Key Approaches

The Behaviourist Approach


§  All behaviour is learnt through the environment as the environment provides us with stimuli, which we in turn produce a response to.

§  Only study observable behaviour – studying internal mental processes is unnecessary.

§  Animals and humans learn in the same way.


§  Classical conditioning- learning reflex behaviours through association.

Watson and Rayner developed this idea to humans and used a baby (little Albert) to condition a fear of white rats by associating the striking of a hammer (unconditioned stimulus) with the presence of a rat (conditioned stimulus). Thus causing little Albert to have a phobia of rats (conditioned response).

§  Operant conditioning– learning of voluntary behaviours through consequences.

Positive reinforcement is making a behaviour stronger by reward. For instance, using the ‘Skinner box’ Skinner conditioned a rat to press a leaver to get food.

Negative reinforcement is making a behaviour stronger by removing an unpleasant reinforce. For instance, Skinner conditioned a rat to press a leaver to avoid harm from an electric floor.


Methods of research


§  Most research is carried out on animals, often rats, in which behaviourists use animals because they assume we learn in the same way.

§  The laboratory is always favoured because it allows for precise control of variables.

§  The experimental method is used to draw conclusions about cause and effect.




Strengths                                                                Weaknesses

The approach uses scientific methods which means that studies are reliable, objective, and quantitative; increasing psychology’s credibility as a science

It has practical implications such as aversion therapy for alcoholics. Aswell as behaviour therapies for treatment of phobias.

One drawback of these methods is how artificial they are, in which the conditions are not ecologically valid.


There are ethical issues with animals, as many find testing cruel and it is difficult to generalise results from animals to humans, however biosychologists would say that we have similar biology.


The approach ignores the role of biology, which we know from investigating autism is an important influence on behaviour (correlation between abnormalities of the brain and symptoms of autism)

It is reductionist as it explains complex behaviour in terms of the simplest factors. With this, it ignores the role of the environment such as social and cultural influences.

It also ignores the role of mental processes on learning; believing that we only learn as a result of our own experiences. However, studies like Bandura show that we learn through others also.

It is deterministic as it suggests we don’t have free will, making behaviour mechanistic, all of which has great moral implications for the justice system.


Social Learning Theory


§  Social learning theorists share many assumptions from behaviourists; believing that our behaviour is learnt from the environment.

§  They also acknowledge operant and classical conditioning, but add on observational learning

§  With this, meditating cognitive processes lie between stimulus and response.





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