The behaviourist approach - Approaches

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

The behaviourist approach


The behaviourist approach sees humans born as tabula rasa (’blank slates’) with all behaviour learned from experience and no genetic influences. The approach only focuses on observable behaviours, as they are seen as scientifically measurable. Therefore, there is no place in behaviourism for the study of hidden mental processes. Behaviourism believes it is valid to study animals, as they share similar principles of learning with humans. There are 3 main forms of learning:

1 Classical conditioning, investigated by Pavlov, concerns reflex actions, where a stimulus becomes associated with a response and as such occurs when a response produced naturally by a specific stimulus becomes associated with another stimulus not normally associated with that response.

2 Operant conditioning, investigated by Skinner, concerns voluntary behaviour, with learning occurring via reinforcement of behaviour. This may be through positive reinforcement, where a behaviour becomes likely to occur again because it had a pleasant outcome, or through negative reinforcement, where a behaviour becomes likely to occur again because it resulted in avoidance of something unpleasant happening.

3 Social learning theory, investigated by Bandura, involves behaviour being learned through observation and imitation of models whose behaviours are seen to be reinforced. Identification concerns when an individual is influenced by another because they are likeable or similar to them. Vicarious reinforcement concerns the rewards an observer sees another receiving for their behaviour. The types of consideration (thinking) that occur before an observed behaviour is imitated are known as mediational processes.


Fig 5.1 Classical conditioning as produced by Pavlov’s dogs

Focal study

Pavlov (1903), investigating the role of salivation in digestion, became interested in how dogs learned to salivate before food was presented to them. The dogs had learned to predict the arrival of food by making associations, such as the kitchen door being opened, with being fed. The stimulus of food (unconditioned stimulus — UCS) naturally produced the response of salivation (unconditioned response — UCR), but Pavlov also rang a bell (conditioned stimulus — CS) when presenting the food, something that does not naturally produce the response of salivation. After doing this an average of 7 times, a dog would then salivate just to the sound of the bell (conditioned response — CR) with no presentation of food. This suggests that the dogs had learned to associate the bell with the presentation of food. Pavlov called this kind of learning classical conditioning.


• Skinner (1948) found that rats, placed in a Skinner box, would move around and sometimes accidentally knock a lever, triggering the release of a food pellet. Gradually the rats came to associate pressing the lever with getting rewarded with food, and eventually they did this immediately and consistently upon being put in the box. This suggests the food pellet was acting as a positive reinforcement, strengthening the behaviour and increasing the chances that it would occur again in similar circumstances.

• Bandura et al. (1961) found that children who observed an adult model behave aggressively by beating a ’Bobo doll’ were more aggressive when allowed to play with toys than children who observed a non-aggressive adult model or no model at all. Boys tended to imitate a model more if the model was male, while girls tended to imitate a model more if the model was female. This suggests that behaviour can be learned through observation and imitation of a role model, especially when an individual identifies with a model.

Positive evaluation

Image The behaviourist approach is supported by a wealth of research evidence that demonstrates that humans do indeed learn through classical and operant conditioning and social learning. The approach is also supported by people’s everyday experiences of how they learn new behaviours.

Image Behaviourism is seen as having scientific rigour, as the approach is based on the use of strictly controlled laboratory experiments and an emphasis on objective measurements of observable behaviour.

Image Social learning theory acknowledges the role of thought processes in determining whether behaviour will be imitated or not.

Negative evaluation

Image Critics see behaviourism as being far too rooted in the results from animal research. Animals do not necessarily learn in the same way as humans, which creates problems of generalising research findings from animals to humans.

Image Behaviourism sees behaviour as deterministic, whereby experience programmes us to act unthinkingly in certain ways. There is no role for free will, whereby individuals consciously decide on their behaviour.

Image Behaviourism tends to ignore the important role that nature plays in determining behaviour. The approach sees all behaviour as learned, therefore neglecting the influence of factors such as genetics and evolution in shaping behaviour.

Practical application

One practical application of the approach is behavioural treatments for mental disorders. An example of this is systematic desensitisation (see page 63), which is used to treat phobias by using relaxation strategies to break down irrational fears in a step-by-step approach.


Fig 5.2 Skinner’s box for rats