Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The Behaviourist Approach

The behaviourist approach is a historical approach to Psychology, but is still very influential.

Ideas and research

John Watson was one of the founders of the behaviourist approach, and he believed that everything is learned from experience.  In their study of an 11-month-old child nicknamed ‘Little Albert’, Watson and Rayner (1920) tried to show that a fear can be learned through classical conditioning. They give the child animals such as a white rat to look at, and hit an iron bar behind his head with a hammer, causing him to become frightened. The child soon learned to associate fear with the rat.

Watson shows 'Albert' the rat

The way Albert was conditioned is similar to Pavlov's research on dogs - learning by forming an association between two things.

Later researchers such as B.F. Skinner focussed more on learning through the consequence of our actions.  The way a behaviour is strengthened following a good outcome and weakened following a bad outcome is known as operant conditioning.

Observational learning is where we learn the consequences of an action by observing others. For example, if you see your brother or sister touch a hot stove and burn their hand, you learn not to do the same thing. Observational learning plays a huge role in how humans learn to interact in society, because we are a highly social animal. It can also play a role in the learning of aggression and violence (Bandura, 1965).


Behaviourism provided two useful concepts - classical and operant conditioning - but failed to explain more complex behaviours -  Skinner (1957) claimed that children learn language through conditioning, but this was dismissed by the linguist Noam Chomsky, who stated that language production involves a set of mental rules, and that language development is largely innate.  Seligman (1974) tried to find a model for depression using learned helplessness, but this was superceded by the cognitive and biological approaches to depression.

Overall the behaviourist approach is determinist and simplistic, but its fundamental findings about human learning are still relevant, and some types of behaviourist therapy are still used today.


Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1(6), 589-595. doi: 10.1037/h0022070
Seligman, M.E.P. (1974). Depression and learned helplessness. In R.J. Friedman and M.M. Katz (Eds.), The Psychology of Depression: Contemporary Theory and Research. Washington D.C.: Winston-Wiley.
Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behaviour. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Watson, J.B. and Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

No comments:

Post a Comment