Behaviourism was the main paradigm in psychology from 1920 to 1950. Behavioural psychologists were driven by a desire to view psychology as a science, supported by empirical evidence, through controlled observations of behaviour.

Behaviourism deals mainly with observable behaviour, ignoring things which can’t be empirically measured, such as thought processed and emotions. John Watson described the goal of behaviourism as “the prediction and control of behavior.”

The approach has a number of main assumptions.

Main Assumptions

  • Firstly that when everyone is born their mind is a tabula rasa’ (a blank slate).
  • Additionally, that learning takes place in the same way for both humans and animals, thus research can be legitimately be conducted on animals.
  • The behavioural approach proposes that all behaviour is the result of simple stimulus-response events, no matter how complex the behaviour. It suggests that even language is learnt in this way.
  • Controversially though, behaviourism claims that individuals have no free will and that one’s environment determines their behaviour.

The two main theories of learning within behaviourism are classical and operant conditioning. The principles of classical conditioning were discovered by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian Biologist who discovered that dogs in his lab learnt to associate neutral stimuli with the presence of food. According to this theory, behaviour is learnt through associations.

The second theory, operant conditioning, proposes that all behaviour is learnt through reinforcement and punishment. A main proponent of this theory was B. F. Skinner, who showed that pigeons could be trained to perform complex behaviours, such as playing a version of ping pong, by rewarding and shaping certain behaviours that were close to the desired behaviour.

Strengths & Weaknesses

  • One strength of the behavioural approach is that it is highly scientific and uses extensive experimentation, in controlled settings, to support its theories.
  • It also places a great emphasis on objective measurements.
  • The approach has also been used to develop many effective treatments for dealing with phobias and addictions, for example, systematic desensitisation, flooding and aversion therapy.

  • A weakness, however, is that theories from this approach can be highly reductionist, ignoring the role of hormones and cognition in mediating our behaviour.
  • It is also very deterministic, proposing that humans have little free-will over our actions. As we know, however, determination to quit an addiction may allow us to override the process operant conditioning.
  • Behaviourism also relies extensively on the use of animal studies, despite the fact that significant differences exist between animals and humans, which affects our behaviour, such as language and ability to think in abstract terms.



Extension Resources

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