Behaviourists explain maladaptive behaviour in terms of the learning principles that sustain and maintain it. Discuss this statement and show how a behaviourists approach to therapy is in stark contrast to psychoanalytic one.
The term ‘therapy’ literary means, “curing, healing” and is defined as a treatment intended to relieve or heal a disorder. Historically, there has been considerable development in the range and types of therapy that can be used to help a client overcome their problems in a modern world. Some of these theories are very different whilst others share some similarities. Edward Thorndike proposed the ‘Law of Effect’ whereby behavioural responses which were closely followed by pleasant consequences, would ensure that the same behaviour would be highly likely to recur. It also stated that the more a stimuli is connected with a response, the stronger the link between the two. If however, responses were followed by adverse consequences then associated to this situation were considered to be weaker. Skinner used Thorndike’s law of effect and developed the terms ‘reinforcement and punishment’ with the variants described as positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishments.
Positive reinforcement in humans are gifts or money whilst negative reinforcement involved the elimination of disagreeable stimuli i.e. If a person has a headache , this can be eased by taking a headache pill thereby achieving the required outcome and removing the pain. These were regarded as the core tools in Operant Conditioning. Skinner believed that behaviours that created a positive response are therefore reinforced and continued, whilst behaviour that creates a negative response would be more likely to be eliminated. His investigation of Operant Conditioning on pigeons and rats uncovered, he believed, that many of the principles of Operant Conditioning could be applied to humans. However, in 1925, John Watson a behavioural psychologist, made the notorious claim that, ‘if you give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select’. (1925, P82). Watson’s theory, later to be called behaviourism, asserted that all psychology must be completely measurable, recordable and scientific.
The fundamental principle underpinning this approach was that all behaviour, both ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, is learned through conditioning. Watson suggested that human behaviour is learnt by humans interacting with the world around them as well as with the environment. The behavioural perspective is based on two earlier processes of conditioning; Classical and Operant Conditioning. Classical conditioning was initially proposed by Pavlov (1849-1936), a physiologist who defined this method as ‘learning through association.’ His observation detailed that laboratory dogs learned to salivate to the sound of a bell that rang on the arrival of food. He concluded that an animal could learn to associate a neutral stimulus with an automatic reflex response. Later, Watson and Raynor (1920) conducted an experiment, which would now be regarded as ethically unsound, where they observed that they were able to condition Little Albert, a small child, to associate the sight of a white rat with a fear response.
They concluded that Albert could be conditioned to be frightened of a something, an unconditional stimulus, he had found previously non-threatening. In effect they were able to create a ‘maladaptive’ thinking pattern, causing Little Albert to develop emotional and behavioural problems. Further psychological research by other behavioural theorists expanded on his work, developing the theory of ‘Operant Conditioning’ which was the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of behaviour. Behaviourism is the theory that the development of human nature is governed by our environment or nurturing and based upon the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment. According to behaviourism, behaviour can be studied in a systematic and observable manner with no consideration of internal mental processes.
As human beings we are driven to understand who we are and how the facets of our own personality make us unique individuals. Behaviourists believed that we are born with a handful of innate responses known as stimulus response and that all of our complex behaviours are through learning by interaction with the environment As one of the oldest theories of personality, behaviourism dates back to Descartes, who introduced the idea of a stimulus and called the person a machine dependent on external events whose soul was the ghost in the machine. Although most theories operate to some degree on the assumption that humans have some sort of free will and are moral thinking entities, behaviourism does not accept that maladaptive characteristics are inherent in a person’s nature. “In the mind of the behaviourist, persons are nothing more than simple mediators between behaviour and the environment” (Skinner, 1993, p 428). There are two major types of conditioning:
1. Classical conditioning is a technique used in behavioural training in which a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response. Next, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response without the presence of the naturally occurring stimulus. The two elements are then known as the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response. An example of this is the “little Albert” experiment conducted by behaviourist John Watson and graduate student Rosalie Rayner.
