‘Behaviourists explain maladaptive behaviour in terms of the learning principles that sustain and maintain it. Discuss this statement and show how a behaviourist’s approach to therapy is in stark contrast to a psychoanalytic one’ In this essay I will first of all explain the main principles and theories that underpin the behaviourist approach to psychology. I will subsequently outline how behaviourist theory can provide therapists with some insight into both the causes of maladaptive behaviour and how that behaviour might be sustained and maintained. Having discussed the main behaviourist principles and how they relate to maladaptive behaviour, I will then compare and contrast the behavioural approach with the psychoanalytic (Freudian) approach. I will also comment on ethical issues especially as they relate to behaviourism and some of the experiments on which the theory is founded. Behaviourism is a school of psychology that emphasises the scientific study of observable behaviours especially as they relate to the process of learning. It was highly influential and dominated psychological theory for some thirty years between the early 1920’s and 1950’s.
The early formulation of behaviourist theory was in the work of an American psychologist John B Watson. In some respects, his research was a response to the prevailing psychoanalytic approaches to therapy at the time. In his work ‘Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviourist’ published in 1929, Watson believed that behaviourism, ‘Attempted to make a fresh, clean start in psychology, breaking with current theories and with traditional concepts and terminology’ (www.britannica.com). His vision was one of psychology becoming a purely objective branch of natural science, where the only admissible conclusions were those that could be obtained by independent observers of the same object or event, as would be the case in scientific experiments. Behaviourism is concerned with explaining how behaviour arises and is maintained. Also to identify and characterise influences on behaviour and to explain how, under certain conditions, behaviour can change. The roots of behaviourist theory can be found in the work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist.
He researched what is known as reflex, an automatic reaction to a particular stimulus. Specifically, his research looked at the reflex that stimulates the production of saliva in dogs when given meat. The meat is the stimulus for the reflex, but what Pavlov noticed was that the dogs in his experiments would start to salivate even at the sight of the person who regularly fed them. In his famous and now well- known experiment, Pavlov then introduced the sound of a bell every time the food was presented. He found that just the sound of the bell would produce the same reaction in the dogs even if there was no food. He concluded that the dogs had learned that the bell signalled food. Watson brought Pavlov’s findings to the attention of fellow psychologists and then conducted his own experiment involving a young boy, Albert. This came to be known as the ‘Little Albert’ experiment. Watson initially presented Albert with a tame rat and observed his response; at that stage the boy had no fear of the rat. Watson subsequently observed Albert’s reaction to a loud noise when it was made behind his head.
Not surprisingly, the child cried at the sound and tried to move away from it. Watson then presented the rat to Albert just before making the loud sound. This time the child reacted by moving away from the rat thereby demonstrating to Watson a change in behaviour as a result and linking the rat to the loud noise. Watson’s experiment showed that Albert had learned to show a defensive reflex reaction. This came to be known as classical conditioning and this approach to understanding behaviour was described as stimulus response psychology. These days the ethics of this experiment would be highly questionable however, subjecting a child to fear in this way and conditioning his response as a result would not acceptable. Several contemporaries of Watson were also working in this area of behavioural research. The work of Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner made a huge contribution to behaviourist psychology. Thorndike pioneered the study of animal behaviour with his ‘puzzle box’ into which he placed a hungry cat. Food was placed outside the box and he found that the cat learned to manipulate the door catch to get out of the box to obtain the food.
Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, the cat in his study had some element of control given that being able to get the food was conditional on the cat opening the door. The consequences of the cat’s behaviour (getting the food), Thorndike argued, altered the cat because it learned to open the door. As the cat was ‘instrumental in opening the door he called this instrumental conditioning. Skinner, who was influenced by Thorndike’s work, argued that learning through reinforcement is common to all species not just animals. Much of his work involved studying the behaviour of rats and pigeons. He conducted several experiments using a special device he designed called the ‘Skinner box’. This provided a controlled environment in which animal behaviour could be observed in a systematic way. His experiments were designed to shed light on how behaviour is initiated, maintained and how under certain conditions it can be changed as a result of consequences of the behaviour. He argued that behaviour takes a particular form because it has consequences that both give rise to it and maintain it. When the consequences change, so does the behaviour he said.
Skinner placed a hungry rat in the box where it had to negotiate a maze to find the food. At first the rat would run up blind alleys in the maze but with experience it gradually learned how to negotiate the maze to find the food more quickly. Behaviourists like Skinner believed that the principles involved in these learning processes were applicable to people and underpin complex human behaviour. Skinner proposed that behaviour changes as a result of its consequences and that behaviour is also reinforced by reward. Behaviour that is reinforced will also increase in frequency Skinner suggested. Similarly, he argued, negative reinforcement works in the same way as positive re inforcement. For example, if a loud noise is made every time a rat pokes its nose through its cage, the rat would stop doing it.
