like a 'tabula rasa' - Latin - blank slate. Not born with in built mental content: internal events such as thinking and emotion do not drive our behaviour.
  • All of our behaviour is learned from interactions with the environment - do not think about our behaviour, respond passively to environmental stimuli.
  • The view that social and environmental factors have the greatest influence on behaviour, over and above innate and biological factors.
  • Traditional behaviourists ignore factors such as genetics, physiology and evolution in explaining behaviour. Environmental determinism - our behaviour is determined by the environment that we grew up in. The associations that we make in early life and the early rewards/punishments provided by our environment pre-determine our later reactions to other people and situations.
  • Classical conditioning - new behaviours learned through association. Ivan Pavlov first described the process of classical conditioning in 1902 from his observations of salivation in dogs.
  • uncoditioned stimules - UCS, salivation unconditioned response (UCR).
  • During conditioning, a nueral stimulus e.g. sound of a bell present alongside UCS, repeated several times. Association occurs.
  • After conditoning the bell is now the conditioned stimuls (CS) which produces a conditioned response (CS) - salivation.
  • Operant conditioning - new behaviours learned through reinforcement. Reinforcer is something that will increase the chance that behaviour will occur again. Positive or negative but shapes behaviour.
  • B.F. Skinner 1938 demonstrated via the Skinner box that an animal can learn to behave in certain ways due to rewards (positive reinforcement). Animal may accidentally perform an action that results in food given. Behaviour reinforced positively, likely that animal will repeat behaviour again. Positive reinforcement, any reinforcement increase chance behaviour repeated.
  • Negative reinforcement strengthens behaviour, involves escaping something unpleasant. Avoid detention if do homework.
  • Operant conditioning - behaviour learned through punishment. Punishment weakens behaviour, should decrease likelihood of behaviour reoccuring. Opposite of reinforcement. Skinner rat - shock following pressing lever, less likely to press lever again.

Humans and animals learn in similar ways

Relationship formation

  • The laws of learning are the same for both humans and animals. Follows that we are able to study animal learning in a lab environment and make generalisations about human behaviour.
  • Pavlov developed the principles of classical conditioning with dogs, he showed how they could be conditioned to salivate at the sound of as bell, applying the principles to humans. These same principles have been applied in behaviourist therapies, to help people overcome problems such as phobias.
  • In systematic desensitisation the client will learn to associate the phobic object with feelings of relaxation, instead of anxiety.
  • Operant conditioning principles that were developed in the confinements of a lab with animals e.g. Skinner's research with rats are applied in many contexts to help shape human behaviour e.g. education and prisons.
  • Token economy systems are a classic example, desirable behaviour is reinforced with tokens that can be exchanged for rewards such as sweets and cigarettes.
  • Behaviourists believe all behaviour is learned from the environment: believe that external factors will be most influential in the formation of our relationships.
  • Operant conditioning - according to principles, reinforcements drive our behaviour. A new relationship may be positively reinforced in many ways, the attention someone gives us, compliments, company of someone we like is rewarding. Likely to repeat the behaviour, spend more time with them. Being with somebody else may help us avoid feelings of loneliness and rejection and succesfully avoiding these feelings is also reinforcing. May also feel punished if we are not in a relationship, being on the receiveing end of nasty comments from others or excluded from events where only couples are invited. Type of punishment will decrease the likelihood that we will want to be alone and increase the likelihood we will want to form a relationship.
  • Classical conditioning - like people who are associated with pleasant events. If we meet someone when we are feeling happy we are much more inclined to like them than if we met them when we are unhappy. Previously neutral stimulus can become positively valued because of their association with a pleasant event, we learn to like people through the process of classical conditioning. Liking leads to having a relationship.
  • Explaining the formation of pet-owner relationships:
  • The principles of operant conditioning are used in pet training and these help the formation of good pet-owner relationships. Training dogs usually involves rewarding good behaviour with a treat such as waiting until a dog sits and then giving a reward or walking without pulling on its leash. These rewards will increase contentment in both the owner and dog and so the good behaviour is likely to be repeated.
  • Studies have shown that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets, and that people with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. The presence of a pet is generally associated with positive feelings such as companionship and loyalty.


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