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The Concept of Behaviourism

Discuss about the Behaviourism and Reinforcement.

Behaviourism refers to the methodical study of the behaviour of people and animals. The study goes into the reasons which dictate a particular behaviour; whether it is a product of the reaction of the organism to a particular stimulus in its external environment or is a force of habit based on previous experiences which decides the state of the organism and how it perceives the stimulus; whether it acts to reinforce a certain behaviour or acts as a  deterrent as punishment. One of the most important factors which goes into the study is the role of the environment which has a drastic influence on the behaviour. Behaviourism is a multifaceted study which involves philosophy and psychology and it has undergone a lot of evolution over time. The early studies into it was in the 19th century and it was a product of studies into psychology which required more experimental analysis. It is by the determined contributions of eminent scientists that behaviourism has developed as a separate field of psychology.

It is the works of Sechenov, Pavlov, and Bekhterev which established the concept of reflexive conditioning and the effect that it has on the behaviour. Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov and his studies in physiology have paved the way to further studies into reflexes and nerve pathways. His books dealing with the study of behaviours raised a lot of new concepts and questions about the perceived theories which governs and regulated our response to stimuli and higher nervous functions. He is considered as ''The father of Russian physiology'' and he was the one who introduced the concepts of electrophysiology into the study of the brain as he showcased the correlation between electric currents and brain activity.. He was an incredibly influential scholar who inspired further study into the field of neurophysiology and neuroscience and introduced the concepts of how spinal reflexes are inhibited by the brain.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is world famous for his works on classical and reflexive conditioning and the introduction of the concept made him a household name. His studies correlating physiology with neurology and behavioural studies were monumental in formulating the principle of reflexive conditioning, which have been experimentally and clinically proven and have a variety of applications in behaviour assessment, reinforcement, conditioning especially in classrooms (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). His experiments on dogs have been ground-breaking to try and understand the concepts of involuntary reflexes and serves as the foundation on which all modern behavioural theories are based upon (Moore et al, 1978). The serendipitous nature of his discovery of classical conditioning while working on the physiology of dogs was a breakthrough in the field (Tarpey, 1975) and it showed the theory of antecedent control in classical conditioning.

The Early Pioneers of Behaviourism

Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev predominantly worked in the field of neurology but his studies into psychology has given him the epitaph of the father of objective psychology. His studies into the human brain have provided a base for the study of memory, reflexes and diseases. He was an academic rival of Pavlov as they had conflicting views on the study of conditioned reflexes and the principles of objective psychology (Akimenko, 2007). These concepts lay the foundation for the study of reflexes and behaviourism. Pavlov and Bekterev both arrived independently at explanations for conditioned reflexes as a reaction to the external environment. Bekhterev's study into association reflex is akin to the Pavlovian theory of conditioned reflex as they both try to explain Watson's theory of behaviourism which relied on Pavlov's  research but was better supported by Bekhterev's conclusions (Hergenhahn, 2009). Bekhterev was a critic Pavlov's experiments on dogs as he was not in favour of using the saliva observation and the use of acid to stimulate saliva flow. He favoured the use of electric stimulus to induce motor reflexes as  he felt that it was much easily and accurately reproducible in humans (Moroz, 1989)

John B. Watson and  Rosalie Rayner conducted the Little Albert experiment at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University with the findings published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1920. The experiment was to showcase the concepts of classical conditioning. The experiment was a replication of the Pavlovian method of conditioning, but on infants, a nine month old boy in this case who was called ''Albert''. After establishing a basic emotional response of the baby towards a variety of stimuli like rats, rabbits, cotton, masks and other furry or hairy items, they went on to establish a response from him when he is playing with the rat. He is them subjected to a sudden loud noise which induces him to cry and be scared. This was repeated to establish the stimulus and then the baby was exposed only to the stimulus of the rat without the noise which was seen to induce a conditioned reflex of fear and crying in the boy. Similar response was observed with some of the other furry objects too which meant that the reflex was generalised but not with all hairy objects (Schwartz, 1986). The experiment showed how a conditioned response can be induced in humans by the process of conditioning a reflex to an unconditioned stimulus just like it was done by Pavlov in dogs. The concept of stimulus generalisation was also experimentally shown in this experiment which further broadened the study into behaviour and conditioned reflexes. A study like this would not be ethically accepted in the present scenario where it is mandatory to follow the ethical guidelines while conducting any experiment, especially on humans. There have also been concerns raised about the need to desensitize the subject against the stimulus lest he would have a lasting phobia of it all throughout his life raising concerns of lasting psychological trauma (Powell et al., 2014). This was not addressed by Watson. Additionally, the nature of the experiment itself left a lot to be desired and would not be accepted conclusively by modern standards. The experiment had only a single subject, and there was a lack of control subjects to provide a suitable balance to the study. There are a lot of regulations that have to be followed when using humans as subjects for research studies. Also there is lack of a  proper records and data to provide fool proof legitimacy to the study. As mentioned by Harris, there is not enough consensus among the scientific community to come to a precise conclusion (Harris, 2010).

