Behaviourist Approach

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Behaviourist Assumptions

Behaviour can be explained in terms of classical conditioning

  • new behaviours are acquired through association
  • Pavlov (1904) salivation in dogs

Behaviour can be explained in terms of operant conditioning 

  • new behaviours are learnt through reinforcement 
  • rewards and punishment system
  • B.F Skinner (1938) skinner boxes
  • shaping of behaviour until we have the desired outcome 
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Social Learning Theory

Agression is learnt both through direct experience AND more importantly through indirectly observing agressive behaviour. Observations allow us to learn the specifics of aggression. A persons biological makeup determines their potential for aggression but the actual expression is learnt 

Bandura (1961)

  • young children watched an adult playing with a bobo doll
  • some were shown violence, others neutral play 
  • following the video exposure the children were allowed to play with toys including the bobo doll
  • the children in the aggressive condition reproduced the physical and verbal aggression, whereas those not shown aggression did not 

Bandura and Walters (1963)

  • those who saw the model rewarded for aggression were most likely to display violence
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  • children watch role models and imitate their behaviour 
  • children therefore learn this way, observational learning
  • they also watch and learn consequences of aggression, this is vicarious reinforcement 
  • children gradually learn what is rewarded and punishable behaviour 

Mental Representation

  • children must represent possible reards or punishments
  • this is expectancies of future outcomes 
  • promise of reward must be greater than the fear of punishment 

Maintenance through Direct Experience

  • direct reinforcement reinforces the indirect learning 
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Systematic Desensitisation


mentally disordered behaviour is learnt so it can also be unlearnt. By using classical conditioning we can relearn new behaviours in place of undesirable phobic behaviour 

Desensitisation Hierarchy

  • the patient is taught relaxation techniques and learns to replace anxiety with this (reciprocal inhibition)
  • the therapist and patient decide on a series of imagined events. from the least stressful to most stressful 
  • the patient gradually works through the list of events each time relaxing throughout
  • each step is mastered and the phobia is no longer apparent 


  • learning new associations, new stimulus of relaxation is paired with the normal phobic response, they run counter to one another
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  • in vivo (in real life) or in vitro (imagining the situation) normally use both 
  • self administered, no therapist requires
  • flooding, facing the fear without a desensitisation hierarchy 

Success of the Therapy 

  • McGrath (1990) 75% of patients with phobias respond to SD
  • Menzies and Clark (1993) in vivo is more successful but also more stressful for the patient 
  • Klein (1983) the success of SD is probably more to do with exposure rather than the relaxation, there was no difference in effectiveness for those recieving SD or supportive psychotherapy, it is possible that it is just the hope that comes with therapy that allows people to overcome their fears 
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Scientific Approach 

  • behaviourist experiments have clear vairables and can be directly observed and measured 
  • BF Skinner and Pavlov exampes 
  • it enables us to distinguish fact from fiction and would mean the approach is taken more seriously 

Successful Application 

  • SD used to treat phobias 
  • classical conditioning used
  • allows psychologists to conduct research, develop theories and help more people whilst understanding the world we live in 
  • helps understand everyday behaviour such as why rewarding children is beneficial 
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  • behaviour is caused by associations and rewards and punishment and humans have no free will in their behaviour 
  • e.g. we dont commit crime because we fear the punishment and see no rewards in it 
  • this completelely undermines the notion of free will and suggest people have no moral reasoning or choice, i.e the criminal justice system can not work 

Based on Animals 

  • assumes animals are no different to humans
  • eg Pavlovs dogs and BF skinner pigeons 
  • there is a research bias, it ignores the higher cognitive functions of humans and our ability for abstract thinking 
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Methodology: Lab Experiments

  • scientific methods should be used so psychology can be considered a science, all behaviour is observable and there is no need to search the mind 
  • by manipuating the environment we can see what environmental factors cause our behaviour 
  • shows cause and effect, can be operationalised 
  • Bandura study example 


  • shows causal relationship and takes into account extraneous variables 
  • allow replicatability and validity 
  • data can be quantified 


  • low ecological validity 
  • demand characteristics
  • low mudane realism 
  • experimenter bias 
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Methodology: Animal Research

  • behaviour of animals has the same building blocks as human behaviour (stimulus response units)
  • Pavlov and BF Skinner


  • classical and operant conditioning have been successfully applied to humans 
  • it is easier to use animals in studies as there are fewer ethical issues and less demand characteritsics 
  • less emotional involvement 


  • some behaviours can not be generalised as humans have higher cognitive functions, e.g aggression is very different interspecies 
  • ethical issues as animals cannot consent and they are used simply as replaceable participants 
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