The Behavioural approach

The behaviourist approach dominated psychology in the first half of this century, especially in the United States. The goals of behaviourism were to move psychology toward a scientific model, which focused on the observation and measurement of behaviour. Its assumptions were that behaviour is primarily the result of the environment rather than genetics or instincts and so behaviourists reject the view that abnormal behaviour has a biological basis.

Like the psychodynamic theorists, behaviourists have a deterministic view of mental disorders believing that our actions are largely determined by our experiences in life. However, unlike Freud they see abnormal behaviour is a learned response (through conditioning) and not as the result of mysterious and they would argue unknowable unconscious processes. While much of our behaviour is adaptive, helping us to cope with a changing world, it is also possible to learn behaviours that are abnormal and undesirable. However, such maladaptive learning can be treated by changing the environment so that un-learning could take place.

Behaviour therapies:

These are often used to treat phobias and involve the patient learning to associate their phobic stimulus spider or whatever with relaxation. Systematic desensitisation was created by Joseph Wolpe and is seen as a pleasant way of helping a patient, other therapies from this model include aversion therapy, flooding and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Systematic desensitization: Involves a series of steps, which occur over several therapy sessions:

1. The therapist and client make up an anxiety hierarchy, the hierarchy lists stimuli that the client is likely to find frightening. The client ranks the stimuli from least frightening to most frightening.

2. The therapist teaches the client how to progressively and completely relax his body.

3. Next, the therapist asks the client to first relax and then imagine encountering the stimuli listed in the anxiety hierarchy, beginning with the least-frightening stimulus. If the client feels anxious while imagining a stimulus, he is asked to stop imagining the stimulus and focus on relaxing. After some time, the client becomes able to imagine all the stimuli on the hierarchy without anxiety.

4. Finally, the client practices encountering the real stimuli.

When they feel comfortable with this they move on. The role of the analyst is also important since they need to recognise the reason for the fear. Sometimes this may be irrational but there may also be logical reasons for the fear which need to be dealt with too. Systematic desensitisation is an effective therapy with patients showing much greater recovery than with no therapy, based on a scientifically tested theory it has formed the basis of later behaviourist therapies such as exposure therapy (flooding). Whilst systematic desensitisation is a slow process, research suggests that the longer the technique takes the more effective it is.

It has also been shown to have long term benefits. However, systematic desensitisation is limited in use, being used mostly to treat specific anxiety disorders such as phobias. Irrational fears of spiders, buttons etc are seen as relatively trivial disorders in comparison to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder where it has little or nothing to offer. The behaviourist approach does struggle with more serious disorders such as the initial symptoms of schizophrenia which include hallucinations and delusions are internal mental states which the behaviourists ignore in an attempt to create a scientifically testable theory.

Aversion therapy:

Aversion therapy uses the behavioural approach principles that new behaviour can be ‘learnt’ in order to overcome addictions, obsessions and violent behaviour. Patients undergoing aversion therapy are made to think of the undesirable experience that they enjoy, for example a violent person might be shown images of violent crime, or an alcoholic might be made to drink, while drugs or electric shocks are administered. In theory the patient will over time come to associate their addiction with the negativity of electric shocks or seizures and has been used to treat a host of undesirable behaviours such as smoking, alcoholism, gambling, violence and homosexuality when it was considered a mental illness.

Aversion therapy’s long term success in treating patients is questionable as patients may appear to be treated by therapy but once out of the view of doctors, where the deterrent drugs or electric shocks are removed, they may feel able to return to their addictions or undesirable behaviour. Aversion therapy has endured much criticism in previous decades in its use in abusing patients. At a time when homosexuality was considered by some to be a mental illness, gay people were made to undergo aversion therapy for their lifestyles which included receiving electrical shocks if they became aroused by specific stimuli. A number of fatalities have also occurred during aversion therapy.

Token Economies:

A token economy is a behaviour modification program based on operant conditioning principles. Token economies are sometimes successfully used in institutional settings, such as schools and psychiatric hospitals. People receive tokens for desirable behaviours such as getting out of bed, washing and cooperating. These tokens can be exchanged for rewards such as going for leave on hospital grounds, TV-watching time or exchange in the hospital shop for cigarettes or snacks. In a study carried out by Burchard and Barrera (1972) using a token economy system designed for the rehabilitation of mildly mentally ill young boys who displayed a high frequency of anti-social behaviour. Tokens were mostly earned through achievement in the workshop and were exchanged for a variety of rewards, such as meals, recreational trips, clothes or purchases.

A time-out procedure was also adopted where boys had to sit on a bench behind a partition, hence having time out from being able to receive reinforcers; also a response cost procedure was employed during which reinforcers were removed, thus tokens were removed. Time out and deprivation of tokens occurred following swearing, personal assault, property damage or other undesirable behaviour, it was found that these things repressed the boy’s bad behaviour, but in some boys one technique might be more effective than another. Behaviour modification is being applied to a whole variety of what are traditionally considered disturbed behaviours with good results.

