The Behavioral Approach To Psychology: An Overview of Behaviorism

Updated August 18, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are quite a few different approaches to psychology and how the mind works and evolves, what affects human behavior, and the various factors to impact one's thoughts and emotions. There are five major perspectives, and the behavioral approach is one of them.

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The Five Approaches To Human Psychology

There are many fields of psychology from the basics to ideas involving behaviors and the development of various conditions. Five of the primary approaches to psychology are the following:

Biological Approach

This is an approach to psychology that focuses on the biological factors of a person's body and how these affect the mind, a person's thoughts, and individual emotions. This primarily pertains to studying a person's genetics, hormone levels, and nervous system to conclude their physical makeup, wants, and needs being a direct link between the body and the mind. Those who support this idea believe that the various factors of a person's specific body and overall health are the root causes of their mentality and psychological states and that these physical components affect every single decision a person may make. This approach is most significant when it comes to studying medications and genetics and how both may physically impact the structures of one's mental and physical composition.

Psychodynamic Approach

This is a Freudian concept believing that every impulse a person has stems from the sex drive. The psychodynamic approach insists that all impulses, drives, and an individual's unconscious factors relate to one's experiences during their childhood and that these factors are the roots of one's behaviors later on in life. This approach believes that all behavior is determined by the unconscious, and many individuals have heard of the concepts of behavior and impulses being affected by the id, the ego, and the superego.

Behavioral Approach

This is an approach to psychology that focuses on how one's environment and how external stimuli affect a person's mental states and development and how these factors specifically "train" a person for the behaviors they will be exhibiting later on. Some who support this approach do not believe that the concept of free will exists and that all behaviors are simply learned, based upon each individual's personal experiences, through trial and error by receiving punishments and consequences for certain thoughts and actions and reinforcement and positive benefits from others.

Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach in psychology insists that every individual has free will, is inherently "good" in nature, and that we are naturally motivated by the desire to improve ourselves. It also supports the idea that we all need for making ourselves and the world around us significantly better. This approach emphasizes the uniqueness of every person and highly specific wants and needs when it comes to what we each desire in regards to feelings of fulfillment, what provides us with a sense of satisfaction in our lives, and the psychological growth of each person. Subjective experience (which only applies to the individual rather than the masses) is emphasized for its importance in the role of psychology rather than objective reality. Rather than focusing on any scientific factors regarding one's behaviors and mental states, the humanistic approach supports the use of qualitative information obtained through one-on-one conversations and questioning, as well as self-documentation from the individual to better understand the specific mindset and perspective of themselves, their experiences, and the world around them.

The humanistic approach also rejects the studies and experimentations involving any other animals (such as in the cases of lab rats or other animals being used for certain behavioral studies) because those who support this approach believe humans to be of a far more significant level of cognition and that the human abilities to reason, think, and communicate are unlike those of any other living beings in the animal kingdom.

Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach to psychology views the mind as a "processor of information," and therefore a person's behaviors and perspectives are based upon the knowledge that they already have, as well as their past experiences. This approach does away with the ideas of psychoanalytical thinking and conditioned behaviors and focuses on free will with decisions determined by one's memory and their ability to process this information into forming the choices they will presently and later make. Emphasis is placed more on the individual's processing methods and abilities and the relationships that develop between a person and certain stimuli rather than just cause and effect.

Behavioral Approach To Psychology Main Ideas

Within the behavioral approach, psychology is analyzed and studied through the use of solely objective and scientific methods of observing and evaluating the human mind. Whereas some approaches to psychology include taking into account a person's own subjective and unique views on their mind, their feelings and emotions, and their experiences, behaviorism disregards this data and strictly focuses on data obtained through "careful and controlled observation and measurement of behavior," with its primary goals being control and prediction of behaviors.

