Behaviourism/Learning Theories

Glossary – behaviourism glossary

Key Assumptions – Key Assumptions of the Behaviourist Approach

Classical conditioning

Operant conditioning

Social learning theory

Explaining novels situation

A team of psychologists carried out a study on behalf of an insurance company into people who take part in potentially dangerous sports. These include white-water canoeing, free-fall parachuting, rugby and boxing. Some of the sports are team games (such as rugby) and some are solo activities, but all of them carry the risk of personal injury. The psychologists were interested in finding out why some people take part in potentially dangerous sports and others do not.

The behaviourist approach might say that some people have learnt to enjoy potentially dangerous sports through the process of conditioning.

Operant conditioning could used to explain why some people take part of dangerous sports. If participation in the activity is followed by an experience that people find rewarding, they are more likely to do it again.

People may even receive vicarious reinforcement for watching others taking parts in these sports and receiving rewards which is enough to trigger them to take part too.

For example people may get an adrenaline ‘buzz’ from the sport or they may just enjoy social rewards, e.g. bungee jumping may be seen as ‘cool’ in some circles and lead to acceptance into an in-group while adoration from the girls may be a reward for daring surfers!

This sense association between behaviour and consequence may then become generalised to other similar behaviours in other similar settings, explaining why some people start enjoying on sport such as surfing and then try kite boarding, or wake-boarding.

Social learning theorists would suggest that people who partake in these sports have maybe identified with, observed and imitated a role model, for example a famous sportsman or woman who enjoys the same sports as them.

Those people who do not take part in these type of sports may have had an experience which they found undesirable, for example they may have had an accident, which would be classed as a punisher. This can be a positive punisher meaning they are given a painful injury and a negative punisher in that the injury may stop them from doing things they enjoy.

My niece once enjoyed horse riding until she had a nasty fall, leading to a compound fracture. The fall could be classed as a punisher which, followed the voluntary behaviour of riding. Since the fall, she has stopped riding, behaviour has become less likely. This also links with classical conditioning. Hitting the ground and breaking her arm was an unconditioned stimulus leading to the response of pain and fear. The horse became a conditioned stimulus, which she now fears and she has come to generalise this dislike to all horses and no longer enjoys anything to do with riding as much as she used to.

Billy is very popular in the office where he works because he makes people laugh. He regards himself as a bit of a comedian. He goes out of his way to learn jokes and he does unexpected things which make people laugh. He also does imitations of other people. He has a light-hearted, humorous approach to life generally. How might this be explained?

The behaviourist approach might say that Billy has learnt to take a humorous approach to life due to experiences that he has had within his social environment.

Billy behaviour has been shaped by the reinforcement that he has received from family, friends and colleagues.

When people laugh at his silly antics, impressions and jokes, he finds this rewarding making his behaviour more likely in the future. This is known as positive reinforcement.

He also receives negative reinforcement by telling jokes at work, as he is able to avoid getting down to his work, which he may find boring or too demanding.

If people were to ignore his behaviour he would not receive the same level of reinforcement and his joke telling would probably decrease. Behaviourists would call this extinction.

Behaviourists such as Skinner have noted that a partial reinforcement schedule leads to the highest rate of behaviour. Billy may seek out a variety of different jokes, finding that some raise a greater amount of laughter than others, while some fall flat. As people only reward him some of the time, he tells an even greater number of jokes in the hope of getting a laugh.

Behaviourists may also explain Billy approach to life through social learning theory, which suggests that he has identified with some-one with a similar approach to life and that he has observed and imitated their humour. He may have received vicarious reinforcement through watching another person tell jokes and having people laugh and accept him or her into the group.