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Pavlov (1927) proposed the idea of classical conditioning - learning through association.


Ivan Pavlov, whilst experimenting on dogs, noticed that if a buzzer was played at the same time as the dogs were fed, they would salivate merely at the sound of a buzzer.


This idea has been applied to humans to explain how certain behaviours are learned. For example, it is argued that phobias can be explained using classical conditioning. A person may have a phobia of horses because they once had a frightening experience with a horse and now they associate horses with this frightening experience.


In some of Pavlov?s famous experiments with dogs he paired a neutral stimulus ? a buzzer (called the conditioned stimulus) with food (this is called the unconditioned stimulus). The buzzer was played at the same time as the food was presented. Eventually presentation of the buzzer on its own came to produce the same response (salivation) that food had elicited. The salivation to the sound of the buzzer was called the conditioned response whereas the salivation to food was called the unconditioned response.


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Behaviourist Perspective

The behaviourist perspective was a dominant approach in psychology for the first half of the 20th century and has left psychology with some useful techniques.

The main assumption of the behaviourist perspective is that all behaviour is learned and shaped by the environment. For example in the Bandura et al. study it is demonstrated how aggression is learned and shaped by role models.

The behaviourist perspective also argues that in order for psychology to be scientific it should focus on observable behaviour which can be objectively measured rather than on things like cognitive processes which can only be inferred.

Two important learning theories proposed by the behaviourist perspective are classical conditioning (Pavlov) and operant conditioning (Skinner). Classical conditioning explains how we learn behaviours through association and operant conditioning explains how the consequences of behaviours (reinforcers) shape behaviour.

An early example of a study into operant conditioning was carried out by Skinner (1935). Skinner placed rats and pigeons in a box whereby pressing a lever resulted in food being dispensed. From the accidental knocking of the lever, the rats and pigeons quickly learned to deliberately press the lever to obtain food. Skinner was then able to teach rats and pigeons to press the lever for food, based on the presentation of different stimuli and was able to conclude that behaviour is shaped by its consequence. That is, if an animal is rewarded for doing a particular behaviour such as pecking at a circle, it will be more likely to carry out this behaviour in the future and if a pigeon is not rewarded (or even punished) for pecking at a square then it will be less likely to carry out this behaviour in the future.

Social learning theory can be seen as an extension of behaviourism and was developed by theorists such as Albert Bandura. Bandura?s early work was influenced by the behaviourist perspective in the way that it focused on learning, observable behaviour but he did recognise the need to understand cognitive process.

There are some similarities and differences between the Bandura core study and earlier behaviourist studies such as those by Skinner.

Both the core study by Bandura et al. and behavioural studies such as those carried out by Skinner were carried out in highly controlled situations. For example, Skinner invented what is now known as a Skinner box ensuring that the conditions were the same for all animals and Bandura carried out highly controlled experiments whereby the only variable that differed was the variable manipulated by the experimenters such as the behaviour or sex of the role models.

Both Bandura and Skinner investigated learned behaviour. Skinner was able to demonstrate the learning of behaviour by teaching animals new behaviour that they had not previously acquired in the wild and Bandura was able to demonstrate that children learn aggression by using both passive and aggressive role models. Those children exposed to an aggressive role model were more likely to behave aggressively.

Bandura?s study of aggression used human participants whereas Skinner?s studies of operant conditioning used animals. For example the Bandura experiment used 72 boys and girls from a nursery school whereas Skinner used numerous rats and pigeons. This does mean that we can generalise to other humans from Bandura?s study with more confidence than Skinner?s study of pigeons and rats.

Bandura studied learning which occurred without a reward whereas Skinner studied learning that is shaped by a reward. Bandura?s study of aggression demonstrated that children did not need a reward to imitate a role model whereas Skinner could only shape the animals behaviour through reinforcements (rewards and punishments).

A main strength of the behaviourist perspective has been the development of useful applications. Behaviourism offers very practical ways of changing behaviour from for example therapies through to advertising. However at the same time this does raise an ethical issue as if the behaviourist perspective is able to control behaviour who decides which behaviour should be controlled or changed.

A further important contribution of the behaviourist perspective has been the emphasis on objective and scientific ways of studying behaviour. However, this does raise the issues of generalisation as it is difficult to generalise finding from laboratory studies and especially so when generalising from non human animals to humans

Perhaps the main problem with the behaviourist approach occurs because by not focusing on cognitive processes it is only giving a partial explanation of human experience. However the influence of the behaviourist perspective can be seen in more modern perspectives such as the cognitive behavioural approach which still takes a behaviourist approach but recognises the role of cognition. Bandura?s later research can be seen as taking a cognitive behavioural approach.

A further problem with the behavioural perspective is that many of the practical uses of the approach such as aversion therapy and token economy systems when used as a way of changing behaviour do tend to be short lived. That is, they do change behaviour but often only for a limited time.