Behavioral theory

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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).


Author: Mira Sophie Schön