The learning approach: Behaviorism

Key terms

Behaviourist approach - a way of explaining behaviour in terms of what is observable and in terms of learning.

Classical conditioning - learning by association 

Operant conditioning - a form of learning in which behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences.

Reinforcement - a consequence of behaviour that increases the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated.

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The behaviourist approach is only interested in studying behaviour that can be observed and measured.

It is not interested in investigating mental processes of the mind. 

Behaviourists tried to maintain more control and objectivity within their research and relied on lab experiments as the best way to achieve this 

Behaviourists identified two important forms of learning : classical and operant conditioning

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Classical conditioning - Pavlov's research

Classical conditioning is learning through association and was first demonstrated by Pavlov.

Pavlov revealed that dogs could be conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell if that sound was repeatedly presented at the same time as they were given food.

Gradually, Pavlov's dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with the food and would produce the salivation response every time they heard the sound.

Therefore Pavlov was able to show how a neutral stimulus can come to elict a new learned response ( condititioned response ) through association. 

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Operant conditioning - Skinner's research

Skinner suggested that learning is an active process whereby humans and animals operate on their environment.

Skinner developed a special cage in order to investigte operant conditioning called a skinner box in order to investigate operant conditioning in rats.

The rat moves around the cage and when it accidently presses the lever a food pellet drops out and in no time at all the hungry rat begins pressing the lever in order to obtain food. 

There are 3 types of consequences to behaviour: Positive reinforcement - is recieving a reward when a certain behaviour is performed.

Negative reinforcement - occurs when an animal avoids something unpleasent.

Punishment - is the unpleasent consequence of behaviour.

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Evaluation - Strength


A strenght of behaviourism is that it was able to bring the language and methods of the natural sciences into psychology

by focusing on the measurement of observable behaviour within highly controlled lab settings. 

This is a strenght because by emphasising the importance of scientific processes such as objectivity and replication, behaviourism was influential in the development of psychology as a science giving it greater credibility.

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Evaluation -Limitation


A limitation of the behaviourist perspective is that animals and humans are seen as passive and machine like repsonders to the environment., with little or no conscious insight into their behaviour. 

Other approaches in psychology such as social learning theory and the cognitive approach have emphasised the importance of mental events during learning.

This is a limitation because these processes which focus ones mind for a period of time between stimulus and response suggest people play a much more active role in their own learning. This means that learning theory may apply less to human than animal behaviour.

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Evaluation - Strength


A strength of the behaviorist approach is that the principles of conditioing have been applied to real world behaviours and problems.

For instance, operant conditioning is the basis of token economy systems that have been used successfully in institutions such as prisons. These work by rewarding appropriate behaviour with tokens that can be then exchanged for privileges. 

This is a strength because it is evidence that operant conditioning does work in real life situations.

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