Applied Linguistics

Behaviorist theory of language acquisition/Behavioral psychology

Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that, as its name suggests, is based on the observation of behavior and the analysis of it. Behaviorism emerged as a contrast to psychoanalysis and aimed to provide a scientific, demonstrable, and measurable basis for psychology. Pioneers like Watson or Pavlov began to carry out experiments with various animals that laid the foundations for behaviorism and conditioning. Lets see what is Behaviorist theory of language acquisition in this article.

BF Skinner’s behavioral theory

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was a leading American psychologist, inventor, and writer recognized throughout the world for bringing scientific rigor to psychology. In 1938 he wrote his first study called ” The behavior of organisms: experimental analysis  and was putting on paper everything he studied until, in 1974, he summarized his work in a famous work called ” On Behaviorism 

In this book, Skinner explains the fundamentals of behavior analysis and how his experiments with animals can be extrapolated to psychological therapy in humans. The author explains to us how psychology can be understood from an operant point of view and how our behavior affects our thoughts.

Simple Watson and Pavlov conditioning

As we have discussed previously, behavioral psychology was born years before Skinner published his studies. Two great pioneers of this branch of psychology with John Watson and Ivan Pavlov studied what we know today as simple conditioning.

Simple conditioning is a procedure by which we can induce a reflex or response to an animal (and in some cases, a person). With experiments such as Pavlov’s dogs or Watson’s induction of a phobia in a child, the aim was to show that the human mind could be measured, observed, and modified through behavior.

Behavioral psychology

The four basic principles of behavioral psychology are:

  1. Psychology is a science, therefore it will use an empirical and demonstrable experimental methodology.
  2. This methodology is characterized by using variables that can be measured (example: measuring anxiety by the number of beats per minute)
  3. The results of experiments carried out in a laboratory can be extrapolated to real life
  4. The behavior is learned, there is no form of innateness (total rejection of other branches of psychology)

The contribution of Skinner‘s conditioning to this discipline is very important, he added the principle of reinforcement, the concept of reward, and defined operant conditioning, all through experiments such as the famous Skinner box.

Skinner’s box

Officially called the operant conditioning chamber,” Skinner’s box is one of the best-known inventions in the history of psychology. It was created with the aim of demonstrating that the behavior of an animal (in the first place, it used a rat) could be induced and modified by external stimuli. The box is one of the pillars on which Skinner’s well-known behaviorism is based.

Parts of the box

The box had the following items:

  • Two lights
  • A speaker
  • A button
  • Electrified ground (in some cases)
  • Food dispenser

How the Skinner Box Works

  1. rat was introduced inside the box (normally it was deprived of food before so that its motivation to feed would be greater)
  2. The rat experimented in its new environment until it discovered the button and pressed it. Automatically a unit of food ( pellet ) came out of the dispenser after the button was pressed
  3. The rat, motivated to get more food, modified its behavior and quickly learned to press the button to receive food (association of behavior-stimulus and positive reinforcement)
  4. Conditioning could also occur by the omission of a negative stimulus ( negative reinforcement ). In this case, the rat was introduced into the box with the ground electrified, if he pressed the button, the current would stop passing through the ground. In this way, the rat learned to press the button to stop feeling pain.

Skinner and operant conditioning

As we have seen, operant conditioning is somewhat more complicated than simple Watson and Pavlov conditioning. In this case, the association is not between a stimulus and a reflex, but rather between a stimulus, a behavior, and a reinforcement.

That is, in the case of operant conditioning, learning about what happens after the behavior is required. For example, in the case of Skinner‘s box, the rat learns that after pressing the button it receives a reward.

Positive and negative reinforcement

Since behaviorism is based on measuring behaviors, everything that happens in Skinner‘s conditioning is thoroughly analyzed and categorized. Therefore, we can distinguish two types of reinforcement in BF Skinner‘s theory of behaviorism and operant conditioning:

  • Positive reinforcement, an element that acts as a reward, usually satisfies a basic need or generates a pleasant response.
  • Negative reinforcement, an element that generates a response of pain, displeasure, or discomfort, this factor acts as a punishment.

We can find examples of operant conditioning in our day to day. For example, we make an effort to study because we have learned to receive a reward afterward (good grades and recognition) or, we take medicine to avoid the headache, just like the rat presses a button to avoid the pain of the electrified floor.

Criticisms on BF Skinner’s theory of behaviorism

Despite being a measurable and empirical model, BF Skinner‘s theory on behaviorism and conditioning is quite reductionist to speak of the human mind.

The main criticism of behaviorism is the lack of internal vision and the simplicity of its model, it is not very credible that the human psyche can be measured and understood through experiments carried out on other animals.

For this reason, today the cognitive-behavioral model is proposed, which unites the cognitive branch (thought) with behaviorism. If you want to know more about the therapeutic application of this new model, we recommend that you read the following article on third-generation therapies.

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