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Behaviourists Explain Maladaptive Behaviour

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“Behaviourists explain maladaptive behaviour in terms of the learning principles that sustain and maintain it. Discuss this statement and show how a behaviourists approach to therapy is in stark contrast to a psychoanalytic one”. Behaviourism is a school of thought in psychology based on the assumption that learning occurs through interactions with the environment. Two other assumptions of this theory are that the environment shapes behaviour and that taking internal mental states such as thoughts, feelings and emotions into consideration is useless in explaining behaviour. Behaviourists are unique among psychologists in believing that it is unnecessary to speculate about internal mental processes. The behaviourist theory believes that cultural and sub – cultural conditioning moulds and shapes behaviour and subsequently the personality. Behaviourists also believe that people are born with only a handful of innate reflexes and that all of a person’s complex behaviours are the result of learning through interaction with the environment. They also assume that the processes of learning are common to all species and so humans learn in the same way as other animals.

A human being, according to the behaviourist, has his life determined for him since he is the product of the culture that causes him to be as he is. The theory therefore, is very deterministic. To the behaviourist, normal behaviour results from acceptable conditioning and abnormal behaviour results from defective conditioning. The behaviourist isn’t concerned in what developmental processes may have influenced a person’s behaviour. They believe that if the patient is taught to understand his environment and how he interacts with it, he will automatically understand himself and his behaviour. The behaviourist functions from the position that if a neurotic behaviour can be learned, then it can be unlearned. Behaviourists explain behaviour in terms of the stimuli that elicit it and the events that caused the person to learn to respond to the stimulus in that way. Behavioural therapy is particularly helpful in assisting in issues such as anxiety, depression, post – traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders and drug misuse.

Unlike other talking therapies, behavioural therapy focuses on the issue you have now, rather than issues from your past. It looks for practical ways you can improve your state of mind on a daily basis. Behaviourists use two processes to explain how people learn; classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In order to understand how classical conditioning works it is important to be familiar with the basic principles of the process. The Unconditioned Stimulus – is one that unconditionally, naturally, and automatically triggers a response. For example, when you smell your favourite food you might suddenly feel very hungry. In this example, the smell of the food is the unconditioned stimulus. The Unconditioned Response – is the unlearned response that occurs naturally in response to the unconditioned stimulus. In this example, the feeling of hunger in response to the smell of food is the unconditioned response. The Conditioned Stimulus – a previously neutral stimulus that, after becoming associated with the unconditioned stimulus, eventually comes to trigger a conditioned response. For example, suppose that when you smelt your favourite food, you also heard the sound of a whistle.

While the whistle is unrelated to the smell of the food, if the sound of the whistle was paired multiple times with the smell, the sound would eventually trigger the conditioned response. In this case, the sound of the whistle is the conditioned stimulus. The Conditioned Response – is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. In this example, the conditioned response would be feeling hungry when you heard the sound of the whistle. One of the most well known examples of classical conditioning was first demonstrated by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov paired the neutral stimulus of a ringing bell with the positive unconditioned stimulus of food repeatedly, until the ringing bell alone caused the dog to salivate. In this example the ringing bell had become a conditioned stimulus once it took on the association with food. Another example is the experiment of Little Albert (Watson and Rayner) which was conducted in 1920. Little Albert, a 9 month old child, was conditioned to respond with anxiety to the stimulus of a white rat.

This was achieved by pairing the rat with a loud noise that already made Albert anxious. The anxiety response was transferred to the rat because it was presented together with the noise. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behaviour and the consequence for that behaviour. Operant conditioning was first described by psychologist and behaviourist B.F Skinner. As a behaviourist, Skinner believed that internal thoughts and motivations could not be used to explain behaviour. Instead, Skinner suggested that we should look only at the external, observable causes of human behaviour. Skinner used the term Operant to refer to any ‘active behaviour that operates upon the environment to generate consequences’. In other words, Skinners theory explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviours we exhibit each and every day.

Reinforcement and punishment are the core tools of operant condition and can be either positive or negative. There are four types of learning processes in operant conditioning and these are: Positive reinforcement – are favourable events or outcomes that are presented after the behaviour. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or behaviour is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a direct reward. Negative reinforcement – involve the removal of an unfavourable event or outcome after the display of behaviour. In these situations, a response is strengthened by the removal of something considered unpleasant. In both of these cases of reinforcement, the behaviour increases. Positive punishment – involves the presentation of an unfavourable event or outcome in order to weaken the response it follows. Negative punishment – occurs when a favourable event or outcome is removed after behaviour occurs. In both of these cases of punishment, the behaviour decreases.

