The biological and learning perspective

Both the biological and learning perspective use controlled environments as well as observations of natural behaviour for their studies. Behaviourists (learning perspective) only study overt behaviour, behaviour that can be viewed, without looking into the biological reasons for it. Biopsychologists study physiological processes and their relation to behaviour, they are not limited to overt behaviour like behaviourists are, and always look to the biological causes for behaviour.

The Behaviourists make the assumption that a person’s personality is determined by their learning and experience of their environment. The main methods of learning and teaching are called classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is based on association, and is the behaviourist’s explanation for the creation of, and cure for, phobias. A behaviourist named Pavlov, trained dogs to salivate when a bell was rung, by associating the sound of the bell, with food, which would normally make a dog salivate. Operant conditioning is based on reward and punishment. This is the technique used to encourage good behaviour and reduce bad behaviour among troubled children, and people with mental disabilities, with unusual or undesirable behaviour.

Behaviourists believe that the only important behaviour is that which can be viewed, therefore it is the only type of behaviour which they study. Much of their research is based on animals, because of the many similarities seen in humans and other animals. Seligman and Skinner are two behaviourists who used animals in their experiments. Skinner is famous for his ‘Skinner Box’, a box for small animals which controls every variable for his experiments. Other benefits of using animals for research are, the ethical concerns about using humans not a problem, the shorter life cycles of animals, the ability to control more variables, and the fact that most animals do not realise they are being studied, and hence won’t change their behaviour. There are difficulties in generalising from animal to human behaviour though, such as animals not being affected by culture, experience, understanding and emotions in the same way humans are. Also, animals cannot be asked what they feel, or comment on the experiment, so we can infer what is causing the behaviour in animals.

Biopsychologists make the assumption that all behaviour is linked to physiological processes, including genetic, hormonal and biochemical. The study of the nervous system is of prime importance to them. They are biased towards nature in the nature or nurture argument, arguing that a persons genetics have a much larger effect on their behaviour then their experience. Although a biopsychologist would not argue that operant and classical conditioning work, they would point out that it probably has a basis in the brain, as would the fact that humans can generalise, discriminate, enjoy rewards or dislike punishments.

Most physiological experimentation involves the patient being subjected to a situation that will induce a behaviour, and then the results recorded using many biologically based methods, such as blood samples, heart rate or blood pressure measurements. This type of experiment was used to research causes and effects of stress, such as Brady’s ‘Executive Monkeys’, where a monkey was put under the stressful situation of being forced to repeat a simple action continually or receive an electric shock. The appearance of ulcers was recorded in some of the executive monkeys, who were kept on a certain schedule. Some of the monkeys who developed ulcers died. One benefit from these types of experiments is their ability to generate quantities and qualitative result.

Other experiments involve the patient being changed or altered using injections or surgeries, and the overt behaviour being recorded. Such as Bogen, who cut the fibres of the corpus callosum of a few sever epileptics to prevent their sever fits. He then found that the two cerebral hemispheres each had their own consciousness, leading to strange occurrences, such as not being able to write at all with the left hand, and one patient not knowing what one of his hands was doing. Another similar surgery is the lobotomy, a technique which involves cutting out a small piece of a person’s brain, for the purpose of changing behaviour, that is highly controversial, because of the possibility it could be used for social control.

Biopsychology’s methodology is often controversial, because many studies involve killing, debilitating or causing pain and suffering in animals, and sometimes people. Many of these studies lead to very important advances though, such as a study by Weiner et al. who did a study on army recruits, testing and classing them as oversecretors or undersecretors of digestive enzymes. After four months of stressful training, 14% of the oversecretors had developed ulcers whereas none of the undersecretors had. This provided a link between the executive monkey study and humans, and also allows for those susceptible to ulcers to be identified, so they know they should avoid prolonged stress. Behaviourists also have controversial studies, such as little Albert, a very young boy who was given a phobia of white fluffy things using classical conditioning. This study did however prove that phobias can be induced using conditioning, which led on to many people phobias being removed using classical conditioning.

Biopsychology is sometimes criticised for its overemphasis of physiological links with behaviour, which may lead to reductionist explanations that detract from the value of psychological explanations. Behaviourism can also be criticised though, for its failure to consider the role of biological factors in the development of behaviour and for its view of humans as passive beings at the mercy of the environment.

Both of the two psychological perspectives have many things in common, their use of animals, their practical uses and their experimental methods. This may be because Biopsychologists do not dismiss overt behaviour, or the ability to learn, and Behaviourists do not deny that behaviour has a biological basis, they just do not wish to study it. Because behaviourism’s limit being that it will only study overt behaviour, all that can be learned from watching subjects will be studied eventually, but Biopsychology’s current limitation is science, which is advancing, and so Biopsychology may one day give us the reasons behind many behaviours, as well as cures, aids and control as technology advances, the concept and methodology of this perspective will continue on for a long time into the future.

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