Learning Approaches: Behaviourist Approach

– A way of explaining behaviour in terms of what is observable
– Emerged at the beginning of the 20th century
– Dominant approach in psychology for half of that century

– The second force of psychology

– Driving force in the development of psychology as a scientific discipline

– On the nature side of the debate

– Environmentally deterministic

– Environmentally reductionist

– People are born as blank slates

– All behaviour is learnt from our environment through stimulus-response
– Following Darwin, behaviourists suggested that the basic processes that make us learning
are the same in all species.

– Therefore, animals and humans learn in the same ways
– So behaviourists carry out experiments on animals and generalise the results to humans
– Behaviourists are only interested in studying behaviour that can be observed and measured
– All behaviour should be studied in an objective and scientific way

– Not concerned with studying the mental processes of the mind.
– Behaviour is learnt in two ways: classical and operant conditioning

– Learning through association of an unconditioned stimulus and neutral stimulus to get
a conditioned response.

– The neutral stimulus eventually produces the same response that was first produced by unlearned stimulus alone

– When Pavlov’s dogs were presented with food they salivated
– The food was the unconditioned stimulus
– The salvation of the unconditioned response
– Pavlov sounded the bell before giving the food
– Bell was the neutral stimulus
– After repetition, the dogs salivated when they heard the bell even when there was no food
– Bell was the conditioned stimulus
– Salivation was the conditioned response
– Dogs have learnt to associate the bell with food
– Thus, Pavlov was able to show how a neutral stimulus can come to elicit a newly learned response.

Neutral Stimulus > No response
Unconditioned Stimulus > Unconditioned response
Neutral Stimulus + Unconditioned stimulus > Unconditioned response
Conditioned stimulus > Conditioned response

– To find out if Classical Conditioning works on humans.
– To find out if a fear response can be conditioned into a 9-month-old baby boy.
– To see if the fear response will be generalised to other animals and objects and how long the conditioning lasts

– Watson and Rayner chose Albert as their participant.
– He had been reared in a hospital environment because his mother was a nurse in a home for children.
– He was healthy and well developed and they thought the study would do him ‘relatively little harm’.
– It was well controlled and there was careful manipulation of the IV and careful measurement and recording of the DV.

– Initially tested Albert at 11 months old for fear reactions towards a white rat, a rabbit and cotton wool.
– When they were presented he showed no fear.
– They also banged a hammer against a steel bar making a loud noise.
– Albert was very upset and cried.

Establishing a conditioned response
– A white rat was presented
– Whenever he would attempt to touch the rat a bar was struck behind his head
– After several pairings, the rat was presented alone
– Albert started to cry immediately, turned and started to crawl away.
– Conditioned fear rats due to the association of fear of loud noises



– Classical conditioning has standardised procedures and it was carefully documented.
– This shows it uses nomothetic methods that can easily be replicated

– In fact, Pavlov did repeat the study many times over 25 years, with different dogs and different Neutral Stimuli
– He even got different researchers to observe the dog and measure the saliva
– This gives the research inter-rater reliability and test-retest reliability

– Pavlov carefully controlled setting makes his findings objective and scientifically credible

– This means that there are no confounding or extraneous variables that could be making the dogs salivate, so Pavlov’s conclusions about conditioning seem to be the best explanation
– Therefore, it has high internal validity

– It also has high external validity as dogs are regularly trained through classical conditioning in usual situations such as house training

– So it, therefore, has real-life applications as it is a situation that dogs are put into in real life

Scientific Method

– Classical conditioning is based on actual evidence observed by carrying out controlled experiments.

– This is because it’s based on empirical evidence carried out by controlled experiments.

– E.g. Pavlov’s experiment where he managed his dog to salivate at the sound of a bell.

– Classical conditioning is also a reductionist explanation of behaviour.

– This is because a complex behaviour is broken down into smaller stimulus-response units of behaviour.

– Supporters of a reductionist approach say that it is scientific.

– Breaking complicated behaviours down to small parts means that they can be scientifically tested.

– This has given scientific credibility to psychology

Generalisability – Animals and Humans
– The main problem here is generalising from dogs to humans.
– Dogs and humans do not have the same brains and human brains are more complex
– This means that the way that we learn is different from dogs, so we may not learn through classical conditioning – like Pavlov’s dogs do
– Additionally, the way that this would shape our behaviour would be different as well, some believe that humans have more free will than dogs

– Shows that the results from dogs cannot be generalised to human behaviour
– Therefore, more research needs to be done in classical conditioning in humans.




