Scientific study in psychology

Identify some of the assumptions about human beings that are present in behavioural psychology

Behaviourism can be defined as a "movement in psychology that asserts that the only proper subject matter for scientific study in psychology is observable behaviours" (Carls and Buskist, 1997). This assignment will demonstrate understanding of behaviourism as a psychological approach and also critically examine these assumptions. The behaviourists whose assumptions I have chosen to examine are, Pavlov, Skinner, Thorndike and Watson. From a psychological standpoint I will examine the different behaviour therapies. Behaviourist psychologists claim that most behaviour can be explained as a result of external environmental forces. No consideration at all is given to genetics. The behaviourist accepts that we have genetic traits passed from our parents; however, they are purely physiological such as hair and eye colour. As far as a behaviourist psychologist is concerned the psychological make of human beings is determined by or as a result of environmental influence. This gave rise to the nature nurture debate. Behaviourism can only concern itself with observable behaviour. Psychology should not be trying to interpret what may or may not be taking place in a person's mind. If it cannot be seen to measure it will not be credible.

The first behaviourist was Edward Thorndike. Thorndike studied animal behaviour. This led him to the theory known as the "Law of Effect" (1905, p203).

Behaviour changes as a result of experience. The behaviourists approach to psychology started in America in the early years of the twentieth century. John B. Watson (1878-1955) was the founding father of behaviourism. Watson believed that the most important thing for psychology was that it should be scientific; this meant that everything could be measured and therefore the results could be tested. His idea of this was that introspection such as the work of Freud was too broad and confusing. To study the mind would be time consuming and virtually impossible, because we cannot see directly into it. All that we can see is physical skin behaviour.

Watson's approach was devised around five fundamental assumptions. His first assumption was the most important in understanding behaviour, so understanding learning would lead to understanding of all behaviour. Secondly, that learning stemmed from the association between an external stimulus and a behavioural response. Thirdly that only measurable information counted as valid scientific data and fourthly, that any apparent mental processes or inferences about what was going on in an organism should be rejected, since the only thing which could be observed directly was the behaviour of an organism. The fifth and final assumption was that all behaviour was learned in the same way. Watson's theory was partly taken from and elaborated from the earlier works of Pavlov, Thorndike and Skinner.

Early behaviourists were greatly influenced by the works of Ivan Pavlov (1848-1936), and his theory of classical conditioning on dogs. Pavlov was not a psychologist. He was a Russian physiologist who was studying the physiology of the digestive system. Whilst carrying out his experiments he noticed that the dogs would salivate at the sight of the attendant who brought them their food. From this he found that the dogs could be "trained" to salivate as a result of pairing any stimuli with their food.

As a result of this Pavlov led an experiment on dogs to find out whether or not dogs would react to a neutral stimulus such a tone. Pavlov found that they trained to salivate. On many occasions just before food was given a bell was sounded which signalled the imminent arrival of food for the dog. Finally Pavlov rang bell and discovered that the dog would salivate once it heard the bell. Classical (or Pavolian) conditioning where by a stimulus (a bell), which would not normally produce, a particular response (salivation) eventually comes to do so by being paired with another stimulus (food) which does produce the response. (Gross, pg157)

Pavlov and his research team spent great time and effort in the study of higher nervous activity and came to use it as the base for their study. This signalled the start of behaviourism as a self-conscious movement.

The American behaviourist Edwin L Thorndike (1874-1949) carried out research into the study of problem solving in animals. Thorndike built puzzle boxes for cats. Once inside, the cat would be left to find and operate a lever, which would automatically open the box. Each time they managed to escape they were given a reward, which was visible from inside the puzzle box. After escaping and receiving the reward, the cat was put back in the box and the process was repeated. A first the cat struggled to escape and when they did get out it was by chance. Each time they were returned to the box it took less time for them to make their escape.

The learning in this instance was essentially random or trial and error. "Thorndike proposed a connection between the circumstance (stimulus) and a certain impulse to act (response). Behaviourist's theories of learning (conditioning) are referred to as stimulus response (SR) theories". (Gross, pg3)

This idea was developed further by Burrhus F Skinner, (1904-1990), Skinner also used a puzzle box, known as Skinner's Box, which was designed for a rat or pigeon to do things in rather than escape from. Skinner placed a rat into the box which contained a lever. When the rat pressed the lever a food pellet appeared. The rat learned that food could be obtained by pressing the lever.