They exposed an orphaned baby boy of nine months to series of stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks and newspapers on fire. Albert responded without fear to any of these objects. The next time he was exposed to the white rat, a metal pipe was hit with a hammer and the loud noise made him cry. After repeating this action every time they showed him the white rat Albert soon began to cry when he was shown the rat without the accompanying noise.
Studies are showing that parental input of good care is the more important the younger the children. If children from dysfunctional families were adopted, the younger they were adopted into loving homes the better for them and they were still able to benefit from the loving care of their adoptive parents and turned out to be caring adults in later lives themselves. However if children were adopted in later childhood or teenage years into loving adoptive families unfortunately the loving care no longer counteracted the damage done by their biological parents. But if such children later in adulthood chose counselling to help them make sense of their difficult lives that too helped to turn them around into good caring adults.
2. Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour. These consequences can be reinforced either way by the person gaining something good, positive reinforcement or the avoidance of something bad, negative reinforcement. Behaviourists often based their research on animals because they assumed that they would respond in the same way. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born September 14, 1849 and died on February 27, 1936. Ivan Pavlov was born in a small village in Ryazan, Russia, where his father was the village priest. His earliest studies were focused on theology, but reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species had a powerful influence on his future interests. He soon abandoned his religious studies and devoted himself to the study of science.
In 1870, he began studying the natural sciences at the University of Saint Petersburg. While researching the digestive function of dogs, Pavlov noted his subjects would salivate before the delivery of food. A typical example of classic conditioning would be Pavlov’s salivating dogs. Pavlov taught dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell. Under normal circumstances the sound of a bell would not result into salivating but Pavlov paired it with food and at that time it was a neutral stimulus with the dog’s meal. After doing it a few times the dog started to associate the bell which became a conditioned stimulus with food and started to salivate. This is how majority of phobias are explained and indeed my son started to fear dogs one day when he was about four years old after a huge dog jumped on him and knocked him down. Dogs can feel his fear and when we go for walks they often bother him. In a series of well-known experiments, he presented a variety of stimuli before the presentation of food, eventually finding that, after repeated association, a dog would salivate to the presence of a stimulus other than food. He termed this response a conditional reflex.
Pavlov also discovered that these reflexes originate in the cerebral cortex of the brain. Pavlov received considerable acclaim for his work, including a 1901 appointment to the Russian Academy of Sciences and the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology. The Soviet government also offered substantial support for Pavlov’s work, and the Soviet Union soon became a well-known centre of physiology research. While Ivan Pavlov was not a psychologist, and reportedly disliked the field of psychology altogether, his work had a major influence on the field, particularly on the development of behaviourism. His discovery and research on reflexes influenced the growing behaviourist movement, and his work was often cited in John B. Watson’s writings. Other researchers utilised Pavlov’s work in the study of conditioning as a form of learning. His research also demonstrated techniques of studying reactions to the environment in an objective, scientific method. Behaviourists are the only psychologists to disregard the human thought processes and this is one of the criticisms opponents of behavioural theory have.
This along with its inability to explain the human capacity for learning language and memory, build a convincing case against behaviourism as a comprehensive theory. Yet although these criticisms indicate its comprehensive failure, they do not deny that behaviourism and its ideas have much to teach the world about the particular behaviours expressed by humankind. They are convinced that behaviour is determined by conditioning and this can be reinforced by positive or negative rewards. Positive rewards will ensure that the behaviour will be repeated while negative rewards will lead to ceasing of that behaviour. The early behaviourists were even claiming that if given neutral youngsters they would be able to mould them into ways of behaving suited for a particular purpose. It is here where psychoanalysts would argue that human behaviour cannot be measured or just reduced to stimulus response. Both behaviourists and psychoanalysts would deny the existence of a free will.
