The History And Current Applications Of Behaviorist Theory
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Jan 9th, 2020

The History And Current Applications Of Behaviorist Theory

Behaviorism is a theory of learning based upon the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Behaviorism is the idea that behavior can be studied in a systematic and observable manner and according to John B. Watson; it should have nothing to do with introspection because introspection is too subjective (Goodwin, 2008). Beside’s John B. Watson there were others also interested in the study of behavior, specifically, Ivan Pavlov and Burrhus F Skinner. Behaviorism was a major change from earlier views because it discarded the importance of the conscious and unconscious mind and instead it attempted to make psychology a more scientific field, by focusing just on the observable behavior. Behaviorism had its earliest start with the work of Ivan Pavlov’s and his research on the digestive systems of dogs that led him to the discovery of classical conditioning process, which demonstrated that behaviors could be learned through conditioned associations (Goodwin, 2008). This paper will discuss the work of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner and how they contributed to today’s behaviorist theories like cognitive behavioral therapy. It will also discuss how these early behaviorists’ theories are the same as today’s behaviorist theories and how they are different.

The History and Current applications of Behaviorist Theory

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Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a theory of learning based upon the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through our interactions with our surroundings. Behaviorism proposes that behavior can be studied in an organized and observable way without consideration or thought of inner psychological conditions (Goodwin, 2008). There are two major types of conditioning in behaviorism, classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is a technique used in behavioral training in which a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response. It involves taking a neutral stimulus (i.e. the ringing of a bell) and then pairing it with a naturally occurring stimulus (i.e. dogs salivate when presented with food). Continuing this pairing will eventually cause the previously neutral stimulus to induce the response without the presence of the naturally occurring stimulus (i.e. the dog will salivate with the ringing of the bell even when food is not immediately presented). The two components are then called the conditioned stimulus (the ring of the bell) and the conditioned response (the dog salivating) (Todes, 2002). Operant conditioning is a process of learning that uses rewards and punishments for behavior. With operant conditioning, a relationship is created linking a behavior and a consequence for that behavior (Skinner, 1954). Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson and Burrhus F. Skinner all developed significant contributions to the advancement of behaviorism. While Pavlov, Watson and Skinner paved the way for behaviorist thinking, what is left of their findings? If we take a critical look at cognitive behavioral therapy we can see how the early behaviorists’ ideas are still alive today and how these ideas have changed with time.

In the late 1800s, Pavlov was studying the gastric function of dogs. Pavlov inadvertently discovered that dogs would salivate prior to the food being presented to them, and decided that his discovery of dogs salivating prior to the actual food arriving was more interesting than gastric functions, and changed the focus of his research (Goodwin, 2008). Pavlov began to experiment with the dogs using a tone to signal for food. Pavlov found that the dogs had begun to salivate with the tone without the presentation of food (Schwartz & Lacy, 1982). Pavlov realized that this response is not a natural response and was a learned response, and he consequently called this response a conditioned response and the neutral stimulus became a conditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment the tone was the neutral stimulus that became paired with the unconditioned stimulus which was the food. The unconditioned response of the dog salivating became a conditioned response to the conditioned stimulus of the tone (Beecroft, 1966). Pavlov’s work became known in the West, mainly due to the writings of John B. Watson. Pavlov thus coined what we now know today as classical conditioning. Pavlov’s research also had a direct affect on bringing behaviorism to the attention of the American public in the 1930’s.

