Perspectives in Psychology

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(A) Behaviourists emphasise the role of environmental factors in influencing behaviour, to the near exclusion of innate of inherited factors. This amounts essentially to a focus on learning. The key form of learning is conditioning, either classical (pavlovian or respondent), which formed the basis of Watson’s behaviourism, or operant (instrumental), which is at the centre of Skinner’s radical behaviourism. Classical and operant conditioning are often referred to (collectively) as learning theory, as opposed to ‘theories or learning’ (which usually implies theories other than conditioning theories, that is, non-behaviourist theories). (Gross.R.et al 2000 P9).

Behaviourism is often referred to as ‘S-R’ psychology (‘S’ standing for ‘stimulus’ and ‘R’ for ‘response’). Whilst classical and operant conditioning account for observable behaviour (responses) in terms of environmental events (stimuli), the stimulus and response relationship is seen in fundamentally different ways. Only in classical conditioning is the stimulus seen as triggering a response in a predictable, automatic way, and it is this, which is conveyed by ‘S-R’ psychology. It is, therefore, a mistake to describe operant conditioning as a ‘S-R- approach.

Both types of conditioning are forms of associative learning, whereby associations or connections are formed between stimuli and responses that did not exist before learning took place. This reflects the philosophical roots of behaviourism, namely the empirist John Locke, which was a major development of science in general as well as on behaviourism in particular. According to Watson: ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective natural science. It’s theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behaviour. Introspection forms no essential parts of its methods, nor is it the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviourist… recognises no dividing line between man and brute. The behaviour of a man… forms only a part of the behaviourists total scheme of investigation. (Gross.R.et al 2000 P801).

Part of Watson’s rejection of introspectionism was that it invoked too many vague concepts that are difficult, if not impossible to define and measure. According to the law parsimony ( or ‘Occam’s razor’), the few assumptions a theory makes the better (more ‘economical’ explanations are superior).

The mechanisms proposed by the theory should be as simple as possible. Behaviourists stress the use of operational definitions (defining concepts in terms of observable, measurable events).

The aim of a science of behaviour is to predict and control behaviour. This raises both conceptual questions (about the nature of science, in particular the role of the theory) and ethical questions (for example, about power and the role of psychology as agents of change). (Gross.R.et al 2000 P9).

The term ‘psychodynamic’ denotes the active forces within the personality that motivate behaviour and the inner causes of behaviour (in particular the unconscious conflict between the different structures that compose the whole personality). Freud’s concepts are closely interwoven, making it difficult to know where their description should begin (Jacobs, 1992). Fortunately, Freud himself stressed the acceptance of certain key theories as essential to the practice of psychoanalysis, the form of psychotherapy he pioneered and from which most others are derived. (Gross.R.et al 2000 P10).

A key assumption of the psychoanalytic theory is that much of our behaviour is determined by unconscious thoughts, wishes, memories and so on. What we are consciously aware of at any one time represents the tip of an iceberg: most of our thoughts and ideas are either not accessible at the moment (pre-conscious) or are totally inaccessible (unconscious). These unconscious thoughts and ideas can become conscious through the use of special techniques, such as free association, dream interpretation and transference, the cornerstones of psychoanalysis.

Much of what is unconscious has been made so through repression, whereby threatening or unpleasant experiences are ‘forgotten’ they become inaccessible, locked away from our conscious awareness. This is a major form of ego defence. Freud singled it out as a special cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests. It is the most essential part of it (Freud, 1914). Repression is closely related to resistance, interpretation of which is another key technique used in psychoanalysis.

A criticism of the psychodynamic (as well as other Freudian theories) theory is that it is unscientific because it is unfalsifiable (incapable of being disproved). However, it is probably a mistake to see reaction formation as typical of Freudian theory as a whole. According to Kline (1989), for example, the theory comprises a collection of hypotheses, some of which are more easily tested than others, some of which are more central to the theory than others, and some of which have more supporting evidence than others. It is also difficult to generalise Freud’s findings to other settings.

Furthermore, Freud’s theory provides methods and concepts which enable us to interpret and ‘unpack’ underlying meanings (it has great hermeneutic strength). Popper’s and Eysenck’s criticisms to underline the fact that these meanings (both conscious and unconscious) cannot be measured in any precise way. Freud offers a way of understanding that it is different from theories that are easily testable and which may actually be more appropriate for capturing the nature of human experience and action. According to Fancher (1996): ‘Although always controversial, Freud stuck a responsive chord with his basic image of human beings as creatures in conflict, beset by irreconcilable and often unconscious demands from within as well as without. His ideas about repression, the importance of early experience and sexuality, and the inaccessibility of much of human nature to ordinary introspection have become part of the standard Western intellectual currency’. (Gross.R.et al 2000 P13).

(B) Classical conditioning’s role in human learning was taken up by Watson (1913), who is credited with recognising its importance as a potential explanation of how mental disorders develop.

In an experiment, which today could be regarded as unethical, Watson & Rayner (1920) classically conditioning a fear response in a young child called Albert. According to Jones (1925): ‘Albert, eleven months of age, was an infant with a phlegmatic disposition, afraid of nothing “under the sun” except a loud noise made by striking a steel bar. This made him cry. By striking the bar at the same time that Albert touched a white rat, the fear was transferred to the white rat. After seven combined stimulations, rat and sound, Albert not only became greatly disturbed at the sight of the rat, but this fear had spread to include a white rabbit, cotton wool, a fur coat and the experimenter’s [white] hair. It did not transfer to wooden blocks and other objects very dis-similar to the rat’.

Watson and Rayner showed that a phobia could be acquired through classical conditioning. For some psychologists, classical conditioning explains the acquisition of all abnormal fears: ‘Any neutral, simple of complex, that happens to make an impact on an individual at about the same time a fear reaction is evoked, acquires the ability to evoke fear subsequently…. There will be generalisation of the fear reactions to stimuli resembling the conditioned stimulus’. (Wolpe & Rachman, 1960). (Gross.R.et al 2000 P104).

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