Learning Approaches: Behaviourism, Classical Conditioning (Pavlov), Operant Conditioning (Skinner), Social Learning Theory (Bandura)

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  • Also known as Learning Theory
  • behaviourists insist that psychology should be the study of behaviour rather than the inner workings of the mind as behaviour can be directly observed
  • scientific approach - findings based on observation and measurements within a lab
  • formulated start of the 20th century
  • All behaviour is learned through conditioning
  • three main ways in which behaviour is learnt - Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and Social Learning Theory


  • Psychology should be seen as a science, to be studied in a scientific manner.
  • Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking.
  • Behavior is the result of stimulus – response (i.e. all behavior, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus – response features).
  • Behavior is determined by the environment (e.g. conditioning).
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Classical Conditioning

  • Also known as Pavlovian Conditioning - new behaviour is learnt through association
  • first created by Ivan Pavlov who was investigating salivation in dogs (Pavlov`s dogs study)

KEY WORDS (in relation to Pavlov`s dogs)

Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) = food touching the tongue

Unconditioned Responce (UCR) = Salivation

Neutral Stimulus (NS) = Bell (gains no initial response) - this becomes the CS

Conditioned Stimulus (CS) = Bell

Conditioned Response (CR) = Salivation



CS = CR (the bell now gains the same response as the food even when food is not present)

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Application of Classical Conditioning to abnormal

Watson and Raynor (1920) applied the principle of Classical Conditioning to humans - succeeding in giving an 11 month old boy a phobia of white rats. They discovered that Little Albert displayed fear when he heard a loud noise (as is common with most children). To scare him, they made a loud noise by hitting a steel bar with a hammer every time he came into contact with a white rat. he origionally showed no fear of the white rat and happily played with it. however, after repeatedly pairing the white rat with the loud noise he began displaying signs of fear towards the rat. He learnt to fear and avoid white rats even after the loud noise was removed (he had been conditioned to associate white rats with fear). However, an unforseen outcome was he generalised this fear towards other white fluffy things including Dr. Watson wearing a white beard.

UCS = Loud Noise

UCR = Fear

NS = white rat (he initially displayed no fear response towards the rat)

CS =White Rat (this was after pairing the white rat with the loud noise repeatedly)

CR = Fear of the White Rat

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Operant Conditioning

  • Developped by Skinner (1904-1990)
  • Behaviour is shaped through reinforcement
  • Positive Reinforcement: encourages behaviour to be repeated, using rewards
  • Negative Reinforcement: behaviour with negative outcomes are generally not repeated (for example - a child who burns themselves on the oven is unlikely to touch the oven again)
  • Punishment: decreases the likelihood of behaviour being repeated. however, this has been found to be ineffective as a negative enforcer as children are more likely to simply modify their behaviour to avoid detection, rathert than not repreating the behaviour.

This model can explain why children persist with negative behaviour as they are being positively reinforced by getting attention. many parents and teachers ignore good behaviour. to effectively shape a child`s behaviour it is best to ignore the bad behaviour where possible and praise good behaviour.

Skinner (1935) created the Skinner Box to demonstrate operant conditioning. a rat or pigeon was placed in the box and it was timed how long it took them to press a lever to release food, or prevent an electric shock. as time progressed, the lever was pressed quicker as they were either positively reinforced by gaining food, or negatively reinforced by avoiding the shock

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Schedules of Reinforcement (Operant Conditioning)

Skinner found that, if a food reinforceer was not dispensed for every single lever press, but to a predetermined schedule (every 5th press for example) then different response patterns occured. He discovered that unpredicatable reinforcement was more successful for conditioning behaviour than continuous reinforcement.

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Social Learning Theory

  • Later development of behaviourism
  • term introduced by Bandura in the 1960 when he was studying aggression in children after they were exposed to aggressive role models
  • learning occurs through indirect observation
  • individuals observe the way role models behave and the repurcussions. if they aren`t punished for the behaviour / get a positive response, they imitate the behaviour. for example, if they see a child misbehaving and a teacher giving them attention as a result, they are more likely to imitate that behaviour than the behaviour of a good child being ignored.
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Behaviourism Evaluation


  • Highly applicable (e.g. therapy)
  • Emphasizes objective measurement
  • Many experiments to support theories
  • Identified comparisons between animals (Pavlov) and humans (Watson & Rayner - Little Albert)
  • Scientific


  • Ignores mediational processes
  • Ignores biology (e.g. testosterone)
  • Too deterministic (little free-will)
  • Experiments – low ecological validity
  • Humanism – can’t compare animals to humans
  • Reductionist
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Areas of Application

  • Gender Role Development
  • Behavioural Therapy (e.g. Flooding)
  • Phobias
  • Education
  • Behaviour-Modification
  • Aversion Therapy
  • Scientific Methods
  • Relationships
  • Language
  • Psychopathology (e.g. Depression)
  • Moral Development
  • Aggression
  • Addiction
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