–  In 1953 Skinner suggested that learning is an active process whereby humans and animals operate on their environment.
– Argued that learning was an active process
– When humans and animals act on and in their environment consequences follow their behaviour
– If the consequences are pleasant they repeat the behaviour
– If unpleasant they do not repeat the behaviour



– Receiving a reward when a certain behaviour is performed

– Reinforces behaviour to occur more often

– Eg. Rewarded with sweets for revising


– Occurs when performing an action that stops something unpleasant happening

– This action then occurs more frequently

– Eg. Turning off an alarm

– An unpleasant consequence of behaviour

– Punishment decreases the likelihood of the behaviour being performed again


– A hungry rat was placed in a cage
– Every time he activated a lever a food pellet fell from the food dispenser
– This is positive reinforcement
– The rats quickly learnt to go straight to the lever a few times of being in the box
– This suggests that positive reinforcement increases the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated


– A rat was placed in a cage in which they were subject to an electrical current
– As he moved around the cage the rat hit the lever which switched off the electrical current
– Negative reinforcement
– The rats quickly learnt to go straight to the lever a few times of being put in the box
– This suggests that negative reinforcement increase the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated





– There’s a lot of research in support of the Operant Conditioning
– Brain imaging has identified “reward centers” in the brain that activate during positive reinforcement
– A lot of this research is strictly scientific, being carried out on animals in lab conditions or using brain imaging techniques like MRI.
– Because the theory only looks at behaviours, every step in the conditioning process is observable.
– This adds to the credibility of the theory since you can see it happen with your own eyes


Scientific Method

– Skinner relied on the experimental method

– Used controlled conditions to discover a causal relationship between variables

– By manipulating the consequences of behaviour (IV) he was able to accurately measure the effects on the rat’s behaviour (DV)

– This allowed him to establish a cause and effect relationship between the consequences of behaviour and how often the behaviour occurs





Phobias: Systematic Desensitisation – Classical Conditioning

– Classical conditioning has been applied in the development of treatments for the reduction of anxiety associated with various phobias

– Systematic desensitisation is a therapy based on classical conditioning

– The therapy treats phobias as conditioned responses (CR) to a conditioned stimulus (CS)

–  Tries to turn the focus of the phobia back into a neutral stimulus (NS) that produces no response.

– Involves introducing the patient to the thing they fear, but at a safe distance

– First a drawing of one at a distance, then a drawing that is held in the hand, then a photo, then a film clip, then the real thing.

– These stages are in a “hierarchy” that the sufferer themselves draws up.

– At each stage, the sufferer learns to associate the phobia with a harmless, relaxed experience.

– This is counterconditioning because the relaxation cancels out the anxiety the phobia produces.

– Eventually, the patient’s phobia is reduced and the conditioned stimulus turns back into a neutral stimulus


Token Economy – Operant Conditioning

– Operant conditioning has given rise to therapies such as the token economy

– A system in which targeted behaviours are reinforced with tokens (secondary reinforcers) and later exchanged for rewards (primary reinforcers).
– Tokens can be in the form of fake money, buttons, poker chips, stickers, etc.

– The rewards can range anywhere from snacks to privileges or activities.

– For example, teachers use the token economy at primary school by giving young children stickers to reward good behaviour.
– The token economy has been found to be very effective in managing psychiatric patients.

– They have been used successfully in institutions and prisons

– These work by rewarding appropriate behaviour with tokens that can be exchanged for privileges

– However, the patients can become over-reliant on the tokens, making it difficult for them to adjust to society once they leave prison, hospital, etc.




Scientific method

– The classic movement in psychology to adopt scientific strategies were the behaviourists

– Were renowned for their reliance on controlled laboratory experiment and rejection of any unseen or subconscious forces as causes of behaviour.

– Later the cognitive psychologists adopted this rigorous (i.e. careful), scientific, lab-based approach too.

– Brought language and methods of natural sciences
– Was influential in the development of psychology by emphasising objectivity and replication
– This has given psychology more credibility as a science


– In both classical and operant conditioning experiments on animals contributed to the research
– The results are not applicable to humans as we are different cognitively and physiologically
– Humans have different social norms and moral values which affects the efficiency of the environment

– The experiments apply more to animals than humans

– Not generalizable to humans


Mechanistic View of Behaviour
– A behaviourist view of animals is that they are seen as passive and machine-like responders to the environment through stimulus response
– Fails to take into account the role of biological and cognitive factors in learning which emphasise the importance of mental events during learning in humans

– This shows that humans actually think about what they are doing instead of responding in a machine like way
– Meaning that the behaviourist approach may apply less to human behaviour

– Skinner rejected this and argued that these internal states are scientifically untestable

– Argues that our behaviour is the sum total of our reinforcement history