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College Study Notes: Behaviorism Theory in Psychology

written by: Haley Drucker•edited by: SForsyth•updated: 9/7/2012

It is an important and influential area of psychology, but just what is behaviorism? In this article you will find an overview of the most important aspects of behaviorism theory, including classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.

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    Behaviorism and Psychology

    Just as the name suggests, behaviorism is the field of psychology concerned with people’s behaviors. Though other psychologists might focus on biological factors or our conscious or unconscious thoughts, behaviorists believe that to understand why people are the way they are you must study their behaviors. It doesn’t much matter what people are thinking, and it’s hard to measure thoughts in a scientific way anyway. Trying to objectively measure unconscious motivations is even harder.

    So in order to create a straightforward and scientific way of assessing personality, the behaviorists decided to focus on studying what people do. Drawing inspiration from the work of Ivan Pavlov, the psychologists Edward Lee Thorndike, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner were the founders of this field of psychology, and were followed later by important contributions from Albert Bandura.

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    Classical Conditioning

    Ivan Pavlov was not trying to study psychology. Instead, he was investigating the digestive systems of dogs. But the discoveries he made in the process were the foundation for behaviorism. Pavlov would put meat powder on his dogs’ tongues and measure their salivation (aka how much they drooled). Every day he would come into the lab in his white lab coat and give the dogs the meat powder, and eventually he realized something interesting. The dogs would start to salivate before he put the meat powder on their tongues. Just seeing Pavlov walk into the room in his white lab coat was enough to let them know the food was coming, and to trigger their salivation reflex.

    Classical Conditioning, then, simply means that two stimuli that at one time had nothing to do with each other become paired and associated. A stimulus is anything presented or given or done to an animal or human. The white lab coat and meat powder are two stimuli that the dogs associated—the dogs learned these two things always came together. Thus they started to act towards the white lab coat the same way they would act towards the meat powder.

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    The Classical Conditioning Process

    There are five terms used to describe this process, and it is important to be familiar with them all. It will help to remember that “conditioned" is merely another word for “learned" in this context. In the Pavlov example, the meat powder was an unlearned or Unconditioned Stimulus (US). The dogs responded to it naturally, without being taught. The Unconditioned Response (UR) was the salivation in response to the meat powder—again something they were not taught.

    Initially the white lab coat was a Neutral Stimulus (NS) because the dogs had no particular responses or associations with it. But after many pairings of US + NS (meat powder + lab coat) the lab coat became a Conditioned Stimulus (CS). The dogs had learned to respond to the lab coat, so it was no longer neutral. The Conditioned Response (CR) was again salivation, this time in response to the lab coat. This response was not natural, but learned.

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    More Classical Conditioning Terms

    Little Albert: Another example of classical conditioning, this baby was taught to be afraid of a white rat. He generalized his fear of the rat to other white fluffy objects like a white rabbit or Santa Clause beard. Little Albert is also sometimes used as an example of a phobia, a fear thought to be created sometimes by classical conditioning.

    Extinction: This process is the opposite of classical conditioning—it destroys the association created between the two stimuli. For example, if Pavlov’s dogs were to see the white lab coat over and over again without being given meat powder, eventually they would stop salivating in response to the coat.

    Spontaneous recovery: After extinction, if the two stimuli are paired again the conditioned response reappears very quickly. After the dogs have stopped salivating to the lab coat via extinction, if we present them with meat powder + lab coat again they will remember the lesson they were taught previously and will very quickly start salivating in response to the lab coat again (though not as much as the first time).

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    Operant Conditioning

    This type of conditioning was described first by Edward L. Thorndike, who discovered a very simple law called the Law of Effect. Actions that lead to favorable outcomes, he said, are likely to be repeated. So if we do something and something good happens in response, like a reward, we will probably perform that behavior again.

    B.F. Skinner followed up on Thorndike’s research by putting rats into what we now call Skinner Boxes. The rats could push a lever and through that action either receive a reward (like a food pellet) or a punishment (like a mild shock). Through these experiments Skinner formulated the rules of Operant Conditioning. In this type of conditioning, a behavior is associated with a consequence, either reinforcement or a punishment. Reinforcement means to increase the likelihood a behavior will be repeated, and punishment means to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. These techniques can be used to shape children's behavior. Be able to distinguish between the following four terms:

    Positive Reinforcement: Positive in this context means to add something, and reinforcement means to increase the likelihood of a behavior. So the person or animal is doing something you like, and you are going to add something to encourage them to repeat that behavior. For example: a child does well on a test, and receives a piece of candy.

    Negative Reinforcement: Negative means to take something away, and reinforcement means to increase the likelihood a behavior. So they are still doing something you like, but you are now taking something away to encourage them to repeat that behavior. For example: a child does well on a test and is told she doesn’t have to do her usual chores.

    Positive Punishment: Positive means to add something, and punishment means to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. So they are doing something you do not like, and you are going to add something to discourage their behavior. For example: a class misbehaves and you give them extra homework.

    Negative Punishment: Negative means to take something away, and punishment means to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. So they are doing something you do not like, and you are going to take something away to discourage their behavior. For example: a teen stays out past his curfew and you take away his car privileges.

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    More Operant Conditioning Terms

    Reinforcer: A stimulus that comes after a behavior and increases the likelihood that behavior will be repeated.

    Primary reinforcer: Stimuli that are naturally reinforcing and don’t have to be learned. Examples are food, relief from pain, and praise.

    Secondary reinforcer: Something we learn to find reinforcing, like money or a good grade. If you give money to a dog or a baby they wouldn’t care, but we have learned to find money rewarding.

    Shaping: Rewarding small pieces of a complex behavior, called successive approximations. Animal training is done through shaping—first you teach a dolphin to swim through a hoop underwater, then to jump through a hoop slightly above the water, and eventually to jump through a hoop very far above the water.

    Schedules of Reinforcement: People and animals can either be reinforced on a continuous schedule—every time they perform the behavior, or on a partial schedule—only some of the times they perform the behavior.

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    Observational/Vicarious Learning

    Albert Bandura and other psychologists recognized that we don’t always learn directly. Sometimes we learn from watching other people and copying their behavior, and this is referred to as Observational Learning or Vicarious Learning. We might see someone else reinforced or punished for doing something, and we decide whether or not to do that same thing based on what we saw. Bandura conducted an important study where he had adults physically attack a plastic, blow-up Bobo doll while some children were watching. The children who saw this behavior often repeated it when put in a room alone with the Bobo doll. The adults had modeled aggressive behavior for the children.

    Model: Anyone who performs a behavior someone else then repeats. Usually we repeat the behaviors of models who are like us or who we look up to. We must pay attention to the behavior and be physically able to repeat it if we are to follow the model’s example, and we must find the reinforcement or punishment they received relevant. For example, a shy child who doesn’t like attention might not copy the behavior of another student who gives an answer in class and is praised for participating.