Behaviourism as a psychological approach

Critically assess the value of behaviourism as a psychological approach? In his essay I will provide information related to the assessment criteria. I will demonstrate my understanding of behaviourism from a psychological approach. The behaviourists that I have chosen to compare and discuss are, Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike and Skinner. From a psychological approach I will seek into the different behaviour therapies.

The value of behaviour changes as a result of experience. The behaviourists approach to psychology started in America in the early years of the twentieth century. John Broadus Watson (1878-1955) was the founding father of behaviourism. Watson believed that the most important thing for psychology was that it should be scientific. His idea of this was that introspection was too broad and confusing. To study the mind would be time consuming and virtually impossible, because we cannot see directly into it. All that we can see is physical skin behaviour.

Watson’s approach rested on five fundamental assumptions. His first assumption was the most important factor in understanding behaviour, so understanding learning would lead to understanding of all behaviour. Secondly, that learning arose from the association between an external stimulus and a behavioural response. Thirdly that only measurable information counted as valid scientific data and fourthly, that any apparent mental processes or inferences about what was going on in an organism should be rejected, since the only thing which could be observed directly was that organisms behaviour. The fifth assumption was that all behaviour, whether animal or human was learned in the same way. Watson’s theory was partly taken from and elaborated from the earlier works of Pavlov, Thorndike and Skinner.

Early behaviourists were greatly influenced by the works of Ivan Pavlov (1848-1936), and his theory of classical conditioning on dogs. Pavlov led an experiment on dogs to find out whether or not dogs would react to a neutral stimulus such a tone. Pavlov found that they trained to salivate; he trained a dog and on many occasions just before food was given a tone was presented so that the toe signalled the immanent arrival of food for the dog. Finally Pavlov rang out the tone and found that the dog would salivate once it heard the tone. Classical (or Pavolian) conditioning where by a stimulus (a bell), which would not normally produce, a particular response (salivation) eventually comes to do so by being paired with another stimulus (food) which does produce the response. (Gross, pg157)

Pavlov and his co-workers spent great time and effort in the study of higher nervous activity and came to use it as the base for their study. The conditioned reflex was not treated by them as a tool, but as their unit for their subject matter. This signalled the start of behaviourism as a self-conscious movement. Another American behaviourist named Edwin L Thorndike (1874-1949) carried out research into the study of problem solving in animals. Using a series of puzzle like tasks.

Thorndike built puzzle boxes for cats their task was to operate, which would automatically cause the trapped door to open. Each time they managed to escape there was a reward, a piece of fish waiting for them, which was visible from inside the puzzle box. Each time after solving the puzzle and eating the fish the cats were put back in and the whole process was repeated. The cats at first struggled to get out and when they did get out it was by chance. But when they were put back into the box it took them less time to make their escape.

The learning was essentially random or trial and error. Thorndike proposed a connection between the circumstance (stimulus) and a certain impulse to act (response). Behaviourist’s theories of learning (conditioning) are referred to as stimulus response (SR) theories. (Gross, pg3) This idea was developed further by Burrhus Fredrick Skinner, (1904-1990) who is most likely to be the best known example, behaviourist. Skinner also used a puzzle box, which was designed for a rat or pigeon to do things in rather than escape from. When he placed a hungry rat into the Skinner box, containing a lever. When the rat pressed the lever a food pellet appeared. The rat slowly learned that, food could be obtained by leaver pressing and sometimes, not always, a grid floor that could be electrified to give the rat a light shock.

As important as classical conditioning is, it only deals with how new stimuli come to control response. Skinner proposed the theory of operant conditioning. As part of his theory he proposed that this learning could account for virtually all-human behaviour. Most of our behaviour is self-generated. Behaviours like driving a car, working on a computer or calling a friend on the telephone. These examples are not called for by the stimuli. Instead they are put together or formed by the individual’s way of influencing response. Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which voluntary behaviour becomes more or less likely to be repeated depending on its consequences. Also known as Skinnerian or instrumental. (Gross, pg179)