Behaviourist Approach

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Key Terms

Law of Effect: events in the environment produce rewards for some behaviours and not others. Behaviours that produce rewards are repeated whereas behaviours that result in punishment are not.

Operant Conditioning: learning due to the consequences of voluntary behaviour, through positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.

Classical Conditioning: learning due to the association of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned, reflex response.

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Basic Assumptions

  • Behaviour is learned from the environment.
  • Behaviour is determined by reinforcement or punishment of past learning experiences
  • Only observable behaviour should be studied
  • Psychology should investigate the laws of learning.
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Operant Conditioning

Burrhus Frederic Skinner claimed that feelings cannot be measured reliably and psychology should focus on behaviour and its consequences. 

Skinner claimed that all behaviour is learnt as a result of consequences in our environment. 

Operant conditioning is concerned with the use of consequences in our environment, such as gaining rewards or recieving punishment to modify behaviour.

The 'Skinner Box' experiments are an example of operant conditioning. He would introduce a hungry rat into a box which contained a lever. When pressed, a food pellet would be dropped. The rat soon learned that pressing the leaver would result in food (Positive Reinforcement) The rat continued to press the lever, displaying the learned behaviour - the rat's behaviour had been positively reinforced,

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Classical Conditioning


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Key Points

  • Psychology should focuse on observable behaviour, not minds, if it is to be regarded as a scientific discipline.
  • All behaviour is learnt, or determined by, interactions and experiences in our environment.
  • Operant conditioning is concerned with the use of consequences or reinforcements to modify and shape behaviour.
  • Classical Conditioning demonstrates how a new association can be made between a neutral stimulus and an already existing response.
  • There are many practical applications of the behaviourist approach, for example the modification of speech in autistic children.
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  • Behaviourists' use of rigorous, experimental methods of research enhances the credibility of psychology as a scientific discipline.
  • The approach provides strong arguments for the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate in psychology.
  • The approach has provided a number of practical applications and techniques to shape behaviour, for example the use of rewards in education
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EVALUATION: Limitations


  • The behaviourist approach ignores the mental processes that are involved in learning unlike the cognitive approach, which views these processes as important.
  • The approach rejects the possible role of biological factors.
  • Behaviourists view humans as passive learners at the mercy of the environment, unlike humanist psychologists who view humans as active agents in their development.
  • The principles of operant and classical conditioning do not account for spontaneous behaviour.
  • The use of animals in applying laws of learning to humans has been criticised.
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