Psychology currently comprises a wide variety of theoretical orientations. Comparable in some respects to political ideologies or religious beliefs, psychological paradigms presuppose guidelines for behavior that lead us to exercise professional practice in different ways.
Behavioralism is one of the most common orientations among psychologists, although today it is more common to practice it in its cognitive-behavioral aspect. Below, we review the history of behaviorism and its main characteristics.
What is behaviorism?
Behavioralism is a stream of psychology that focuses on the study of the common laws that determine human and animal behavior. At its origin, traditional behaviorism he leaves aside the intrapsychic to focus on observable behaviorIn other words, it prioritizes the objective over the subjective. This contrasts behaviorism with previous approaches such as psychodynamics and phenomenology. In fact, from a behaviorist perspective, what we usually mean by “mind” or “mental life” is just an abstraction of what psychology should really study: the links between stimuli and response in certain contexts. .
Behaviorists tend to think of living things as “flat tables”. conduct is determined by reinforcements and punishments that they receive more than by internal predispositions. Behavior, therefore, does not primarily depend on internal phenomena, such as instincts or thoughts (which are, on the contrary, hidden behaviors) but rather on the environment, and we cannot separate the behaviors or learn the context in which they take place. .
In fact, those processes that occur in the nervous system that many other psychologists believe are the cause of how we act, as behaviorists are just another type of reaction generated by our interaction with the environment.
The concept of “mental illness” as seen by behaviorists
Behaviorists have often been linked to the world of psychiatry by his use of the experimental method to acquire knowledgeBut this association is not fair, because in many ways behaviorists are clearly different from psychiatrists. One of these differences is the opposition of behaviorism to the concept of mental illness.
From this philosophy applied to psychology, there can be no pathological behavior, Since these are always judged on the basis of their suitability for a context. While diseases must have relatively well-isolated and known biological causes, behaviorists point out that there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of these biomarkers in the case of mental disorders. Therefore, they oppose the idea that the treatment of problems such as phobias or OCD should focus on psychotropic drugs.
Basic concepts of behaviorism
Below, we define the main terms of behavioral theory.
This term refers to any signal, information or event that produces a reaction (response) of an organism.
Any behavior of an organism that occurs in response to a stimulus.
Conditioning is a type of learning derived from association between stimuli and responses.
Reinforcement is any consequence of behavior that increases the likelihood of it happening again.
Opposite to reinforcement: consequence of behavior that decreases the likelihood of it happening again.
Wundt: The Birth of Experimental Psychology
Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), considered by many to be the “father of psychology”, laid the foundations for what would become behaviorism. He created the first scientific psychology laboratory and systematically used statistics and the experimental method to extract general rules on the functioning of mental processes and the nature of consciousness.
Wundt’s methods they largely depended on introspection or self-observation, a technique in which experimental subjects provide data about their own experience.
Watson: psychology seen from behavioralism
John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) criticized the use of the introspective methodology of Wundt and his followers. In a 1913 lecture on the birth of behaviorism, Watson stated that to be truly scientific Psychology had to focus on overt behavior rather than in mental states and concepts such as “consciousness” or “mind”, which could not be objectively analyzed.
Watson also rejected the dualistic view that separated body and mind (or soul) and argued that the behavior of humans and animals should be studied alike because, if the introspective method was left out , there was no real difference between the two.
In a well-known and controversial experiment, Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner they succeeded in causing a phobia of the rat in a baby nine months (“little Albert”). For this, they matched the presence of the rat with loud sounds. The case of little Albert showed that human behavior is not only predictable but also modifiable.
The black box
For Watson, living things are “black boxes” the interior is not observable. When external stimuli reach us, we respond accordingly. From the point of view of early behaviorists, although intermediate processes occur within the organism, being unobservable should be ignored when analyzing behavior.
However, in the mid-twentieth century, behaviorists qualified this and, without underestimating the importance of unobservable processes occurring directly inside the body, noted that psychology does not need to explain them to provide explanations of the logics that govern behavior. BF Skinner, for example, was characterized by granting mental processes exactly the same status as observable behavior, and by conceive of thought as verbal conduct. We will talk about this author later.
some neoconductors such as Clark Hull and Edward Tolman whether they included intermediate processes (or intermediate variables) in their models. Hull included internal drive or motivation and habit, while Tolman claimed that we construct mental representations of space (cognitive maps).
Watson and behaviorism in general have been influenced by two authors: Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike.
