The Behaviourist (or Learning Theory) Approach


Behaviourists focus on the influence of the environment.  They choose not to be concerned with the internal mechanisms which occur inside the organism.  Behaviourists believe that human beings are shaped through constant interactions with the environment.  Put more simply, learning and experience determine the kind of person you become.


The behaviourist approach to psychological functioning is rooted in the work of associationists, Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike, and the early behaviourists, John Watson and Clark Hull, all of whom studied learning in the form of conditioning.  Pavlov studied the conditioning of reflex responses, or classical conditioning , whilst Thorndike's work focused on the conditioning of voluntary behaviour, now referred to as operant conditioning, and later researched by B.F. Skinner.  Here is a site where you can practice being Pavlov.


Behaviourism has had a profound influence on the course of psychology during the first half of the twentieth century.  Still influential today is the work of B.F. Skinner on operant conditioning.   Skinner studied the stimuli which elicit behavioural responses, the rewards and punishments that influence these responses and the changes in behaviour brought about by manipulating patterns of rewards and punishments.  This approach does not concern itself with mental processes which occur between the stimulus and the response.


Skinner experimented with rats and later with pigeons.   For instance, he conditioned rats to press a bar in a 'Skinner box' in return for a reward of food.  He was able to measure learning accurately under closely controlled conditions, varying the frequency of reward, or reinforcement, and sometimes applying irrelevant stimuli.  Though he started his research with animals, Skinner worked towards a theory of conditioning which could include humans.


The influence of the behaviourist approach, with its emphasis on the manipulation of behaviour through patterns of reinforcement and punishment, can be seen in many practical situations.  Below is a brief account of how the behaviourist approach has been applied in psychotherapy.


Therapeutic techniques based on conditioning processes are usually referred to as either behaviour modification or behaviour therapy.  Techniques based on operant conditioning are usually referred to as behaviour modification and techniques which rely upon the principles of classical conditioning are usually known as behaviour therapy.


Behaviour modification is a technique which is used to change or remove unwanted behaviour.  Its central principle, taken from operant conditioning, is that behaviour which has favourable consequences, that is, which is positively reinforced, is likely to be repeated and behaviour which is ignored is likely to die out.  The desired behaviour is broken down into a sequence of small steps.  Each step achieved is immediately rewarded, but gradually more and more of the required behaviour is demanded before the reward is given.  This process is known as behaviour shaping through successive approximations.


Token economy systems are based on the principle of secondary reinforcement.  Tokens are given in exchange for desirable or acceptable behaviours.  These can then be exchanged for primary (or direct) reinforcements, such as sweets or extra outings.  There is evidence that well-organised token economy systems do promote desirable behaviour, particularly in an institutional setting.  However doubts have been raised regarding the long term effectiveness of such programmes and about whether the effects are due to reinforcement or to other variables.


Behaviour therapy is a term usually applied to techniques based on classical conditioning which deal with involuntary or reflex behaviour.  It aims to remove maladaptive behaviours and substitute desirable ones.  One example of such a technique is systematic desensitisation, which is mainly used to remove phobias.  For example, a patient who had an irrational fear would first be taught how to relax.  Gradually the feared object would be introduced to the patient in a step-by-step process until the patient could tolerate actual contact with the object without anxiety.


The behaviourist approach has had a major influence in psychology and has contributed a great deal to our understanding of psychological functioning and has provided a number of techniques for changing unwanted behaviour.  Its use of rigorous empirical methods has enhanced the credibility of psychology as a science.  Criticisms of the approach include the following:


  1. Its mechanistic view tends to overlook the realm of consciousness and subjective experiences and it does not address the possible role of biological factors in human behaviour.


  1. Individuals are seen as passive beings who are at the mercy of their environments.  This emphasis on environmental determinism leaves no room for the notion of free will in an individual.  See   for a more detailed discussion of free will and determinism.


  1. Its theories of classical and operant conditioning cannot account for the production of spontaneous, novel or creative behaviour.


  1. Its basis in animal research has been questioned.


  1. Clinical psychologists who adopt behaviourally-oriented therapies have been criticised for treating the probable symptoms of mental disorders whilst often ignoring possible underlying causes.