He promoted the idea that as humans are just another species, giving praise for desirable behaviour in a child would reinforce that behaviour in the same way that getting food by pressing a lever in a box would reinforce behaviour in a rat. Skinner went further by suggesting that there is no such thing as free will; he called it the principle of determinism, the assertion that all human behaviour is determined by what went before. Skinner’s hypotheses created widespread debate amongst psychologists and not surprisingly, his critics pointed out that humans are very different to animals and that results from experiments conducted on rats in a laboratory couldn’t just be applied to human behaviour. Behaviourist critics reasoned that human behaviour is immeasurably more sophisticated than animal behaviour, rooted in language and operating within complex cultures. Humans have insight into their behaviour and have conscious awareness, they contended and therefore are able to make conscious choices.
Skinner fell out of favour in the 1970’s following the publication of his book ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’ where he urged society to reject the assumption that free will is the main determinant of behaviour. In contrast to the psychoanalytic school of psychology, behaviourists regard all behaviour as a response to stimuli, with the underlying assumption that what we do is determined by the environment we are in that provides stimuli to which we respond. Also that the environments we have been in in the past, caused us to learn to respond to stimuli in particular ways. ‘Behaviourists are unique amongst psychologists in believing that it is unnecessary to speculate about internal mental processes when explaining behaviour’ (psychlotron.org.uk). Behaviourists believe that people are born with some innate reflexes such as fear and rage which do not need to be learned, but that all of a person’s complex behaviours are as a result of learning through interaction with the environment.
It is therefore assumed that the individual plays no part in choosing their own actions and behaviour. Today only a few psychologists would label themselves as behaviourists and the arguments about free will and conscious choices still continue. However, studies since the 1950’s have in fact brought an increasing recognition that conditioning probably occurs more widely than was previously understood. It is recognised for example that drug or alcohol use can be triggered by environmental cues – places and situations where drug taking or alcohol consumption is present. Contemporary therapy for some types of psychological distress owes much to insight derived from behaviourism. Children who self -harm can be treated with techniques of re inforcement for non- harming behaviours for example.
Apparently one of the techniques used for treating people with obsessional and phobic disorders involves identifying and removing reinforcement for behaviour that is excessive and reinforcing the more positive behaviour with praise. The behaviourist approach is also relevant in understanding addiction and habitual behaviour – whether it be smoking, drugs, alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex etc. With this type of maladaptive behaviour there is a strong and fairly immediate positive reinforcing consequence of the behaviour. Whereas the unpleasant consequences of the behaviour are delayed i.e. potential serious illness in terms of smoking for instance. It is also recognised that someone who regularly exhibits violent or aggressive tendencies may well have grown up in a violent household where violent behaviour was modelled and reinforced. The psychoanalytic approach to counselling and psychotherapy has its roots in Freudian theory which essentially espouses that it is repressed memories and sexual wishes that are the root of psychological problems.
In the psychoanalytic approach there is an assumption that client’s difficulties have their ultimate origin in childhood experiences and that the client is not usually aware of the motives or impulses behind their actions. Prior to Watson and Skinner’s experiments, psychology had almost entirely been based on a psychoanalytic approach – the study of what happens in people’s minds. In therapy, people would report what was on their mind and this was documented and analysed by psychologists such as Freud. This approach to understanding people’s behaviour was considered highly subjective and unscientific by behaviourists. Freud espoused a range of theories to account for maladaptive behaviour; he argued that in early childhood three phases of psycho sexual development set the stage for a series of conflicts between the child and its environment, its family and most importantly its parent. He proposed that that the way in which parents responded to the child would have a powerful influence on the later personality of the child and a significant impact on adult relationships.
Psychological problems according to Freud arise because a person’s impulses and drives are driven underground and continue to influence the person subconsciously. There is significant emphasis in psychoanalytic theory on the quality of the relationship between child and parents. The fundamental viewpoint shared by all psychoanalytic counsellors and therapists is that in order to understand the personality of an adult client it is necessary to understand the development of their personality through childhood. Freud did not suggest however that that childhood experiences directly influence adult personality; he stated that the influence occurred in a particular way through the operation of the unconscious mind. This is perhaps where there is the most stark contrast between the behaviourist and psychoanalytic approaches. Behaviourists concern themselves with actual, observable behaviour rather than internal thoughts processes.