John B. Watson is known as the “founder of behaviorism” however Watsons Behaviorism did not catch on immediately and in 1913 when he publicized his “Behaviorist Manifesto”, he was initially met with a lot of criticism and doubt (Goodwin, 2008). It was not until the early 1930’s when behaviorism began to catch the attention of America, in part due to Watsons continued push on the public to recognize it as a valid theory in psychology. Finally after several articles were published citing the use of behaviorism as a way to improve lives, the public began to recognize behaviorism as a positive, meaning it could help to raise children more efficiently, improve marriages, improve business and overall help people to lead more productive lives (Goodwin, 2008). With Watson’s book, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” behaviorism for the first time was given well defined goals, methods and thought (Goodwin, 2008). Watson made behaviorism a discipline that created a structure based heavily on the principle that learning is the key to development and behavior (Rilling, 2000). Watson and Rayner, in 1927, conducted a study that produced an intense fear of rats in a 9 month old boy they called “little Albert”. When “little Albert” reached for a white rat, Watson would make a loud noise that scared “little Albert”. Using classical conditioning, “little Albert” associated rats with the loud noise and shifted his fear with the noise to a fear of rats. “Little Albert” then associated rats, which have fur, to all things with fur (this is known as second order conditioning). With second order conditioning, “little Albert” formed an irrational fear of all objects that had fur (Mischel, 1993). Although Watson was asked to leave John Hopkins and essentially could no longer work in academia he continued to promote his belief in behaviorism until it finally caught the attention of the American public. The impact of behaviorism was huge, and was a school of thought that continued to dominate psychology for the next fifty years.

Psychologist B.F Skinner advanced the behaviorist perspective with his theory of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning verified the effect of punishment and positive reinforcement on behavior. Operant conditioning consisted of two important factors, the response and the consequence (Skinner, 1954). If the consequence is positively reinforcing, then there is the likelihood of getting a similar response. If the consequence is punishing the likelihood of repeating the response is not probable (Mischel, 1993). Skinner conducted an experiment known as the skinner- box (Goodwin, 2008). In Skinner’s experiment a rat was put into a box with a lever. Each time the lever was pressed, food was released. The rat learned to press the lever to receive the positive reinforcement, food. When the food was replaced with shocks, the lever pressing stopped almost immediately due to the consequences of receiving a shock (Skinner, 1954). Similar results were produced by stopping the positive reinforcement of food altogether in a process called extinction, but the operant conditioned response decreased at a much slower rate than when punishment was used (Goodwin, 2008). This kind of operant conditioning will also occur in the rewarding or punishing action when utilizing this same technique to elicit certain behaviors from a child (Schwartz, 1982).

During 1950 to 1970 cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) became widely utilized and was inspired by the behaviorist learning theories of Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson and Clark L. Hull (Rachman, 1997). In the United States, psychologists were using B.F. Skinners behaviorism and applying it to clinical work and much of this work was focused towards severe, chronic psychiatric disorders such as psychotic behavior and autism (Rachman, 1997). The therapeutic approaches of Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck gained popularity among behavior therapists. These systems included behavioral elements and interventions that focused primarily on problems in the present. Ellis’s system began in the early 1950’s and was called rational therapy and is one of the first forms of CBT. (Ellis, 1975). Aaron T. Beck developed cognitive therapy in 1960 after being inspired by Ellis’s work and Beck’s cognitive therapy became a favorite intervention technique to study in the psychotherapy research in academic settings. Initial research focused on comparing this cognitive therapy with behavioral therapy’s to see which was more effective (Beck, 1975). During the 1980’s and 1990’s cognitive and behavioral therapy’s were officially merged into what we now know as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) (Rachman, 1997). Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow introduced the idea that CBT approaches can be used successfully with the criminal population (Yochelson and Samenow, 1976).

In conclusion, behaviorism is based upon observable behaviors, so it is easier to measure and collect data and information when performing research. Effective therapeutic techniques such as intensive behavioral intervention, rational therapy and CBT are all rooted in behaviorism. These approaches are often very useful in changing maladaptive or harmful behaviors in both children and adults. Some differences between today’s CBT and behaviorism is that behaviorism is a one-dimensional approach to behavior and that it does not account for free will and internal stimulus such as moods, thoughts, and feelings. Behaviorism also does not account for other types of learning, especially learning that occurs without the use of reinforcements or punishments. Behaviorism does not take into account that people are able to adapt behavior when new information is present, even if a prior behavior was established through reinforcement. Behaviorism without the addition of cognitive influences is not enough. When we can get an understanding of the thinking behind the behavior we have a better chance at changing it. In the words of Stan Samenow “change the errors in thinking and we can change the behavior” (Yochelson and Samenow, 1976).

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