We can find examples of operant conditioning all around us; the children who complete their homework to earn a reward from a teacher or parent, the employee finishing a project promptly to receive praise or a promotion, or the child who is told that they will lose their play time at school if they misbehave in class. There are many and varied criticisms of behaviourism but the general idea is that behaviourism simply fails to adequately account for, or even address, many aspects of mental life that most people feel are obvious and important – language, emotion, cognition are just a few of the areas that behaviourism was not able to explain to the satisfaction of those who rejected it in favour of other approaches. In behavioural therapy, it focuses on treating the clients symptoms rather than dealing with the underlying issue which may not be beneficial long term for the client if the ‘symptoms’ return. The behavioural school of thought ran concurrent with the psychoanalysis movement in psychology in the 20th century. Psychoanalysis is another psychological theory conceived in the late 19th and early 20th century by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. The basic tenets of psychoanalysis include the following;

* Human behaviour, experience and cognition are largely determined by irrational drives.
* Those drives are largely unconscious
* Attempts to bring those drives into awareness
* Beside the inherited constitution of personality, ones development is determined by events in early childhood
* Conflicts between conscious and unconscious (repressed) material can result in mental disturbance such as neurosis, neurotic traits, anxiety and depression * The liberation from the effects of the unconscious material is achieved through bringing this material into the consciousness.

Freud also believed that children go through 5 stages of psychosexual development, oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital and that if the child is either over or under appeased in any one of these stages they are more likely to have problems when they become an adult. John Watson, a behaviourist 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.’ (John Watson 1930) A claim such as this made today would sound ludicrous but at the time Watson was merely reacting to developing Freudian psychoanalytical theories of development which many people found intimidating at the time. Watson’s theories disallowed the entire hidden unconscious and suppressed longings that Freudians attributed to behaviours and posited that humans respond to punishments and rewards. Behaviour that creates positive responses are reinforced and continued, while behaviour that creates a negative response is eliminated.

Psychologists have expanded on both these theories; Pavlov and Skinner further researched and developed Watson’s theories and Psychologists Jung and Adler expanded on Freud’s. In the late 19th century Introspection (the study of the mind by analysis of a person’s own thought processes) was very popular. It was in reaction to this that behaviourism first came about. Behaviourists claimed that introspection was unreliable and that the subject matter of scientific psychology should be strictly operationalised in an objective and measurable way. This then led psychology to focus on measurable behaviour rather than consciousness or sensation. This was a substantial break from the structuralist psychology of the time, which considered the study of behaviour valueless. These two theories/approaches are so very different. Psychodynamic counselling uses experiences from birth onwards and looks at the underlying issues whereas by contrast behaviour counselling focuses on the presenting problems and addresses these difficulties.

Behaviour counselling is founded on a scientific approach to human behaviour and its two main theories of learning – classical and operant conditioning as previously discussed have both been scientifically tested using animals and humans. In behavioural therapy, the client and counsellor work equally in collaboration to agree individual goals which are achieved by each party committing to an agreed contract where the client discusses their plans and goals and the counsellor seeks to ensure that these goals are achievable and realistic. Sessions are client led with the primary aim being to advance the clients growth and development. The counsellor will only focus on current difficulties and does not look into any issues from the past. Unlike the psychodynamic counsellor, the behaviour counsellor would not feel it necessary to build an empathic relationship with their client and they believe that communication is a far more important tool. In contrast, psychodynamic counselling’s primary aim is evaluation of past experiences, discussions with the client and the counsellors interpretation of matters discussed.

They would show their client the defence mechanisms they are using and enable and empower the client to work through their issues. The counsellor and client build a powerful working relationship. Psychodynamic counselling is often long term. A major difference between behaviourism and psychodynamic is the source of their material. Behaviourism is based strictly on what is observable, and described in terms of physical stimuli, measurable responses and the relationships among them. Because of this, behaviour analysis is a science and has contributed greatly to our understanding of why we do what we do. They don’t deny that other things may be going on in the brain but they do not study it because it is not observable behaviour and argue that behaviours can be predicted events regardless of anything invisible that might be going on. In contrast, psychodynamic theories are based on supposition and speculation. They have hypotheses about the psychodynamic forces, and they can use them to predict behaviour, but they can’t demonstrate that the observable changes in behaviour are attributable to the forces they invoked. In this sense it’s more like a religion than a science.

As different as these 2 theories are they do have one thing in common – both believe that current behaviour is determined by past experiences. The psychodynamic approach believes that what happened to you in the past has been locked away in your mind, but is influential nonetheless. Behaviourism believes that you act the way you do from past experiences through conditional learning. Another similarity is that both theories are deterministic i.e. based on the premise that something other than the organism is responsible for its behaviour. In the case of behaviourism, it’s the consequences of previous behaviours. In psychodynamic theories, it’s typically tension between conflicting forces.

While behaviourism is not as dominant today as it was during the middle of the 20th century it still remains an influential force in psychology. Outside of psychology, animal trainers, parents, teachers and many others make use of basic behavioural principles to help teach new behaviours and discourage unwanted ones. In conclusion, whilst I do agree with many aspects of the behaviourism theory, I also strongly believe that you cannot disregard the persons past experiences in life or the unconscious mind. I believe that every client is an individual and is unique and therefore there are different circumstances where behavioural and psychodynamic approaches could be used. Each client’s needs differ from anyone else and both approaches give good results and enable growth and development of the client. What works for one client might not be suitable for another.

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