Major Approaches and Historical Figures in the Development of Behaviorism
When it emerged as a movement in psychology, behaviorism (also referred to as learning theory) was not interested in the mind or personality. What it offered was a radically different approach to understanding behavior—an approach that was the polar oppo- site of the psychoanalytic model. Whereas the psychoanalytic model dealt with invisible, internal processes, behaviorism dealt with objective, observable events. Not only was the emphasis on behavior, but in its most radical formulations (see the work of B. F. Skinner), cognition and affect (thought and emotion) were essentially characterized as epiphenomena—in other words, they only exist secondarily, as effects of behaviors, rather than as the causes of behaviors.
In general, the behaviorists rejected any formalized theory of human behavior. There is inher- ent tension in personality science related to the fact that theorizing often seems to require that theorists engage in speculation—that they move beyond empirical and clinical data. However, not everyone would agree that this endeavor is worthwhile. Many believe that theorizing without empirical support is pseudoscience. In fact, when the field was dominated by psychodynamic the- ory, many proponents of behaviorism would not consider personality theory relevant and worthy of scientific investigation. As a result, none provide a cohesive explanation of personality.
Behaviorism has its roots in empiricism and animal behavior because animals can be experimented on and, therefore, yield more concrete data. It rapidly became popular with the promise that it would make a true science out of psychology (Hunt, 2007). As an objective science concerned with what could be observed and measured, behaviorism has largely rejected the overly theoretical, speculative thinking of other models of personality. Its emphasis on studying only what is observ- able has challenged psychology and personality researchers to meet higher empirical standards. This emphasis on science and on clear empirical standards is vitally important to the development of a science. In the absence of scientific evidence against which to check our beliefs, there is a high potential for error and bias (Lilienfeld & O’Donohue, 2007).
Behaviorism is based mainly on inductive reasoning: It starts with data, often related to simple relationships, and induces laws of human behavior from this data. A simple example can illustrate this form of reasoning. If you observe that every time you eat shellfish you swell up and find it hard to swallow (the data), you might conclude that you are allergic to shellfish (the law). This perspective seeks the simplest explanation for behaviors, following the law of parsimony. Some of the laws it has generated have proven to be fundamentally important for understanding behavior.
In fact, a great deal of behavioral research has been designed spe- cifically to explore various com- ponent systems of personality, such as learning, anxiety, learned helplessness, and conditioning. Results of this research continue to influence our understanding of how personality is formed and how it can be modified by various external factors.
The behavioral perspective can be organized into two broad types of learning: (1) classical condition- ing and (2) operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves a simpler form of learning by tem- poral association, and it focuses only on reflexive actions. In contrast, operant conditioning involves nonreflexive action and learning as a result of consequences that are typically not occurring at the same point in time (i.e., temporal associations are no longer necessary). Both types of conditioning can be referred to as forms of associative learning—that is, a process by which an association is made between two stimuli or between a behavior and a stimulus. The next sections review methods for the acquisition and maintenance of behavior.
Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning During the course of his research with dogs, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov observed that dogs would begin to salivate not only when they were being fed, as would be expected, but even prior to feeding, at the mere sight of the assistant who fed them. In 1902, Pavlov began to study this occurrence, designing a demonstration of what may well be the best-known of all phenomena in psychology: classical conditioning. What he did was implant a tube in one of the dog’s salivary
glands, connecting it to a mea- suring device. The dog was then placed in a harness and given a small amount of food, often in the form of food powder that could be injected directly into the dog’s mouth (see Figure 5.1). When the food was delivered, the dog would automatically begin to sal- ivate. Pavlov termed this behav- ior an unconditioned reflex (or response) because it was a natu- ral response wired into the ani- mal’s physiological system (Pav- lov, 1927).