Behavioral theory

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Behavioral theories attempt to make human behavior explainable. The underlying assumption is that behavior can be explained by stimuli - and response-based principles. In the course of this, it is also attempted to describe environmental influences on behavior (APA, 2022). Behaviorism can also be considered as a theory of learning. The interaction of a person with the environment can lead to conditioning and through such conditioning new behaviors are acquired. Therefore, behaviorists assume that environmental stimuli shape our actions and our behavior (Krapfl, 2016). Well-known representatives of behaviorism are among others John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner (Akpan, 2020).

History of Behaviorism

The beginning of behaviorism is linked to John B. Watson, who is a scientist and published his paper "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" in 1913 (Malone, 2014). Because of that article he is considered the founder of behaviorism. He said: "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—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." (Skinner, 1959). In other words, Watson assumes that all behaviors of a person are the result of experience. If the conditions are right people can be trained in a specific way, they can be conditioned (Krapfl, 2016). Due to that behaviorism became an important research area in psychology and a learning theory (Melone, 2014). Learning, as the process of acquiring new knowledge, attitudes or behaviors, can happen in unconscious and conscious ways. One method for unconscious leaning is the classical conditioning (Rehman et al., 2017). Another method of learning is called operant conditioning in which reinforcement and punishment are being used (Akpan, 2020).

Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, automatic conditioned responses are combined with specific stimuli (Rehman et al., 2017). In the middle of the 19th century Ivan Pavlov, one of the most important researchers on classical conditioning, was born (Jarius et al., 2017). By accident, Pavlov gained new insights into classical conditioning. Originally, Pavlov was studying the digestion of dogs. Here he found that over time a dog's physical response to food changed. Initially, only salivation was noticeable in the dogs when they were given the food. In the course of the experiment, however, Pavlov was able to recognize that the dogs were already salivating slightly before they received the food. Pavlov made this observation, for example, when the food truck was heard by the dogs. Based on this observation, Pavlov conducted another experiment. Here he rang a bell just before the dogs were fed. With the help of this experimental setup, he wanted to test his theory. In the process, Pavlov noticed that the bell did not initially trigger a reaction in the dogs. After multiple repetitions, however, it became apparent that the dogs began to drool at the sound of the bell alone (Rehman et al., 2017).

To understand what classical conditioning is and how it relates to Pavlov's experiment, it is important to know some of the basic concepts and wordings of classical conditioning. A stimulus that does not elicit a response is called a neutral stimulus (Jarius et al., 2017). In Pavlov's experiment, the ringing of the bell is considered a neutral stimulus (Rehman et al., 2017). On the contrary, an unconditioned stimulus automatically leads to a response (Jarius et al., 2017). In Pavlov's experiment, the dogs' food is the unconditioned stimulus, which is the food that triggers salivation. This salivary flow is an essential and unconscious response of the dogs seeking food. This automatic response is also called the unconditioned response. During the experiment, the dogs also salivated in response to the neutral stimulus of the bell. The ringing of the bell is no longer a neutral stimulus but a conditioned stimulus. This conditioned stimulus also elicits a conditioned response. In Pavlov's experiment, the conditioned response to the conditioned stimulus of the bell is the dogs' salivation. Pavlov thus conditioned the dogs and turned a neutral stimulus into a conditioned stimulus (Rehman et al., 2017). However, the unconditioned response and the conditioned response are the same. They are only triggered by different stimuli (Jarius et al., 2015).

This study of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov is one of the most famous and thorough study on classical conditioning. Because of his significant influence on the study of classical conditioning, classical conditioning is often referred to as Pavlovian conditioning (Rehman et al., 2017).

