The behavioural approach to psychology emphasises the effects that environmental stimuli can have on a person. Because of the importance of the environment, behavioural psychologists concentrate on the process of learning and any lasting change that occurs as a result of any experience. The origins of behaviourism can be traced back to a paper written by John Watson entitled, ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it’ (Watson 1913). He emphasised the importance of the environment in our behaviour and there are three central ideas behind the theory. There is an emphasis on observable responses and environmental stimuli, a rejection to any concepts that are not evident from direct observation and a focus on experience and learning as the fundamental basis behind understanding behaviour.
Behaviourists see people as biological organisms that are innately capable of responding to the environment in which they live. Humans like many other organisms are capable of performing a wide range of complex responses, however these are seen as combinations of simpler responses in behaviourism. Continuity is assumed between humans and all other animals, which means that they are all capable of making similar responses even if those of humans are more complex. Reflexes are the simple biological processes that behaviourists have used as the fundamental model for explaining human behaviour.
For example the smell of food may make us salivate and in this way, the stimulus and response are connected so that whenever the stimulus appears the response will follow. Other stimuli and responses, which are not normally associated with one another, can become so through ‘conditioning’. Three factors can influence the conditioning process, contiguity, frequency and reinforcement. A stimulus and response are contiguous events because they occur at nearly the same time and in the same place. The amount of times a stimulus occurs and is followed by the response which means that they are likely to become linked together. Finally if a response results in a pleasant event then the connection can be made stronger and the response is likely to be repeated. However because of contiguity the pleasant event does not have to be produced by the response it can simply occur closely after it to reinforce the response.
Pavlov (1849-1936) demonstrated this effect in his studies using dogs. He noticed how salivation occurred when food, the unconditioned stimulus, was brought to the dogs, so he tried to get the same response only using different stimuli. He would ring a bell every time food was given to the dogs and eventually the dogs associated the bell with food and they salivated upon its ringing. The bell became the conditioned stimuli and Pavlov believed that the association was formed because they occurred closely together in time (contiguity) and because the action was repeated many times (frequency).
Skinner however believed that stimuli were not directly responsible for producing a certain form of behavior and if a response was reinforced it would appear more often in similar situations. All people therefore have a ‘reinforcement history’. Skinner put forward the theory of operant conditioning and he stressed the importance of the consequences of a behavior. In this theory, the organism produces an effect on its environment; the probability of the reappearance of this response is determined by the response itself. In classical conditioning the response is reflexive in operant conditioning the responses are not. They are more complex, usually involving the whole organism. For example if a child throws a tantrum in a supermarket and the parents offer sweets to pacify him, he will view this as a reward and is likely to repeat this action in the future; he has therefore become operantly conditioned.
Behaviorists believe that these processes operate in the same way in all species, giving the justification for studying animals in order to look at our own behavior. Behaviorists also prefer using scientific methods because of their emphasis on the observable aspects of the environment The behaviorist theory assumes that human behavior should be studied using the same methods as physical science. It also assumes that psychology should only study that which can be directly seen and therefore anything that cannot be observed is not worth studying, as it cannot be used to explain human behavior (Slife and Williams 1995).
The behavioural model for abnormality assumes that all mental disorders are caused by behaviour problems, which have been learnt through unfortunate classical or operant conditioning. Behaviourists however would not use the term mental disorders, as they have no interest in mental structures only in overt behaviour. They claim that abnormal behaviour is learnt in the same way as other behaviour, that is, through stimulus response mechanisms and operant conditioning. Therefore the theory is if you change the behaviour then the disorder will be eradicated. In basic terms the treatment includes ‘positive rewards’ where the patient is rewarded every time they behave in an appropriate manner. On completely the opposite scale punishment is used to discourage an action that is inappropriate. Classical conditioning is also used as studies have shown that learnt behaviour could be reversed in the same way.
Pavlov’s (1927,1941) theory that behaviour is learnt through association can explain phobias and pathological fears of objects or situations. For example if a person experiences nausea when they are climbing and they look down they may develop a fear of heights because of this unpleasant response. Operant conditioning can explain conduct and anti-social personality disorders. Although certain behaviour from an individual may appear to be inappropriate or maladaptive to someone else, the person may have found the behaviour to be adaptive and functional in the past.
An example of this would be anxiety or depression. If an individual displays these symptoms it may be to procure secondary gain by getting attention from others. Cultural differences studied by Skinner (1953) have shown that behaviour that may be abnormal to one culture may be completely normal or even praised in another. For example hallucinations are seen as a symptom of psychosis in the western world but in some African tribes they are seen as ‘visions’, and are highly regarded.