Applied Linguistics

What is Behaviorism theory concept basics conditioning


Behaviorism theory is a stream of psychology that focuses on the study of the common laws that determine human and animal behavior. In its origin, traditional behaviorism leaves aside the intrapsychic to focus on observable behavior, that is, it prioritizes the objective over the subjective. This opposes behaviorism to previous approaches such as psychodynamic and phenomenological. In fact, from the behavioral perspective, what we usually understand as “mind” or “mental life” is just an abstraction of what psychology should really study: the links between stimuli and response in given contexts.

Behaviorists tend to conceive of living beings as “clean sheets” whose behavior is determined by the reinforcements and punishments they receive rather than by internal predispositions. Behavior, therefore, does not depend mainly on internal phenomena, such as instincts or thoughts (which are, on the other hand, covert behaviors) but rather on the environment, and we cannot separate behavior or learn from the environment. the context in which they take place.

In fact, those processes that occur in the nervous system and that for many other psychologists are the cause of how we act, for behaviorists they are nothing more than other types of reactions generated through our interaction with the environment.

The concept of “mental illness” seen by behaviorists

Behaviorists have often been linked to the world of psychiatry for their use of the experimental method to obtain knowledge, but this association is not correct, since in many respects, behaviorists are clearly differentiated from psychiatrists. One of these differences is behaviorism’s opposition to the concept of mental illness.

From this philosophy applied to psychology, pathological behaviors cannot exist, since these are always judged according to their appropriateness to a context. While diseases must have relatively well-isolated and known biological causes, behaviorists note that there is insufficient evidence in favor of the existence of these biomarkers in the case of mental disorders. Consequently, they oppose the idea that the treatment of problems such as phobias or OCD should focus on psychotropic drugs.

Behaviorism basics

Next, we define the main terms of the behaviorist theory.

1. Encouragement

This term refers to any signal, information, or event that produces a reaction (response) from an organism.

2. Answer

Any behavior of an organism arises as a reaction to a stimulus.

3. Conditioning

Conditioning is a type of learning derived from the association between stimuli and responses.

4. Reinforcement

Reinforcement is any consequence of a behavior that increases the probability that it will happen again.

5. Punishment

Opposed to reinforcement: a consequence of a behavior that decreases the probability that it will occur again.

Wundt: the birth of Experimental Psychology

Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), considered by many “the father of Psychology“, laid the foundations of what would end up being behaviorism. He created the first scientific psychology laboratory and systematically used statistics and the experimental method to extract general rules about the functioning of mental processes and the nature of consciousness.

Wundt’s methods relied heavily on introspection or self-observation, a technique in which experimental subjects provide data about their own experience.

Watson: Psychology seen from behaviorism

John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) criticized the use of introspective methodology by Wundt and his followers. In a conference in 1913 that is considered the birth of behaviorism, Watson stated that to be truly scientific, Psychology must focus on manifest behavior rather than on mental states and concepts such as ‘consciousness’ or ‘mind’, which could not be analyzed objectively.

Watson also rejected the dualistic conception that separated the body and the mind (or the soul) and suggested that the behavior of people and that of animals should be studied in the same way since, if the introspective method was left aside, it would not there be a real difference between the two.

In a well-known and controversial experiment, Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner succeeded in provoking a rat phobia in a nine-month-old baby (“little Albert”). To do this, they paired the presence of the rat with loud sounds. The case of little Albert showed that human behavior is not only predictable but also modifiable.

The black box

For Watson, living beings are “black boxes” whose interior is not observable. When external stimuli reach us, we respond accordingly. From the point of view of the first behaviorists, although there are intermediate processes within the organism, since they are unobservable, they should be ignored when analyzing behavior.

However, in the mid-twentieth century, behaviorists qualified this and, without disregarding the importance of non-observable processes that directly occur inside the body, pointed out that psychology does not need to account for them to provide explanations about the logics that govern The conduct. BF Skinner, for example, was characterized by giving mental processes exactly the same status as observable behavior, and by conceiving thought as verbal behavior. We will talk about this author later.

