Understanding human behaviour

Describe and evaluate one of the major approaches to psychology in terms of its contributions to understanding human behaviour. Behaviourism is known to be the second major approach of psychology. This approach will be used for the purpose of this essay to assess the contributions made to help understand human behaviour. In terms of human behaviour we will focus in particular on consumer behaviour.

First of all it will be useful to examine the early beginnings of this theory. In the second part of this paper the behaviourist approach in its pure sense will be introduced before moving onto the evaluation of the approach in terms of its correlation between the theory and how is has been applied in reality. The next important part of this composition shows the valid contribution made to help consumer psychologists understand consumer behaviour. Finally the paper will conclude with a view of the arguments for and against this subject and an overall summary of the contents.

We will begin by going back to the 17th Century when two British empirical philosophers Hobbs and Locke were approaching psychology from a different perspective than what had gone before. Locke believed that the mind was a blank slate at birth, as he termed “Tabula Rasa”, this validated the nurture belief that the only true source of knowledge about the world is sensory experience, in order to study this there was a need for research to be carried out through observation, surveys, and experiments. (Empirical methods = scientific methods). Most modern psychology has developed along the lines of Locke’s view. (www.plato.stanford.edu)

However it wasn’t until 1910-1911 that two psychologists J B Watson and B F Skinner brought forward the perspective of behaviourism. This approach, which became known to be the second major approach of psychology, looks at overt behaviour, in other words the behaviour that can be observed. In Watson’s Behaviourist manifesto in 1913, he stated that “psychology must discard all reference to consciousness; any term denoting mental processes was to be banned on the grounds of being unscientific because inaccessible to the observer”. Watson believed that psychology could only make claims to being a science if it adopted the objective methods used in the natural sciences. (Gross 1999: 3) The approach of behaviourism remained the dominant force within psychology until the 1950`s.

Behaviourism in its pure form looks at classical (Pavlov) and operant (Skinner and Watson) conditioning. The latter developed further by Thorndike his view was that operant conditioning had an important feature which he believed to be reinforcement (Davenport 1995: 12). Thorndike’s puzzle box experiment demonstrated that animals could be persuaded to behave in certain ways using reinforcement (Animal Intelligence: Thorndike 1898).

This led behaviourist psychologists to predict that the same would be true of the human species. (Thorndikes Laws of Effect) The assumption being that there is sufficient similarity between non-human and human to allow such generalisation. Using the goals of science, which are prediction, understanding and control, psychologists that are employed in the business arena (especially the marketing sector) have used this ideology to be able to predict, understand and control human behaviour in terms of the consumer.

One “official” definition of consumer behavior is “The study of individuals, groups, or organisations and the processes they use to select, secure, use, and dispose of products, services, experiences, or ideas to satisfy needs and the impacts that these processes have on the consumer and society.” (www.larsperner.com) The second part of this paper will concentrate on classic conditioning and operant conditioning and reinforcement. Firstly looking at the correlation between the theory and how it is applied. Below are a sequence that illustrates the parallels between a modern day car advertiser (fig 1) and the Pavlov’s salivating dog experiment (fig 2) carried out in the early 20th century (Gleitman 1995:148) both use the same classical conditioning theory.

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