Behaviorism rejects internal concepts such as one's thoughts and emotions and, as the name implies, focuses strictly on observable behaviors. Those who support this approach do not deny the existence of a person using their mind and feeling or processing the stimuli around them, but it is seen as irrelevant to their primary concerns in studying psychology since these internal factors cannot be outwardly observed aside from relying on a person's interpretations and expressions of these factors. When trying to keep their field as objective and scientific as possible, this does not allow for the admission of data that may be skewed by a person's opinions or unique perspectives regarding what they may be feeling or doing and why. This approach strongly supports the ideas of reductionism (reducing the whole of human behavior into smaller components to simplify and understand it more easily) and a nomothetic approach (establishing generalizations applicable to all individuals) to psychology as well.

Unlike those who prefer the humanistic approach to psychology, those who believe in behaviorism strongly support controlled experimentation using other living organisms, such as pigeons and lab rats, in studying cause and effect in regards to behavior because of how strictly the environments and conditions can be regulated and studied. Behaviorists often see no difference between the behavioral patterns that can be learned or conditioned in both humans and animals, so experimentation regarding subjects that are not human is a great starting point when it comes to testing out behavior-related hypotheses in a more controlled situation compared to working strictly with other people, whose emotions and subjective perceptions may affect the final results of testing.

Lastly, the root of a behavioristic approach to psychology can be boiled down to the belief that all behavior, regardless of complexity, can be conditioned and predicted based upon a "stimulus-and-response association." This means that the reaction can be predicted in response to a specific stimulus, as well as the potential stimulus being determined based upon the predicted and expected responses one might observe in an individual.


    Types Of Behaviorism

    Although behaviorism is an approach in itself, it also has two particular subsets: methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism.

    Methodological behaviorism was first presented by John Watson and is the basis of the behavioral approach to psychology and consists of the beliefs that human beings are no different from the other living animals in existence and that the objective approach to studying behavior and learned conditions and responses is the most effective method of understanding overall psychology and behavioral responses. Methodological behaviorism also supports the belief that living beings are born with the mind as a "blank slate" and begin learning their responses to the world around them from that point on.

    Radical behaviorism agrees with the ideas expressed in methodological behaviorism but builds upon them by including the ideas that all living creatures are born with inherent behaviors and traits rather than being "blank slates" at birth and also includes the acceptance of the roles that biological factors and specific genetics playing a part in an organism's behavior as well. B.F Skinner, the individual responsible for founding the concept of radical behaviorism, also agreed with Watson about the presence of internal psychological processes such as thoughts and emotions and their role in behaviors (yet not using them to fully explain the responses to stimuli in a person) but did conclude that they should be analyzed and explained in regards to any behaviors presented.

    Despite the very slight differences between the two schools of behavior-related thought, both perspectives still agree on the idea that the goal of psychology itself should be being able to both predict and control behavior in a living organism.

    Behaviorism Studies

    The experiment of Pavlov's dogs was conditioned to salivate at hearing a specific sound in the expectation of receiving food is a prime example of a study related to behaviorism. However, there are quite a few others relevant to this psychological approach as well.

    Pavlov's Dogs - To begin with, this is the most well-known behavioral study regarding conditioning regarding behaviorism. In the 1890s, a physiologist named Ivan Pavlov was studying his dogs' salivation levels in response to being fed. He discovered that they soon began salivating at any stimuli they began to associate with knowing they were going to be fed soon, such as his assistant approaching and later on the sound of a metronome. He ended up devoting all of his future work to studying this concept and determined that if a conditioned stimulus (something they will be trained to respond to) and an unconditioned stimulus (something that is naturally occurring in an organism) occur within a close enough time frame, the two will be connected and the person or animal will be conditioned to respond accordingly.

    The Bobo Doll Experiment - This was a study on conditioning in young children that showed they mimic and learn social behaviors (particularly aggression) through observation of the adults in their presence, called observational learning. The children were split into even groups for experimentation purposes and shown a "Bobo" doll that they were to witness an adult both physically and verbally abusing. Afterward, the children were provided with toys that were soon taken away in an attempt to provoke aggression appropriate for their age range (3-6 years old). After having seen the adults display abusive behavior towards the Bobo dolls, the children then exhibited the same aggressive behaviors when presented with a mixture of regular and 'aggressive' toys (such as mallets and darts), showing that they had since learned by observation to engage in aggressive behaviors when provoked.

