B for Behaviourism!

The behaviourism is a branch of psychology, with the belief that any behaviour is the learned response resulting from the interactions with the environment. It is mainly concerned with and helps in explaining the observable stimulus-response behaviours.

The roots of the ideas and initial understanding go back to the 20th century. The theory was advocated by one of the famous psychologists B.F. Skinner. The ideas of behaviourism were already there in the psychological community and were initially proposed by scholars like John Watson and Ivan Pavlov. Skinner came late into this field, but what he did was, he packages all the ideas floating around, expanded them and formalized the Theory of Behaviorism.

Behaviourism has three main claims. The first is an emphasis on learning, a strong rejection of innate ideas or innate traits. The belief that everything we know, everything we do and who we are, is the result of your experiences. John Watson, once 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.”

The second claim of behaviourism is Anti-mentalism. So, behaviourists were insistent on doing science and on getting away from these unscientific things like desires, wishes, goals, beliefs, emotions, etc. They focused on emphasizing things that we can observe: the stimulus, responses, the features of the environment, only then can we are doing a true science.

The third claim of behaviourism is that there are no significant differences across species. We can say that the behaviour of a rat is different from a pigeon. Humans have a better ability to learn compared to dogs. Nevertheless, in the most basic level, the principles of learning are shared across different species. So, in essence, the only difference in the knowledge of a person and a dog and in what each of them could come to know lies in the situations in which they are raised.

In behaviourism, there are majorly three main mechanisms of learning: Habituation, Classical conditioning and instrumental conditioning.

Habituation is a declining tendency to respond to external or internal stimuli due to its repeated exposure. We all must have experienced it in some form or other, as it is common for us “to get used to things”. We might react strongly or angrily to something that we experience for the first time, but if we are exposed to that particular experience over and over again, our reaction placates with time — things like ticking of a clock, or traffic noise, or trains.

Classical conditioning is learning through associations between two stimuli. This mechanism was first proposed by Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Ivan Pavlov. He noticed that the dog would produce saliva in response to the food, which is an expected response. But the exciting thing he observed that the dog salivated just by watching the dish. He further explored his observation, and he would ring a bell just before serving the food to the dog. After this repeated pairings of the bell, food, bell, food, bell, food, the dog will salivate just by the sound of the bell!

So here how it works. It could be confusing on the first go but bear with me. We begin with a neutral stimulus (the bell) that generates no response. The dog might or might not have heard the bell. Now we have unconditioned stimulus (the food) and the unconditioned response (the saliva). The only prerequisite is that, before the learning, this response was already there. Then we introduce conditioning, which is the learning part, in which we pair the neutral stimulus (the bell) and the unconditional stimulus (the food). The fascinating thing about this pairing is, over time, after multiple trials, the bell will no longer remain a neutral response but transforms into a conditioned stimulus and give rise to the conditioned response.

Figure 1 – Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment (https://sites.google.com/site/pltstudymaterial/behaviorism-module-classical-conditioning)

Figure 1 – Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment (https://sites.google.com/site/pltstudymaterial/behaviorism-module-classical-conditioning)

One interesting thing to note that this association is not permanent. If the conditioned stimulus happens (the bell rings) without the unconditioned stimulus (no food), this decreases the connection of learning. Over time, the dog will stop salivating on hearing the bell.

Some psychologists and authors have tried to link fetishes with this learning pattern. When things like footwear sexually arouse some male. This association could be related to classical conditioning. Now, if the pleasure of orgasm somehow gets linked with the heels, so the heels have become a conditioned stimulus triggering a conditioned response of sexual feelings. But on the other hand, it can be a useful mechanism for the treatment of pedophiles. The patient will be trained to make new associations during masturbation. The focus will shift from violence in children to other areas at the time of sexual pleasure.

The third is instrumental conditioning, also known as operant conditioning. This is learning the relationship between actions, rewards and punishment. We learn from the results of our actions and try to associate pain or pleasure with our future actions.

Suppose we have to train a dog. There are two ways in which we can achieve this. First, the positive reinforcement, giving it something it wants and second, negative reinforcement, releasing it from some pain or burden. Well, if the dog is doing something we want, we could reinforce it by rewarding that action, and if it’s doing something we don’t want it to do we could punish it.

Let us say the professor cracks a deal, that if a student has 100% attendance at the end of the semester, they will get extra marks in the final assessment (positive reinforcement) or they might get relaxation in submitting assignments (negative reinforcement).

Along with the reinforcements we have punishments which aim to weaken our behavioural response or decreases our behaviour. It can again be of two types positive and negative. Let us understand both through examples. If you fail to submit the final term project in a project on time, your course instructor becomes angry and reprimand you in front of your classmates. This is positive punishment, ensuring that you will submit the assignment on time in the future. Now, consider another situation in this quarantine period nobody likes to clean up their rooms every day, so if parents take away the phone (the only source of happiness) until you clean up your room. This is an example of a negative punishment in which a positive stimulus (the phone) is taken away.

Figure 2 – BF skinner’s theory of instrumental conditioning (https://practicalpie.com/operant-conditioning/)

Figure 2 – BF skinner’s theory of instrumental conditioning (https://practicalpie.com/operant-conditioning/)

Suppose we see from the perspective of evolution. The way eyes evolve. Primitive animals have a black spot in place of eyes. But the natural selection played a role, and animals with these primitive eyes have the upper hand in survival and reproduction (which is a reward). Animal trainers use the techniques of shaping all the time. They reward approximations of the behaviour until the animal is trained in the desired behaviour.

Moving back to the present world. These claims are no longer considered to be accurate by the psychological community. But they do agree to some extent that this help in addressing a tiny niche of problems and behaviours. There’s ample evidence for unlearned knowledge like learning language, perception of the physical world, understanding of number and symbols, our sexual preferences etc. Furthermore, not all animals have the same learning mechanism. The way a parrot learns alphabets and the way koel learns the bird’s song are different from the way a human child learns the language

Things like our continuous process of thinking, even if we don’t move physically. The way our dreams appear, we have fantasies, and a behaviourist might say that’s not scientific. But it turns out that to understand and comprehend even the most basic of human behaviours, we need to target these internal representations. The concepts like latent learning, where we learn without any feedback.

Behaviourism surely gave us a greater understanding of some essential learning mechanisms. However, there is much more happening in our head, and there is no doubt that we learn through habituation, classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

The limitation of the Skinner’s behavioural theory is, it just fails to explain the richness and complications involved with human mental life, and these ideas are not sufficient to address them. Nevertheless, Skinner’s ideas live on, and his legacy continued to date.



About the author: Akarsh is a fifth-year BS-MS student at IISER Bhopal and a KVPY fellow, majoring in Earth and Environmental Sciences. He is especially interested in Atmospheric and Aerosol Sciences. Apart from this, he likes to understand human behavior. He loves to interact, help people and mingle with strangers. In the free time, he loves to eat, play badminton, TT and read books.

He would love you to share your feelings and thoughts. You can approach him anytime on @ralhanakarsh (https://www.instagram.com/ralhanakarsh/) or feel free to Whatsapp on +91-9424600656, Email – [email protected] .

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