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Learning Approaches - The Behaviourist Approach

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The Behaviourist approach to learning studied changes in behaviour that are caused by a person’s direct experience of their environment, using the principles of classical and operant conditioning to explain them.

The Behaviourist approach made a deliberate effort to be scientific, and therefore refused to discuss mental processes that might be involved in learning because they are not observable and could not be studied objectively.

For this reason, Behaviourist explanations are sometimes called Stimulus-Response (S-R) explanations, because they only refer to observable stimuli and responses and ignore everything else.

While Behaviourism was the main approach in Psychology:

  • The definition of psychology became: “… that division of Natural Science which takes human behaviour -- the doings and sayings, both learned and unlearned -- as its subject matter” (Watson, 1919)
  • All behaviour was explained using classical and operant conditioning.
  • Almost all research involving laboratory experiments on animal behaviour and introspection was rejected as a tool.

Assumptions — The Behaviourist Manifesto

The major strength of Behaviourism is that its underlying assumptions are very clear because they were stated in an article called “Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It” (Watson, 1913) which became known as The Behaviourist Manifesto.

This became known as the Behaviourist manifesto because it set out the four guiding principles that were the foundations of all Behaviourist research.

  • To be like other sciences, Psychology should only study observable, quantifiable behaviour
  • The subject matter of Psychology should be the laws that predict how behaviour changes and can be controlled — classical and operant conditioning
  • Humans are only animals and should not be treated as any more complex
  • Because humans are only animals, research on animal behaviour will be directly relevant to humans.

Although Watson can be seen as the founding father of the Behaviourist approach, he was inspired by earlier research of Ivan Pavlov who discovered classical conditioning and Edward Thorndike who discovered operant conditioning. The approach as a whole was inspired by the Empiricist philosophy of Locke who argued that we are blank slates at birth and all knowledge is gained through experience. Because Watson soon left academia, the approach was popularised by BF Skinner — the headmaster in The Simpsons is named after him!

Methods of Research used by the Behaviourist approach

Almost all Behaviourist research involved laboratory experiments on animals because of their desire to be scientific.

They used experiments because the discovery of cause-effect relationships is an essential goal of science. Conducting them in laboratories allowed strict control of any extraneous variables, as well as of the variables they manipulated and measured. Using animals was more convenient and made replication easier, but was also reasonable to the Behaviourists because they believed that there was no qualitative difference between man and animals and they were seeking general laws of learning that should apply to any animal or person in any situation. In their experiments, they manipulated the environment (stimuli) to tests its effect on the animals’ behaviour (response).

Due to their insistence on being scientific, they would only measure observable responses. In classical conditioning they tended to measure how much of a response was produced — its quantity. In operant conditioning they tended to measure how often a response was produced — its frequency.

The importance of empirical data in their approach can be seen in the central role that one consistent graph played in their approach:

They found that the strength of the response to the stimulus was related to the number of trials that the animal received. Although this may seem obvious, it was important because it appeared to show that the animals did not make a sudden leap of learning as they restructured their mental understanding of the task and their behaviour. In other words, this graph provided clear evidence - as far as the Behaviourists were concerned - that the process of learning was mechanical and due to repeated environmental experience rather than anything more complex.

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