The learning approach: Behaviourism


Key assumptions of the behaviourist approach

  • Focus on observable behaviour only
    • the behaviourist approach is ony concerned with studying behaviour that can be observed and measured
    • it is not concerned with mental processes of the mind
    • introspection was rejected by behaviourists as its concepts were vague and difficult to measure
  • controlled lab studies
    • behaviourists tried to maintain more control and objectivity within their research and relied on lab studies to achieve this
  • use of non-human animals
    • behaviourists suggest the processes that govern learning are th same in all secies, so animals (e.g. rats, cats, dogs and pigeons) can replace humans as experimental subjects
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Describe classical conditioning

Classical conditioning (Ivan Pavlov's research):

  • learning throgh association
  • Pavlov's research-conditioning dogs to salivate when a bell rings
  • Before conditiioning:
    • UCS=food   UCR=salivation   NS=bell
    • UCS =  UCR and NS = no response
  • During conditioning:
    • Bell and food occur at the same time
    • NS + UCS
  • After conditioning:
    • CS=bell and CR=saliation
    • CS = CR
  • Pavlov showed how a neutral stimulus (bell) can come to elicit a new learned response (conditioned response) through association
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Describe operant conditioning

Operant conditioning (BF Skinner's research):

  • Learning is an active process whereby humans and animals operate on their environment
  • Behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences
  • Skinner's research:
    • rats and pigeons, in specially designed cages (skinner boxes)
    • when a rat activated a lever (or a pigeon pecked a disc) it was rewarded with a food pellet
    • a desirable consequence led to behaviour being repeated
    • if pressing a lever meant an animal avoided an electric shock, the behaviour would also be repeated

3 types of consequences of behaviour:

  • positive reinforcement
    • recieving a rewward when behaviour is performed-increase liklihood of repeat of behaviour
  • negative reinforcement 
    • when a animal or human produces behaviour that avoids something unpleasant-increase liklihood of repeat fo behaviour
  • punishment
    • an unpleasant consequence of behaviour-decrease liklihood of repeat of behaviour
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Evaluation of the behaviourist approach-strengths

  • A strength of behaviourism is that it gave psychology scientific credibility:
    • the approach focused on the careful measurement of observable behaviour within controlled lab settings
    • behaviourists emphasised the importance of scientific processes such as objectivity and replication
    • this brought the language and methods of the natural sciences into psychology, giving the subject greater credibility and status
  • The laws of learning developed by behaviourists have real-life application:
    • the principles of conditioning have been applied to a broad range of real-wrold behaviours and problems
    • token economy systems reward appropriate behaviour with tokens that are exchanged for privileges (operant conditioning). successfully used in prisons and psychiatric wards
    • treatments like these are suitable for patients who lack 'insight' into thier condition and are not capable of talking about their problems
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Evaluation of the behaviourist approach-limitation

  • A limitation is that the behaviourist approach portrays a mechanistic view:
    • animals and humans are seen as passive and machine-like responders to the environment, with little conscious insight into their behaviour
    • other approaches, such as social learning theory and the cognitive approach have plaed much more emphasis on the mental events that occur during learning
    • the processes that mediate between stimulus and response suggest that humans play a much more active role in their own learning
  • A limitation is behaviourism is a form of environmental determinism:
    • the approach sees all behaviour as determined by past experiences that have been conditioned and ignores any influence that free will may have on behaviour
    • Skinner suggeste that free will was an illusion. when something happens we impose a sens of having made the decision but our past conditionin determined the outcome
    • this is an extreme position and ignores the influence of conscious decision-making processes on behaviour (as suggested by the cognitive approach)
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