Abnormality Part 4: The Behaviourist Approach

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Behaviourist Model of Abnormality

  • This approach to explaining behaviour developed out of unhappiness with psychodynamic approach


  • Behaviourists beleive that all behaviour is learned and that includes abnormal behaviour
  • learning occurs through the processes of conditioning or modelling
  • learning environments can reinforce problematic behaviours
  • our society can also provide deviant maladaptive models that children identify and imitate 
  • behaviours can be unlearned which is the method used for treatment
  • all behaviour is learned through: classical/operant conditioning, social learning
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Behaviourist Model of Abnormality


  • we learn by associating things together. Classic examples include Pavlov's dogs and Little Albert
  • Pavlov: neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus, resulting in a new stimulus-response link
  • Neutral stimulus is now a conditioned stimulus producing a conditioned response
  • Little Albert: aim by Watson and Rayner was to prove that fear responses can be learned
  • worked with 11 month old named "Little Albert"
  • First tested: showed no fear in response to white fluffy objects
  • Next, conditioned response was created to previously neutral objects
  • made a loud noise behind Albert's head every time he went near a white rat in order to startle him
  • this was repeated until Albert would cry because he associated the rat with a loud and frightening noise: they had conditioned a fear response in him. Response generalised to all fluffy animals
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Classical conditioning and abnormality

  • Classical conditioning has been said to account for the development of phobias
  • the feared object is associated with a fear or anxiety sometime in the past
  • conditioned stimulus subsequently evokes a powerful fear response characterised by avoidance of the feared object and the emotion of fear whenever the object is encountered
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  • Approach offers a simple and testable theory of learning
  • Seen as far too simplistic
  • May offer an explanation of phobias but how can you learn delusions, depression or hallucinations by association
  • Behaviourist models struggles to explain why we acquire phobias for some objects/events quicker than others
  • Seligman believes we have a genetic predisposition to associate fear with some threats but not others based largely on our more primitive part
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Operant conditioning (reward and punishment)

  • If we're rewarded (reinforced) for behaviour we are more likely to repeat it in future
  • if we're punished, we're less likely to do it in future
  • Skinner (1974) demonstrated that rats could be taught voluntary responses by reward and punishment of behaviour
  • different patterns of behaviour are taught through use of different schedules of reinforcement
  • Abnormal behaviour is therefore caused by people reinforcing inappropriate behaviour making it more likely to be repeated
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  • Does concentrate on current events rather than childhood
  • According to this approach, removing the punishment or providing reinforcement should stop abnormal behaviour
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Social Learning Theory (Modelling)

  • Idea that we acquire behaviour by copying others
  • has elements of operant conditioning as it recognises the important of vicarious conditioning
  • If a person is observed behaving in a certain way and is rewarded for their behaviour, observer is more likely to copy that behaviour
  • Classic experiment is Bandura's bobo doll procedure in which children watched adults beating up a rubber doll
  • Most useful applications in explaining psychological disorders have been in phobias and eating disorders
  • One theory of eating disorders blames modern western media for their portrayal of the ideal female body shape and slim being seen as desirable
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Positive: Behaviourist apprach has had some successes, most notably in the treatment of phobias. Adopts a scientific approach to studying behaviour in that it concentrates on aspects of life that are observable and measurable i.e our behaviour. Does not try to make sense of our thoughts and emotions like the psychodynamic approach

Negative: Also seen as one of the downfalls. Reductionist and ignores the role of biological factors. Takes complex human behaviour and attempts to explain it in very simple terms using lab experiments that lack ecological validity

Negative/Positive: Behaviourists only consider surface characteristics or the present symptoms. Treating a phobic response is not getting to grips with the cause of the problem that may originate from childhood

Negative: Remit of the behaviourists is very narrow

Positive: Behaviourist approach has scientific and empirical support through experiments

Negative: large amounts of supporting research is on animals: can't be generalised to humans 

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Treatments based on the Behaviourist Approach Mode

Systematic desensitisation: created by Joseph Wolpe. First patient is taught muscle relaxation technique and breathing exercises. Second, create fear hierarchy starting at stimuli that create the least anxiety and building up in stages to fear provoking images. Thirdly, patient workers way up starting at least unpleasant and practising their relaxation technique as they go. When they feel comfortable they move on. 

Role of analyst important. Need to recognise reason for the fear, sometimes may be irrational but may also be logical reasons for the fear and these need to be dealt with 

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Evaluation of SD

  • Effective therapy. Patients show greater recovery than with no therapy
  • Based on scientifically tested theory and has formed the basis of later behaviourist therapies such as exposure therapy (flooding)
  • SD is a slow process, research suggests the longer it takes the more effective it is
  • Limited use, most used to treat specific anxiety disorders such as phobias
  • Behaviourist approach struggles with more serious disorders


  • Theory is that the person suffers massive panic but this can only last so long
  • adrenal response is short and person calms due to lack of adrenaline
  • treatment is referred to as "exposure therapy" and tends to rely more on creating virtual environments to cause extreme anxiety

Evaluation of flooding:

  • seems to be more effective than SD and doesn't involve muscle relaxation
  • reasonable to assume recovery is due to conditioned fear being extinguished 
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Treatments based on the Behaviourist Approach Mode

Aversion therapy: most controversial method. Teaches the person to associate their undesirable behaviour with something unpleasant. For xample, alcoholic taught to associate their favourite drink with being violently ill. Technique was used in early attempts to "cure" homosexuals. Shown male *********** and given the drug. Is mostly ineffective with considerable ethical considerations

Token economy: method used in psychiatric hospitals and prisons. If patient/inmate behaves in desirable way they are given a token that can be used to purchase tobacco/some other luxury item

Modelling: patient watches therapist or other person coping well with phobic situation such as using a lift or holding spiders. Afterwards patient may feel more comfortable in doing the same

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