Classic conditioning: Pavlov’s dogs
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) was a Russian physiologist who performed, while conducting experiments on the secretion of saliva in dogs, that animals they salivated in advance when they saw or smelled food, and even just when those responsible for their food have come together. Later, he made them salivate to the sound of a metronome, a bell, a bell or a light to associate these stimuli with the presence of food.
From these studies, Pavlov described classical conditioning, a fundamental concept of behaviorism, through which the first interventions based on behavior modification techniques in humans were developed. However, to understand how classical conditioning works, you first need to know what stimuli you are working with.
An unconditioned stimulus (that is, one that does not require training to elicit a response) triggers an unconditional response; in the case of dogs, food spontaneously causes salivation. If the stimulus no conditioning (food) is repeatedly associated with a neutral stimulus (e.g. the bell), the neutral stimulus will eventually produce the unconditioned response (Salivar) without the need for the unconditioned stimulus to also be present.
For Pavlov, the concept of the mind is not necessary since conceptualizes responses as reflexes that occur after the appearance of external stimuli.
Another example of classical conditioning is Watson and Rayner’s little Albert experiment. In this case, the rat is a neutral stimulus which becomes a conditioned stimulus which causes the fear reaction by association with a loud noise (unconditioned stimulus).
Animals in behavioralism
Classical behaviorists frequently employed animals in their studies. The animals are took into consideration equivalent to people by their behavior and the learning principles drawn from these studies are in many cases extrapolated to humans; that yes, always trying to respect a series of epistemological presuppositions which justify this extrapolation. It should be remembered that between species there are many aspects of behavior that vary.
The systematic observation of animal behavior would give way to ethology and comparative psychology. Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen are two of the most important representatives of these currents.
Instrumental conditioning: Thorndike’s cats
Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949), a contemporary of Pavlov, conducted several experiments with animals to study learning. Introduces cats to “problem boxes” observe if they managed to escape them and in what way.
Inside the boxes were various objects that the cats could interact with, such as a button or a ring, and only contact with one of these objects could cause the box door to open. At first, the cats managed to get out of the box by trial and error, but as the attempts were repeated, they escaped more and more easily.
From these results, Thorndike formulated the law of effect, which states that if a behavior has a satisfactory result, it is more likely to be repeated, And that if the result is not satisfactory, this probability decreases. He would later formulate the law of exercise, according to which repeated learning and habits are strengthened and those which are not repeated are weakened.
Thorndike’s studies and works they introduced instrumental conditioning. According to this model, learning is a consequence of the strengthening or weakening of the association between a behavior and its consequences. This served as the basis for formulating proposals later, in the emergence of true behavioralism, as we will see.
Skinner’s radical behaviorism
Thorndike’s propositions were the antecedent of what we call operant conditioning, but this paradigm did not develop fully until the emergence of the works of Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990).
Skinner present the positive and negative reinforcement concepts. Positive reinforcement is the act of rewarding a behavior by giving something away, while negative reinforcement is the withdrawal or avoidance of an unpleasant event. In both cases, the intention is to increase the frequency and intensity of occurrence of a given behavior.
Skinner advocated radical behaviorism, which he supports all behavior is the result of learned associations between stimuli and responses. The theoretical and methodological approach developed by Skinner is known as experimental behavior analysis and has been shown to be particularly effective in educating children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Development of behaviorism: the cognitive revolution
Behaviorism declined from the 1950s, coinciding with the rise of cognitive psychology. Cognitivism is a theoretical model that emerged in reaction to behaviorism’s radical emphasis on overt behavior, leaving cognition aside. The gradual inclusion of the variables involved in behavioral models has greatly fostered this paradigm shift, known as the “cognitive revolution”.
In psychosocial practice, the contributions and principles of behaviorism and cognitivism would eventually converge on what we call cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on finding the most evidence-based treatment programs.
the third generation therapies developed in recent years they recover some of the principles of radical behaviorism, reducing the influence of cognitivism. Examples are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Behavior Activation Therapy for Depression, or Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Borderline Personality Disorder.
- Baum, WM (2005) Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture and Evolution. Blackwell.
- Kantor, J. (1963/1991). The scientific evolution of psychology. Mexico: threshing.
- Mills, JA (2000). Control: a history of behavioral psychology. New York University Press.
- Rachlin, H. (1991) Introduction to Modern Behavioralism. (3rd edition.) New York: Freeman.
- Skinner, BF (1976). About behavioralism. New York: Random House, Inc.
- Watson, JB (1913). Psychology seen by the behaviorist. Psychological review, 20, 158-177.