Freud however not only advanced the idea of the unconscious mind, he also developed a complex theoretical model explaining the human mind as comprising three regions which he labelled the id the ego and the superego. The id being a reservoir of primitive instincts and impulses that are the ultimate motives for the behaviour; the ego which is the conscious rational part of the mind that makes decisions and deals with external reality and the superego a sort of store house of rules and taboos, mainly an internalisation of parental attitudes. Conflicts between these elements can lead to stress in Freudian theory. An individual’s behaviour can be understood according to Freud, as being under the control of forces such as repressed memories, childhood fantasies which a person cannot acknowledge. The role of the psychoanalytic therapist is to look for ways of getting beneath the surface of what the client is saying and what is immediately observable. One could of course explain the ‘forces’ mentioned above in behaviourist terms; that a person has simply been conditioned to do, act, say things in a certain way.
A child repeatedly subject to violence or witnessing violence may well be more prone to aggressive behaviour in adulthood for example. But in Freud, I feel there is a richness not found in behaviourism. People and relationships are complex and therefore some emotional problems equally complex. In my view a psychoanalytic approach attempts at least to reflect this complexity – where therapy aims to enable clients to become more aware of their inner emotional life and therefore be more able to control feelings in an appropriate manner and gain the freedom to behave differently. A key aim of psychoanalysis is to achieve client insight into the true nature of their issues/ problems. Genuine insight usually being attained as result of the quality of the relationship between client and therapist.
There is little reference to the quality relationship between client and therapist in the behaviourist approach. In the psychoanalytic approach there is as much emphasis on what the client doesn’t say as on what he or she does say about his or her problem – Freud wrote about what he termed defence mechanisms, which seek to protect an individual from emotionally disturbing or threatening unconscious impulses. These defence mechanisms might include such things as repression , denial, projecting one’s unacceptable thoughts and feelings to another person; or displacement, where an individual might channel impulses to a different target or regression where an individual responding to internal feelings triggered by an external threat, might revert to childlike behaviour from an earlier stage of development. This aspect of Freud’s theory provides powerful insight I feel into certain maladaptive behaviours. Of course the work of the proponents of behaviourism such as Watson and Skinner and Freud’s psychoanalytic theories have been developed and redefined over the years.
In my opinion both approaches can have a valuable role to play in understanding maladaptive behaviour in spite of their very different emphases, depending on the type of behaviour being treated. Behaviourism was the precursor to social learning theory developed by Albert Banduras and this emphasises both the social and physical context people find themselves in and how children in particular learn by observing and then imitating others who effectively act as models. This is more complex than simple stimulus response theory and it can be very important and enlightening for a therapist to understand the current and past social contexts of a client and its potential impact on their behaviour. Equally important, in my view, is the recognition that people have a complex inner mental life and an emotional inner world and responses that sometimes can’t be explained by environmental factors alone. In the same way that behaviour theory has developed, psychoanalytic theory has also advanced.
The work of psychologist Melanie Klein for example, who researched the early relationship between mother and child, concluded that human beings are motivated by the need to establish and maintain relationships. This suggests to me that the quality of relationship between client and therapist is of significant importance. This thinking has little or no place in behaviourist approaches to therapy. Even contemporary cognitive behaviour therapy, which has its roots in behaviourism, places less emphasis on the relationship between client and therapist. Whereas the psychoanalytic counsellor would emphasise exploration and understanding, the CBT approach would be more orientated towards demonstrable action to produce change. It would seem sensible, in treating stress and anxiety to try to combine both approaches.
A client suffering from anxiety is more likely to respond positively to a therapist with whom they have a trusting relationship; without that it would be very difficult for a client to face fears that may be buried in their subconscious. And for the therapist, it would be necessary to be able to establish/ understand the potential environmental and social triggers or stimuli (both current and historic) for the client’s anxiety. This could involve exploring the clients past in terms of their relationship with their parents perhaps and also searching for other relevant information about the situations that provide the cues for the client’s anxiety.
In conclusion, although the assumptions made by early behaviourist psychologists seem overly simplistic nowadays , this work laid the foundations for more extensive research that has advanced our knowledge about social learning and how this can affect behaviour. Although behaviour modification therapy doesn’t necessarily sit easily within a collaborative counselling relationship, some of the principles of behaviourism can be applied and adapted to understanding maladaptive behaviour. Behaviour modification therapy has been shown to be very effective with certain types of disorder such as obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, addiction, anxiety disorders, fears and phobias.
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