    The Skinner Box - The Skinner Box was an experiment confirming and supporting the idea of operant conditioning, which shows that behaviors rewarded will tend to be repeated and those that are punished will deter an individual or organism from repeating them in the future. The experiment consisted of placing a lab rat within a box (the "Skinner Box") and while hungry, it learned that touching a small lever would dispense a pellet of food, therefore it learned to repeat the action for a positive response (this is called positive reinforcement). In regards to negative reinforcement, rats were also placed within a box that would occasionally give them a small shock but with a lever that would prevent the shock from occurring. They very quickly learned to trigger the lever to stop the shock from happening. Reinforcement of either nature encourages a repeated response to certain stimuli or situations, whereas punishment has the goal of weakening an impulse or action or preventing it later on entirely. This is generally how disciplinary action regarding children functions. If a child steals a toy or does some other behavior that a parent or caretaker finds to be inappropriate, they will be punished either with scolding, a spanking, or some other type of discipline. In most cases, this negative consequence of their action remains with them long enough to learn to not repeat the behaviors that got them into trouble in the first place.

    The Little Albert Experiment - Though ethically highly questionable, an experiment was conducted to see if the conditioning proven in Pavlov's dog experiment could also apply to human beings. This experiment involved a 9-month-old baby boy presented with a variety of objects including a monkey, a rabbit, and a white rat. As with most children, he had no negative reaction to the objects presented to him, but did startle and begin crying each time when those experimenting hit a hammer against a steel bar behind him. Over a few weeks, those engaging in the experiment began to hit the hammer on the steel bar every time the little boy received the white rat, and eventually, the sound wasn't even needed to cause him to become hysterical upon seeing the white rat because he learned to associate the two.

    This distasteful study showed the connection between behaviors and conditioning and the development of phobias. He temporarily was set off with the same reaction even in response to any objects or stimuli that remotely reminded him of the rat, but eventually had the phobia symptoms fade, which is called "extinction." They repeated the conditioning process and showed that he was still also capable of being retrained to have such a strong response to the white rat and all related stimuli all over again.

    How Behavioral Techniques Are Used In A Treatment Setting

    The ideas supported by behaviorism may also be applied in a treatment setting for therapeutic and behavioral modification purposes.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy is a great example of applying these concepts as a form of treatment. CBT focuses on the cognitive factors and thoughts behind certain behaviors and helps a person to become aware of those and their effects in an attempt to modify one's thought processes in reaction to certain stimuli and situations, therefore allowing them to make changes to their behaviors in the process.

    Applied behavior analysis uses behavioral techniques by using positive reinforcement to encourage replacing behaviors in an individual with more desired ones. It focuses strictly on the aspect of behavior modification rather than involving any sort of talk therapy like CBT to under the how's and why's associated with a person's behavior.

    Social learning theory is a concept displayed in cases such as the Bobo doll experiment: that many behaviors are learned by observation in social situations and then imitated. In a treatment setting, this is often applied to those struggling with addiction and in social work situations. It often involves surrounding those with stimuli and observable negative factors in their lives with positive role models and support systems to encourage more desirable behavior and habits and reduce the likelihood of the actions and reactions one wants to be rid of.

    Exposure therapy also utilizes behavioral techniques by conditioning those with phobias and strong negative responses to stimuli (such as those dealing with trauma and its associated effects) to be less and less negatively affected by certain triggers in their lives by strategically and safely having them interact with these triggers and desensitize them to the targeted stimuli.

    Want To Learn More About The Behavioral Approach?

    For more information about behaviorism, behavioral techniques in regards to psychology, or for advice concerning utilizing behavioral techniques as a part of treatment, BetterHelp has numerous articles and resources to assist in educating you on the topics, as well as online therapy resources if you feel as though a behavioral approach to any of your mental health concerns may be the right option for you.

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