As important as classical conditioning is, it only deals with how new stimuli come to control response. Skinner proposed the theory of operant conditioning. As part of his theory he proposed that this learning could account for virtually all-human behaviour. Most of our behaviour is self-generated. Behaviours like driving a car, working on a computer or calling a friend on the telephone. These examples are not called for by the stimuli. Instead they are put together or formed by the individual's way of influencing response. "Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which voluntary behaviour becomes more or less likely to be repeated depending on its consequences. Also known as Skinnerian or instrumental" (Gross, pg179)

Skinners theory also included ways that learning could be reinforced. "A reinforcer is a stimulus which, when it follows a response results in an increase in the response to reoccur. A reinforcer is similar to what is called a reward. Reinforcement is the process by which a reinforcer increases the probability of a response". (Glassman, pg121)

From Thorndike the cats escaped with the reward. But Skinner distinguished a positive reinforcement, a negative reinforcement and a punishment, which is similar to the negative reinforcement. If a child is given a reward for eating vegetables at dinner, he is more likely to eat vegetables in the future. It is easy to recognize that a reward is a positive reinforcer, and that the likelihood of the desired behaviour will increase. When a response is immediately followed by a positive reinforcer, the response becomes more likely to occur.

A teenager is nagged at by a parent to clean a bedroom. As the nagging is unpleasant, it is the negative reinforcer. Once the teenager cleans the room, the nagging stops. When the response from the teenager is not made, a negative reinforcement is required (the nagging).

Punishment involves physical (smacking) or mental (naughty step) distress.

Another important aspect of Skinners work is concerned with the effects on behaviour of the frequency and regularity of the reinforcement. This area of the experiment was identified as the five major schedules of reinforcement.

Continuous reinforcement (CRF) is the first part of reinforcement. During an experiment with the rats, Skinner rewarded or reinforced every single response. The pattern and rate of responding is low but constant.

Fixed interval (FI) is the second schedule of reinforcement. Reinforcement is given every thirty seconds. Overall the response rate was fairly low.

Variable interval (VI) is the third schedule of reinforcement. Reinforcement was given on average every thirty seconds but the interval varied from test to test. As the interval varied on the response rate was stable over long periods of time.

Fixed ratio (FR) is the fourth schedule of reinforcement. Reinforcement was given for a fixed number of responses, say reinforcement for every ten responses. In this stage there is a pause after each reinforcement. As a result, there is a high response rate leading up to the next reinforcement.

Variable ratio (VR) is the final stage of the reinforcement schedule. Reinforcement was given on average 10 responses, but the number would be varied from test to test. The number of responses on any one occasion is unpredictable. There is a very high and very constant response rate.

The behaviourist approach emphasizes the study of observable responses and rejects attempts to study internal processes, such as thinking. Behaviourists also, focus on learning as the primary factor in exploring changes in behaviour. Behaviour depends on the environmental factors rather than genetic or internal factors, such as motivation or knowledge.

Among the numerous contributions of behaviourism are behaviour therapies. Behaviour therapy involves the use of operant or classic conditioning to change unwanted behaviour into something more desirable. Some of the main techniques are flooding, systematic desensitisation, aversion therapy and the economic token.

Flooding is a treatment for phobia sufferers, in which they are exposed to large numbers of the feared stimulus. Flooding is effective as there is no actual basis for the persons fear. In everyday life the sufferer would avoid situations that would put them in proximity to the stimulus and so would have no chance to learn a new response. The main criticism of flooding is that it is deliberately designed to produce very high levels of fear. It can therefore have a very traumatic effect on the person.

Systematic desensitisation was developed by Joseph Wolpe (1958). This involves replacing the usual response to the stimulus with a new, more rational response. One main criticism to this type of treatment comes from dynamic psychology and psychoanalysis. The fact is stressed that suppressing symptoms does not modify structural maladjustments." (Nudler 1975).

Aversion therapy is to eliminate undesired behaviours. In the case with alcoholics, they will take a drug to induce vomiting immediately after sipping alcohol. This unwanted response encourages the person to not want alcohol.

Token economy rewards patients for socially acceptable behaviour. This has a down side to it because, token economy works because the environment is carefully structured so good behaviour is consistently rewarded and bad behaviour is not. The outside world is very different they will find it difficult to transfer what they have learned.

The evidence suggests that behaviourist psychologists have five main assumptions based around learning. They assume that all behaviour is observable, measurable and as a result can be tested and proven. Due to ethical issues, all early tests can only be re examined by using animals. Any findings from these tests can only be truly generalised in the animal world. Behaviourists also do not accept any biological association with learning or the inner workings of the mind.

It can be argued that behaviourism has an important role to play in the treatment of phobias through flooding, desensitization and aversion therapy. However, it must also be noted that behaviourism is not the only way to treat these ailments.


Carlson N & Buskist W, (1997), Psychology: The Science of Behaviour, 5th Ed. Needham Heights MA: Allyn and Bacon

Glassman, W. E. (2000) Approaches to psychology 3rd Ed. Buckingham: Open University Press

Gross, R. (1996) Psychology, The science of the mind and behaviour 3rd Ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton

Nudler, O (1975), Behavior therapy. Bases and criticism [online], available from <> [accessed 1st January 2010]

Thorndike E, (1905), The Elements of Psychology, New York: Seiler

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