American psychologist

The essay will begin with an introduction to each approach, giving main assumptions and supporting evidence. Following this, the two theories will be compared and contrasted, looking at strengths and weaknesses. In conclusion there will be a short explanation of the main areas of similarity, and differences. Psychology and its many definitions has changed radically and frequently over time, as an independent area of study.

There are many different theoretical views, some conflicting, regarding the most appropriate methods for investigating human nature. The approaches chosen to discuss in this essay are psychodynamic and behaviourist. The reason for this choice is simply that they hold both fascination and scepticism; they have been the cornerstones of psychology with many of their theories and therapies still in use today. Behaviourism is the study of the relationship between a person’s environment and their behaviour.

Thorndike (1874), an American psychologist, was the first to develop this theory; he produced a study using a box and cats. Reinforcement and punishment is the modern terminology for what Thorndike uncovered – he noted that pleasant events would ‘stamp in’ a response, making it more like to be repeated and unpleasant events appeared to ‘stamp out’ a response, therefore, making it less likely to be repeated – operant conditioning “learning by trial and accidental success”.

This led to him formulating the ‘Law of Effect’ (1898). (www. muskingum. edu) Following Thorndike was Ivan Pavlov, a Russian who trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. He showed that through experience, an animal could learn to respond to a stimulus that had never caused this response before – known as classical conditioning. (Carlson 1990) Behaviourism remained the dominant force in psychology – particularly in America, for the first half of the 20th century.

John B. Watson, a behaviourist, believed psychology was a natural science, restricted to observable behaviour and regarded humans as complex animals with no inner processes or unconscious – only responses to stimulus. Behaviourists believed thoughts, feelings and motives had no influence over behaviour and personality; this was down to the power of environment alone. Watson developed the theory of classical conditioning – the stimulus > response theory (S > R).

A simple example of S > R would be making a loud noise behind someone (stimulus), and them jump with fright (response). He believed normal behaviour came from acceptable conditioning, reinforcing and modelling etc, and bad behaviour was the result of defective conditioning etc. He believed people could be reconditioned. (Gross, R. Et al 2000) After Watson came another key figure in behaviourism- B F Skinner. Skinners approach was more radical than his predecessors. He developed an experiment using a box similar to Thorndike’s.

In short, lights, noise from speakers and the electric shocks were used to reinforce behaviour, whether it be positive or negative reinforcement, or punishment – positive being reinforcement that strengthens behaviour, so more likely to repeat, negative being reinforcement that also strengthens behaviour, resulting in avoidance or escape, and punishment, to suppress behaviour. Skinner believed that operant behaviour was developed by positive, negative or punishment consequences, and thoughts, feelings and motives played no part.


Gross, Richard (2005) Psychology – The Science of Mind and Behaviour Fifth Edition. Dubai. Hodder Arnold.

Gross, Richard et al (2000) Psychology A New Introduction. London. Greengate Publishing.

Carlson, Neil R (1990)Psychology 3rd Edition. Needham Heights, Massachusetts. Allyn and Bacon.

Ornstein, R. (1988) Psychology – The Study of Human Experience. Florida. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Sue, D., Sue, D.W. & Sue, S. (2000) Understanding Abnormal Behaviour: New York. Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ricker J. (2004) [Online] (URL Scottsdale Community College (Accessed October 2007)

Heffner Dr. Chris  (2004) [Online] (URL (Accessed October 2007)

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