Some neo-behaviorists such as Clark Hull and Edward Tolman did include intermediate processes (or intervening variables) in their models. Hull included internal drive or motivation and habit, while Tolman claimed that we construct mental representations of space (cognitive maps).

Watson and behaviorism, in general, were influenced in a key way by two authors: Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike.

Classic conditioning: Pavlov’s dogs

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) was a Russian physiologist who noticed while conducting experiments on saliva secretion in dogs, that animals salivated in anticipation when they saw or smelled food, and even simply when handlers approached to feed them. Later, he got them to salivate when they heard the sound of a metronome, a bell, a bell, or a light by associating these stimuli with the presence of food.

From these studies, Pavlov described classical conditioning, a fundamental concept in behaviorism, thanks to which the first interventions based on behavior modification techniques were developed in humans. Now, to understand how classical conditioning works, you must first know with what stimuli you work on it.

An unconditioned stimulus (that is, one that does not require learning to elicit a response) elicits an unconditioned response; in the case of dogs, food causes salivation spontaneously. If the unconditioned stimulus (food) is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus (eg the bell), the neutral stimulus will eventually produce the unconditioned response (salivate) without the need for the unconditioned stimulus to be present as well.

For Pavlov, the concept of mind is not necessary since he conceptualizes responses as reflections that occur after the appearance of external stimuli.

Watson and Rayner’s Little Albert experiment is another example of classical conditioning. In this case, the rat is a neutral stimulus that becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits the fear response by association with loud noise (unconditioned stimulus).

Animals in behaviorism

Classical behaviorists frequently used animals in their studies. Animals are considered equivalent to people in terms of their behavior and the learning principles extracted from these studies are in many cases extrapolated to human beings; yes, always trying to respect a series of epistemological presuppositions that justify this extrapolation. Do not forget that between species there are many aspects of behavior that vary.

The systematic observation of animal behavior would give way to Ethology and Comparative Psychology. Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen are two of the most important representatives of these currents.

Instrumental Conditioning: Thorndike’s Cats

Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949), a contemporary of Pavlov, conducted various experiments on animals to study learning. He put cats in “problem boxes” to see if and how they managed to escape from them.

In the boxes, there were various elements with which the cats could interact, such as a button or a ring, and the only contact with one of these objects could make the door of the box open. At first, the cats managed to get out of the box by trial and error, but as the attempts were repeated they escaped more and more easily.

From these results, Thorndike formulated the law of effect, which states that if a behavior has a satisfactory result it is more likely to be repeated and that if the result is unsatisfactory this probability decreases. Later he would formulate the law of exercise, according to which the learning and habits that are repeated are reinforced and those that are not repeated are weakened.

Thorndike’s studies and works introduced instrumental conditioning. According to this model, learning is a consequence of the strengthening or weakening of the association between a behavior and its consequences. This served as the basis for making proposals later, in the emergence of true behaviorism, as we shall see.

Skinner’s radical behaviorism

Thorndike’s proposals were the antecedent of what we know as operant conditioning, but this paradigm was not fully developed until the appearance of the works of Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990).

Skinner introduced the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the act of rewarding behavior by giving something, while negative reinforcement consists of withdrawing or avoiding an unpleasant event. In both cases, the intention is to increase the frequency and intensity of the appearance of certain behavior.

Skinner defended radical behaviorism, which maintains that all behavior is the result of learned associations between stimuli and responses. The theoretical and methodological approach developed by Skinner is known as experimental behavior analysis and has been especially effective in the education of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Development of behaviorism: the cognitive revolution

Behaviorism went into decline in the 1950s, coinciding with the rise of cognitive psychologyCognitivism is a theoretical model that emerged as a reaction to behaviorism’s radical emphasis on overt behavior, leaving cognition aside. The progressive inclusion of intervening variables in behaviorist models greatly favored this paradigm shift, known as the “cognitive revolution”.

In psychosocial practice, the contributions and principles of behaviorism and cognitivism would end up coming together in what we know as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on finding the treatment programs most supported by scientific evidence.

The therapies third generation developed in recent years recover some of the principles of radical behaviorism, reducing the influence of cognitivism. Some examples are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Behavioral Activation Therapy for depression, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for borderline personality disorder.

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