Within the scientific field of psychology you will find many perspectives. Behaviorism and the psychoanalytic theory are two of the most significant. This essay gives details of each view and weighs up their strengths and weaknesses. Behaviorism was founded in 1913 by the American psychologist John B Watson based on the principles of learning outlined by Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) and BF Skinner (1904-1990). Watson felt that psychologists should study only observable behaviour rather than thought processes. Behaviourists felt that changes in a subjects behaviour result from conditioning, a learning process in which a new response becomes associated with a certain stimulus.
The learning theory of classical conditioning was started from the works of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. Pavlov was conducting research on the digestive system of dogs, when he noticed that the dogs were beginning to salivate at the sound of the cupboard door opening. Pavlov took this further by introducing a bell and eventually the dogs began to salivate when Pavlov merely rang the bell. It was in the dogs nature to salivate when bought food, this is an unconditioned response (salivation) to an unconditioned stimulus (food); no learning had been required.
The sound of the bell was a neutral stimulus; there was no natural connection between a ringing bell and food. But by pairing the two together, repeatedly they eventually became associated. The neutral stimulus is transformed into the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned response becomes the conditioned response. In classical conditioning no new behaviours are learnt, instead an association is developed between an unconditioned and neutral stimulus.
This learning theory was the taken further by Edward Thorndike and later by BF Skinner. They suggested that learning is the result of the application of consequences; that is, learners begin to connect certain responses with certain stimuli. This connection results in the likelihood of the response to change; learning occurs. Thorndike and Skinner demonstrated this by experiments with cats and rats in which they were placed into boxes that could only be opened by the animals hitting a switch. The animals would initially move about the boxes trying to escape. Eventually they would trigger the switches and for this food was given. When a reward was given it reinforced the likelihood of the behavior occurring again.
After many more trails in the boxes the animals had learnt what to do and would hit the switch immediately. Skinner went on to experiment with three other stimuli; electrifying the cage floor, taking away the reward and electrifying the switch. Out of these experiments Thorndike and Skinner came up with positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement is pleasurable which increases the chance of repeated behavior. Negative reinforcement refers to the avoidance of an unpleasant stimulus but the result is also rewarding.
Positive punishment such as receiving an electric shock decreases the likelihood of a behavior. By removing a pleasant stimulus negative punishment also decreases the likelihood of a behavior. It was suggested that behavior was learnt through trial and error and the learning theory of operant conditioning was formed. Classical and operant conditioning became the foundations of the psychological perspective of behaviorism.
Although not all psychologists agree with behaviorism, we cannot deny that some aspects of behavior can be explained using these learning theories. Before behaviorism psychology was closely linked with philosophy and for the first time psychology became scientific. The learning theories are widely used in society today. Operant conditioning can be seen in schools, prisons and mental institutes were people are offered rewards for good behavior or denied pleasures for misbehavior. Many businesses use operant conditioning to keep customers by ways of token economy. Operant conditioning offers a good way of predicting and controlling behavior.
Classical conditioning has had a positive influence on many forms of therapy, especially for people with phobias. This is where the patients are taught to associate something pleasurable with their fear, therefore eventually losing the phobia. However, there are also criticisms to Behaviorism. The learning theories were all developed on animals. Where this can explain the behavior of these animals it cannot automatically be associated with the more complex behaviors of humans.
Some people also disagree with the overuse/cruelty to these animals; many of them became confused and neurotic over time. Behaviorists ignore genetics; although they can teach the animals new behaviours they cannot stamp out what is their natural genetic instincts. They also ignore mental processes, only looking at the stimulus and response and not at the thought process used to connect the two. There are also concerns about the use of conditioning in schools and prisons as some see this form of control as unethical while others regard it as a good thing. Despite these criticisms it is in no doubt that Behaviorism is an important approach in explaining behavior.
A perspective of psychology that works completely separate of behaviorism is the psychoanalytic theory. This form of psychological explanation was based on the practice of psychoanalysis as established by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud collected data from a number of patients about thoughts, feelings and life experiences to form a theory and a form of therapy. Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that gets patients to talk freely and bring repressed feelings into the conscious mind instead of keeping them hidden in the unconscious. This practiced is based on Freud’s theories of how the mind, instinct and sexuality work. To understand the theory it is necessary to understand some of Freud’s concepts.
Freud believed that the structure of a persons personality was made up of three parts; the id, the ego and the super ego. The id being what we are born with. This is located in the unconscious mind. In the form of natural sexual and aggressive instincts, the id works in conjunction with the pleasure principle; with the emphasis being on immediate satisfaction. The ego develops in the first two years of life.
This is the conscious, rational mind. It is the mediator and works on the reality principle. Thirdly we have the super ego, which develops around 5 years of age. This incorporates the conscious and the sense of right and wrong, which is shaped from parental influence. All three parts are often in conflict with each other occurring mostly between the id and the super ego. The ego takes on the task of mediator and can usually resolve the conflicts. These conflicts though can often cause anxiety and the ego defends itself by using certain defence mechanisms to prevent traumas reaching the conscious.
Defence mechanisms are strategies designed to reduce anxiety, the primary of these being repression. The id’s unacceptable impulses are pushed back into the unconscious. This doesn’t mean that they have no effect; instead they are usually expressed through dreams, jokes, symbols or slips of the tongue. Denial is where the individual refuses to accept the existence or reality of a threatening event. Projection is another defence mechanism, which involves protecting ourselves by attributing unwanted thoughts and feelings onto someone else. In displacement the individual unconsciously moves the impulses from its original target onto someone else. These are just a few of the defence mechanisms that Freud proposed everyone used to some extent. He believed that some used so much energy employing them that neurosis would result. This was displayed as depression, hysteria, phobias or compulsive disorders. By using psychoanalysis Freud believed we could prevent this happening.
Freud’s theories have had a great impact on psychology. Psychoanalysis proved a powerful tool for treating psychological problems before the birth of medication and is still widely used today. His theories provoked thought and acknowledged that the mind affects the body and how early experiences can affect later life. He showed that people with psychological problems could be treated rather then incarcerated. However, many object to his theories. They see his work as unscientific as his observations were biased, mainly being on middle class, white, Viennese women whose case notes were not usually written up until well after the session had ended.
It is felt that it is difficult to assess whether psychoanalysis actually works as it can take up to five years to treat someone. There is also a lack of real evidence showing that the personality is structured and operates along the lines Freud suggested, mainly because this theory was constructed on unobservable notions. Freud may have also over emphasised sex in his theories as they were developed at a time of great sexual repression. However, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory remains a significant contribution to our understanding of psychology and Freud can be thought of as the father of psychoanalysis. By looking at behaviorism and the psychoanalytic theory we can see that they have both made major contributions to the world of psychology. They have positive and negative points but it is in no doubt that without some of these theories we would not be able to explain a large amount of human behavior.