The Little Albert Experiment

Burrhus Frederic Skinner made significant contributions towards the study of psychology, behaviourism and philosophy and he was a prolific author and thinker of his time. He termed his method of conditioning as operant conditioning. He believed that the rate of response is the strongest and most effectual gauge to measure the strength of the response He put forward the notion of radical behaviourism (Skinner, 1974) and showcased the experimental nature of the studies that go into psychology. Through radical behaviourism, he formulated his ideas about the events and history that affect the behaviour of an organism. Conventional ideas in behaviour studies do not include internal events like emotions and perception in its fold whereas radical behaviourism includes them and considers them as having an effect on the overall behaviour. In his book Behaviour of Organisms, he provides a framework which governs the effect of the factors of the environment. He set out the difference between Pavlovian conditioning (conditioned/reflexive conditioning) and operant conditioning. Whereas in Pavlovian conditioning, there is the correlation between a neutral stimulus and one which elicits a response, operant ones are not elicited as a response. Rather they are built up and gather strength over a period of time by conditioning. This theory proposes that behaviours are not always manifested as a response to a stimuli, rather they are a result of the gradual strengthening by operant behaviour or ''shaping'' as Skinner put it. He put forward the three term contingency which states the need for a reinforcer that is a result of the original stimuli (Jenkins, 1979). This goes a long way to explain the complexity of human behaviour which are often governed by a number of factors and responses. Skinner positions negative reinforcements to be equal to punishment and an influential factor in governing behaviour as the motivation to remove an undesired event acts as a motivation for behaviour. Along with Ferster, Skinner put forward the various stages of the reinforcement to explain the complete mechanism that goes to determine behaviour in operant conditioning (Ferster & Skinner, 1957).

Continuous reinforcement is where a reinforcement is gained by the subject when a particular event occurs. It is useful in cases where a desired behaviour has to be set up quickly by setting up a correlation between the desired behaviour and the reinforcement.

Interval Schedule is where there is a time gap between the reinforcements.

  • Fixed Interval Schedule is where the reinforcers are introduced in regular intervals such that the desired reaction is seen. A schedule like this has a low initial response but it increases exponentially in time for the next schedule of reinforcement. For example, people who are paid according to the number of hours worked.
  • Variable Interval Schedule is where the time intervals between the introduction of reinforcers are random. In this, the response rate is also variable. For people who go fishing, the time taken to catch the number of fish varies.

Ratio Schedule is where it varies according to the ratio of response to reinforcement.

  • Fixed Ratio Schedule is where the reinforcement is applied only after the completion of a particular number of responses. For example, people who are paid commission on number of sales made.
  • Variable Ratio Schedule is where the response count is variable and random between consecutive reinforcements. For example, slot machines and other gambling games.

Conclusion

The detailed discussion on the subject has helped in getting a closer insight into behaviorism and reinforcement. The contributions of some of the most reputed researchers have helped in getting an effective understanding of the subject and their application in the current scenario. Furthermore, reinforcement has been discussed and described from varied perspectives to understand the human behavior and the schedules that are involved in the same.

Akimenko, M. A. (2007). Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 16(1-2), 100-109.

Ferster, C. B. and Skinner, B. F. Schedules of Reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Harris, B (1979). "Whatever Happened to Little Albert?" (PDF). American Psychologist. 34 (2): 151–160. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.34.2.151.

Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to the History of Psychology, Sixth Edition.    Behaviorism (pp. 394–397). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Jenkins, H.M. "Animal Learning and Behavior", Ch. 5, in Hearst, E. "The First Century of Experimental Psychology" (1979) Erlbaum: Hillsdale, N. J)

Moroz, Oleg (1989). "The Last Diagnosis: A Plausible Account That Needs Further Verification". Soviet Review (6 ed.). pp. 82–102.

Olson, M. H.; Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An Introduction to Theories of Learning (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. pp. 201–203.

Powell, R. A., Digdon, N., Harris, B., & Smithson, C. (2014). Correcting the record on Steven Schwartz; Classic Studies in Psychology; Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing,1986; print.

Tarpy, Roger M. (1975). Basic Principles of Learning. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company. pp. 15–17.

Watson, Rayner, and Little Albert: Albert Barger as “Psychology’s lost boy”. American Psychologist, 69(6), 600.

William Moore, J.; Manning, S. A.; Smith, W. I. (1978). Conditioning and Instrumental    Learning. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company. pp. 52–61. ISBN 0070429022.

Crofts (1957). "Different Types of Reinforcement Scedules" (PDF). autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu. National Professional Development Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Retrieved April 21, 2017.

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