Operant Conditioning

Next to the classical conditioning there is another type of conditioning called operant conditioning (Akpan, 2020). This type of conditioning was described by Skinner, who was born in 1938 (Krapfl, 2016). Similar to the classical conditioning, the behavior in the learning process becomes dependent on the appearance of a stimulus. Unlike classical conditioning, however, this does not involve a preceding stimulus. The consequence that follows a displayed behavior constitutes operant conditioning. Accordingly, it is not a one-way process as in classical conditioning (the stimulus is followed by a reaction), but a two-way process: on the one hand, the action affects the environment, but on the other hand, the environment simultaneously influences the behavior. There are four different ways to influence behavior:

  1. Positive reinforcement: The behavior shown is reinforced by a positive consequence.
  2. Negative reinforcement: The behavior shown is strengthened by interrupting or avoiding a negative condition.
  3. Positive punishment: The behavior shown is reduced by a negative consequence.
  4. Negative punishment: The behavior shown is reduced by interrupting or avoiding a positive condition.

Thus, in Skinner's operant conditioning, behavior is guided by reward and punishment (Akpan, 2020).

Examples of Behavioral theory

  • Operant conditioning: Operant conditioning is a type of behavioral learning which operates on the concept of reinforcement or punishment. It is based on the idea that behavior is shaped by its consequences. In operant conditioning, a person or animal is conditioned to associate a behavior with a consequence. For example, a child may be given a reward for completing a task, thus reinforcing the behavior and making it more likely that the child will repeat the task in the future.
  • Social Learning Theory: Social learning theory is a psychological theory of learning which suggests that people learn by observing and imitating the behaviors of others. The theory is based on the assumption that behavior is learned through observation and that it is a result of both external and internal influences. For example, a child may observe his parents arguing and learn that it is an appropriate behavior for resolving conflicts.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behavior. It is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all intertwined and that by changing our thinking patterns, we can have a positive effect on our behavior. For example, a person suffering from depression may learn to identify and challenge negative thinking patterns which are contributing to their low mood.

Advantages of Behavioral theory

One advantage of Behavioral theory is that it provides a straightforward explanation of how we learn. This theory emphasizes the role of environmental influences, including rewards, punishments, and reinforcements, in shaping our behavior. By focusing on these environmental influences, this theory allows us to understand the behavior of an individual or group, and how it changes over time. Additionally, behavioral theory offers practical applications, such as in the fields of education, psychotherapy, and organizational management. It has been successfully used to help children with learning disabilities, understand better the behavior of organizations, and to develop therapeutic interventions for treating mental illness. Finally, behavioral theory is also flexible enough to incorporate new findings and information, which allows it to remain current and relevant to our ever-changing world.

Limitations of Behavioral theory

Behavioral theory has some limitations. These include:

  • It does not take into account biological or genetic influences on behavior. It only considers environmental stimuli and their effects on behavior, while ignoring the influence of individual differences in genetics and biology.
  • It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of a specific behavior. Behavioral theory assumes that behavior is usually a response to environmental stimuli, which is difficult to measure as it is often not observable or quantifiable.
  • It does not explain why humans have emotions, moral values, and beliefs. It does not address why people make decisions based on these factors, nor does it explain why people develop certain behaviors in certain situations.
  • It is difficult to determine the cause and effect relationship between behavior and environment. It is often not possible to determine whether a behavior is caused by the environment or is a response to it.
  • It does not consider the influence of culture on behavior. Cultural values, norms, and beliefs influence behavior, and this is not addressed by behaviorism.

Other approaches related to Behavioral theory

Behavioral theory is not the only approach to understanding human behavior. Other approaches related to it include:

  • Psychoanalytic theory, which focuses on the unconscious mind and how it affects our behavior. It was proposed by Sigmund Freud, who believed that our behavior is determined by our thoughts, feelings, and desires that are hidden from our conscious awareness (APA, 2022).
  • Humanistic theory, which seeks to understand the individual's experience and growth potential. It views humans as being capable of self-actualization and self-determination, and emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and personal responsibility (Jones, 2020).
  • Cognitive theory, which emphasizes the role of cognition in human behavior. It proposes that our thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes influence our behavior, and that we can modify our behavior by changing these mental processes (Hoffer, 2019).

In summary, Behavioral theory is not the only approach to understanding human behavior. Other approaches related to it include Psychoanalytic theory, Humanistic theory, and Cognitive theory.

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Author: Mira Sophie Schön