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Foundations of Psychology: Behaviourism

Foundations of Psychology: Behaviourism

In a previous article, we looked at the psychodynamic approach. But later into the twentieth century, opinions were changing across the field. Many psychologists argued that psychoanalysis was not scientific as a study. There was no objective proof. In other words, since it was unconscious, it couldn’t be observed or measured in a definite way. This shift in psychological thinking led to a new trend known as behaviourism. Behaviourists believe that all behaviour is learnt after birth, and refuse to study causes of behaviour that are innate or unconscious, because these sources cannot be seen. The first key behaviourist was Ivan Pavlov, who proved that behaviours can be learned, and first discovered classical conditioning. This is learning to associate two different stimuli with each other. In Pavlov’s experiments, he would show dogs food and ring a bell at the same time. The presence of the food would then make the dog’s mouths water. After repeating this processes many times, eventually he could ring the bell alone, without the food, and their mouths would still water. The dogs were so used to the two events occurring together, that they had associated them.


The next big contribution was made by Thorndike, who showed that when actions bring rewards they are more likely to be repeated. Placing cats in boxes, which had a mechanism to open them from the inside, he waited for them to find their way out, to a bowl of food. The more times the cats managed to open the box, the quicker they were at doing it. This is known as operant conditioning, where actions with a positive result are more likely to be repeated and behaviours without a positive result are less likely to be repeated. This helps our behaviour to adapt in order to give us the best chance of receiving rewards. John Watson; seen as one of the most influential supporters of behaviourism, is most famous for showing that phobias could be learnt in children. The subject was a young boy known as ‘Little Albert’. Being shown a rat at the beginning of the study, he enjoyed stroking it and picking it up, but the aim of the experiment was to make him scared of it. Watson would show Albert the rat and at the same time make loud noises behind his head. This would scare Albert, and over time, he would come to associate the fear of the noise with the rat. Soon, just showing him the rat would upset him, and Watson had created a phobia. Watson really believed that all behaviour could be learnt, stating ‘Anyone regardless of their nature, can be trained to be anything.’


The final key contributor to behaviourism I am going to mention is Skinner. He showed with his ‘Skinner’s Box’, that rats could learn to get food using a mechanism. When the rats in the boxes pressed a button, they would be given food, or given electric shocks. They were then more or less likely to press it dependant on the result. This proved that behaviour is shaped by positive and negative reinforcement. Behaviourism remained popular throughout the 20th century, and still is today, but around the mid-19th century, new techniques developed that made it easier to think about what went on inside the mind in a more objective way than the earlier psychotherapy. This caused cognitive and biological revolutions in the field, which themselves were responsible for many big discoveries. Of the two psychological approaches I’ve written articles on so far, the psychodynamic and behaviourist, which do you support more? Post your opinions below!


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