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Behaviourism: The Behaviourist Approach in Psychology

Jade is a graduate of Aberdeen University in Philosophy, Anthropology and Teaching.

Compulsory education

Compulsory education

The Behaviourist Approach

Behaviourism branched out from the associationist view of psychology early in the 20th century. It was from John Watson’s paper, "Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It" in 1915, that behaviourism got its name and became an independent approach from associationism.

The behaviourist manifesto stated that psychology should only concern itself with the study of overt behaviour as it could be controlled in an experimental environment to get a better idea of its cause. Behaviourists believe that we consist only of learning experiences which are used to navigate our way through life since we are born as a tabula rasa (blank slate) so everything our minds become is only a consequence of learning in our environment.

Classical Conditioning

It is from Ivan Pavlov’s (1849-1939) study of dogs that the behaviourist approach took the theory of classical conditioning. Behaviourism believes we learn to operate in our world by forming associations between a particular stimulus and the most appropriate behavioural response, stimulus-response units, which explains why we behave the way we do.

Classical conditioning attempts to account for this through learning by association. Watson used this in his conditioning of his case study "Little Albert." He conditioned a baby to fear that which he previously had not by associating it with an instinctive fear. Watson was able to conclude from this that phobias are not a result of the unconscious, as psychoanalysts had believed, but were the result of conditioning.

E.L. Thorndike concluded from his experiments on cats that there were two laws of learning: the law of exercise and the law of effect. The law of exercise states that the more times a task is carried out, the better we become at it; with learning having taken place. The law of effect says that there is a link between our behaviour and its consequences. Thorndike showed we not only learned to behave in certain ways because of Pavlov’s stimulus-response conditioned behaviours but also because the behaviour has resulted in a positive outcome in the past.

Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner, influenced by Thorndike, contributed to behaviourism with the concept of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning requires a reward or unpleasant consequence during the learning process to encourage or discourage us in our learning and repeating of the behaviour.

By studying the behaviour of rats, Skinner was able to show that behaviour followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in the behaviour occurring more frequently in the future. Positive and negative reinforcement increases the likelihood of a similar response to the stimulus in the future. Punishment should reduce the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring.

The usefulness of punishment though is more limited and less effective than reinforcement. Skinner formed five different reinforcement schedules after noticing that the learned behaviours became extinct after prolonged periods: continuous reinforcement, fixed ratio, fixed interval, variable ratio, and variable interval. Variable ratio and variable interval were the most effective having high rates of desired behavioural response and being more resistant to extinction.

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Problems With Behaviourism

There are limitations to behaviourism despite its being so scientifically rigorous and truthful in that we do behave in terms of stimulus-response associations, and do perform better when encouraged positively. Behaviourism has been accused of being a reductionist theory in that it explains us in terms of merely stimulus-response units; ignoring our high-level mental processes. We do certainly appear to be able to do things in terms of stimulus-response units of learned behaviour, but this implies that we are solely passive learners.

Edward Tolman indicated that we are in fact active learners who are able to process and use information which surrounds us to our advantage. The behaviourist approach also discounts emotion in our learning from the environment. Psychoanalytics would also accuse behaviourism of being reductionist as it ignores the importance of family and relationships in the learning process.

Psychoanalysts would argue the psychodynamics of a situation contributes greatly to learning and that behaviourists do not account for this. From a biological viewpoint, behaviourism also fails to account for evolution in that it explains human behaviour in a mechanistic way; seeing us as responding only to our environment and that we have little to no control over this. This is seen as an over-simplistic explanation for our behaviour as there are other influences which contribute.

Finally, there is also the fact that behaviourism is seen as a determinist theory; not allowing for any free will in our learning. It is a psychological approach which believes that it is our environment which solely shapes our behaviour and so personal decisions and free will have no contribution.


Although behaviourism does show us how we respond to things through association, it still has many flaws. Behaviourism is scientifically sound in its approach because of its emphasis on an experimental investigation of observable behaviours. Classical conditioning explains why we react to the world through stimulus and response whereas operant conditioning reminds us that reinforcement is also important in learning behaviours.

Despite this, the reductionist, mechanistic, and deterministic aspects of behaviourism are what caused its fall in popularity and the move in psychology towards the cognitive approach; an approach which emphasizes higher-level mental processes, the same aspects that behaviourism fervently avoided.

© 2012 Jade Gracie


Jade Gracie (author) from United Kingdom on February 28, 2013:

thanks lol

Helen on February 25, 2013:


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