The main practical difficulties are being able to find suitable reinforcers and to apply the techniques constantly. Some critics have suggested that behaviour modification may succeed in changing behaviours but not the processes that underlie them, and also that it could be used to teach that behaviour which best fits the demands of the institution rather than that which is in the individual’s best interest. Using a Token economy system within an institution presents many difficulties, as staff have to ensure that reinforcement and removal of tokens must be consistent and done constantly. All staff, be it day or night have to be fully involved, they also have to carry out their roles fully for such a programme to work. It only requires one staff member to fail at their task for the effectiveness of the programme to fail.

Organising and carrying out such a scheme requires time and effective planning, it is an expensive and time consuming way to change behaviour, if some staff are not committed to the programme then it is likely fail. There is also no attempt to address the cause behind why the children are trouble makers, and what might be a more dignified way of helping them. Who decides what is or is not acceptable behaviour, the staff within the institution not the individual children themselves.

Such a scheme could be open to unlimited abuse. It is no coincidence that in some closed environments of hospitals and homes some staff members have been caught physically and mentally abusing defenceless people, a perfect example is that of Winterbourne hospital run by the Castlebeck group which featured on BBC’s Panorama programme 31 May 2011 ( a reporter went undercover and filmed shocking abuse carried out on the residents of the home. Following the investigation a number of staff have been charged and arrested for the abuse of vulnerable clients whilst in their care.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing:

A fairly new therapy is Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Francine Shapiro in 1987, is a method that some therapists use to treat problems such as post traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and more recently phobia’s. This treatment is a type of exposure therapy in which clients move their eyes back and forth while recalling memories that are to be desensitized. Many critics of EMDR claim that the treatment is no different from a standard exposure treatment and that the eye movements do not add to the effectiveness of the procedure. The treatment is fairly complex and includes elements from several different schools of therapy.

The most unusual part of the treatment involves the therapist waving his or her fingers back and forth in front of the client’s eyes, and the client tracking the movements while focusing on a traumatic event. The act of tracking while concentrating seems to allow a different level of processing to occur. The client is often able to review the event more calmly or more completely than before.

Strengths of the Behaviour Approach:

The major strength of the behavioural approach is that some disorders especially phobias do seem to be a result of ‘faulty learning’. The behavioural approach is better than the biological approach at explaining some disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is an anxiety disorder that occurs in response to an extreme psychological or physical experience. At least some sufferers show anxiety reactions to stimuli which were present at the time of the trauma. A main strength of the behaviourist perspective has been the development of useful applications. One strength of the behaviourist approach is that it has successfully applied classical and operant conditioning to its theories.

Systematic desensitisation is based on classical conditioning and is useful for treating phobias. Another strength of the behaviourist approach is that it uses scientific methods of research, which are objective, measurable and observable, such as Bandura’s bobo doll study of aggression. The behavioural approach offers very practical ways of changing behaviour from for example therapies through to advertising. However at the same time this does raise an ethical issue as if the behaviourist perspective is able to control behaviour who decides which behaviour should be controlled or changed.

Weaknesses of the Behaviour Approach:

The behaviourist approach to understanding abnormality is very reductionist as it reduces explanations for behaviour to simple reward and punishment. While some behaviour’s such as the acquisition of phobias, may be explained this way, there are many abnormal behaviours that seem to be passed on genetically, for example alcoholism, autism and schizophrenia and so it is difficult to explain them solely in terms of classical or operant conditioning. Similarly there are many disorders, for example depression, that seem to feature abnormal levels of neurotransmitters and so a biological explanation may be more sensible than a simple behaviourist one. Behaviourism can explain the role of the media in the acquisition of certain abnormal behaviours. Anorexia has long been linked with the ‘perfect’ body image as portrayed in the media.

People may learn to be anorexic through social learning by observing models and actresses, reading about the diets they are on, and copying the behaviour they see. The majority of research into classical and operant conditioning has been conducted on animals. Aside from the possible ethical implications of animal research, there is also the issue of generalising findings from one species and applying them to another. Assumptions have to be made that at least some human physiology and psychology is the same as animal physiology and psychology, but clearly humans are different to animals.

The behaviourist approach is extremely determinist because it states that a behaviour that has been reinforced will be carried out, and one that has been punished will not be carried out. However, humans clearly have a degree of free will and are able to decide when to carry out some behaviours and when to resist them. Cognitive theories of behaviour try to account for free will and decision making, and so it may be better to combine behaviourist and cognitive approaches when trying to explain abnormal behaviour.

A further problem with the behavioural perspective is that many of the practical uses of the approach such as aversion therapy and token economy systems when used as a way of changing behaviour do tend to be short lived. That is, they do change behaviour but often only for a limited time. The behaviourist model also struggles to explain why we acquire phobias for some objects or events quicker than others. In a modern world, fast cars, wintery conditions and using a mobile whilst crossing the road are far more threatening than spiders and snakes but we don’t develop car phobia.

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