They also believe that what can be learned can be unlearned and that behaviour can be improved by changing negative thoughts into positive ones. In psychoanalysis the main emphasis is put on experiences of early childhood, how the child manages to negotiate each of the psychosexual stages and the Oedipal complex and for the client to re-experience the early childhood relationships with he therapist through transference and counter-transference. The unconscious and interpretations of dreams also play a major role. The development of behaviourism was seen as a reaction to the psychoanalytical model of human development started by Freud, although this did confuse and shock people as was seenl as being seen to be subjective and lacking in scientific standards. When we explore the psychoanalytic approach, the underlying principles behind it assume that experiences in our earliest years can affect our emotions, attitudes and behaviour in later life without us being aware that it is happening.
Both Freud and Jung also suggested that the mind or psyche had a three layer structure: the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious, with most of our thought patterns embedded in the unconscious and are not aware of. Freud’s perception of the psyche was that there were also three sections within our awareness and beyond our awareness. Firstly there was the ‘id’, a person’s natural instinct which seeks constant fulfilment, the ‘ego’ which constitutes a person’s fixed values developed during childhood and the ‘superego ‘which was a set of learned ethics taken from the society in which we live. His belief was that the mind works to maintain a balance between these three elements and that these all need to work together in balance for healthy psychological development of a person. When there is imbalance between these elements, Freud argued that neuroses can occur. The role of psychoanalysis is to unpick the underlying causes for this imbalance.
In the case of an individual suffering with anxiety disorders, the psychoanalytic position would argue that an overdeveloped superego has meant that a person worries too much trying to live up to external rules imposed by strict parents. Since these processes occur at an unconscious level, the person is not aware of them. Modern psychoanalysis would therefore look at the problems by exploring the past, trying to discover the unconscious issues raised during specific childhood stages. For the psychoanalytic counsellor, the main aim is also to explore these past experiences through talk, interpretation and insight into these unconscious issues. For this to be of value the therapeutic relationship between the counsellor and client is of key significance. For example, in a Jungian model this focuses on a core relationship that supports and builds connections, develops empathy and acceptance and so enables growth and development of the client.
The primary aim is for the client to reach ‘self- actualisation’, arrived at through his or her own understanding. In contrast, a behavioural approach is very directive and barely acknowledges the role of the counselling relationship and its impact. It is not the priority for the therapist and in my opinion distance, and a formal framework, for the client and counsellor have to somehow be established. Freud and Jung suggested that emotional traumas and painful experiences from the past in childhood may be repressed into the unconscious, affecting us throughout our lives without us being aware of it. Some experiences can be so painful as to create mental conflicts and neuroses, through no fault of the individual. It is acceptable that through psychoanalysis, individuals can begin to reach some of those underlying causes in the unconscious, making the unconscious conscious, and releasing the person from emotional trauma.
By contrast, the reductionist attitude of the behavioural approach argues that human behaviour is mechanical and the product of stimulus- response behaviours that leave no room for people knowing the past causes. It is the present that is important. Whilst this theory in some ways makes human behaviour easier to understand by neglecting the many other influences on people, which are fundamental to psychoanalytical theory. I have to admit that I do not feel that this looks at the possible emotions and deep thought processes that make-up a person and are therefore ignored.
As Bandura (1977) revealed in his Theory of Social Learning, which was the result of investigations into why children behave aggressively, to understand learning we have to consider the underlying cognitive factors too. He pointed out that it is knowing, having the information, that certain behaviours will be rewarded or punished that shapes behaviour. In this respect the principles of behaviourism, although scientifically tested on animals cannot be totally applied to human behaviour which is clearly much more complex.
1. Richard Gross Psychology The science of mind and behaviour 2. Pete Sanders, Alan Franklands & Paul Wilkins Next Steps in Counselling Practice (A Students’ companion for degrees, HE diplomas and vocational courses) 3. Pete Sanders First Steps in Counselling (A student’s companion for basic Introductory courses) 4. Oliver James They f*** You Up (How to survive family life) 5. Mike Cardwell, Liz Clark, Claire Meldrum Psychology for A level