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    Behaviorism focuses on (no surprise) behavior - that is, what people actually DO, as opposed to their hypothetical motivations, desires, fears, etc. There are two major divisions of behaviorism. Classical conditioning (which I once got into trouble in graduate school for referring to as "teaching dogs to spit on cue") does not have as broad application as operant conditioning.

    Classical conditioning (so-called because it is the older version, and having nothing  whatsoever to do with classical music) asserts that there are certain unconditioned responses - or reflexes- which are not learned. For example, even an infant will recoil from a stimulus that causes it pain. IN this case, pain is an unconditioned stimulus and drawing away from it is an unconditioned response. Most of the environment begins as a neutral stimulus. We have no innate response one way or the other to footballs, notebooks, people dressed as priests or nuns, rap music, country music, Honor dances, salt and pepper shakers and millions of other stimuli we come across daily. If you don't believe me, try exposing a baby to some of those stimuli and see if you notice any different response. On the other hand, if you rang a loud bell next to a baby (not recommended, just take my word for it), he/she would respond. So, loud noises are an unconditioned stimulus. Pavlov said that our behavior is conditioned by pairing an unconditioned stimulus with a neutral one. We then learn to associate these two stimuli and develop a conditioned (that is, learned) response to theone that was previously neutral.


Yes, that is how classical conditioning is normally explained and it's about as clear as mud, isn't it?

A few examples will help, I think.

  • Classical conditioning is particularly good at explaining phobias (that is, an irrational fear of  a particular object or situation). Take dogs, for example. As a young child, you have no fear of dogs. Then a dog barks at you loudly and bites you. You associate those unconditioned stimuli (loud noises and pain) with the neutral stimulus (dog) and become conditioned to try to avoid dogs. Similarly, a child who is frequently yelled at or hit by a parent will try to avoid that person. It is significant that people tend to have phobias about things that could potentially be harmful, such as snakes (some are poisonous), dogs, rodents (can bite and spread disease), spiders, heights (you could fall) and no one ever seems to have phobias about swiss cheese or fry bread or grass. One of the uses of classical conditioning has also been to eliminate phobias, but that is one of the many things which, if we are going to get on with our study of human development, we really don't have time to discuss. Yet another reason to take abnormal psychology after this course!
Classical conditioning is also useful for explaining (and breaking) bad habits. For example, I tried quitting smoking several times over the last couple of years. I would quit for a month or two or three and then start again. Then, I became pregnant and it just so happened (I don't know why) that every time I smoked a cigarette I would become nauseous, and more often than not vomit up whatever I had eaten in the last few hours (pretty gross, huh?) so, cigarettes (a neutral stimulus) quickly became associated with nausea, and I was conditioned to avoid them. Joseph Volpe has used this exact same technique to treat alcoholism and other addictions. (He would give the patient an emetic drug, that is, one which induces vomiting, and just as it was beginning to take effect, have him sit in a part of the clinic that was remodeled to resemble a bar. If you want to hear how his treatments worked out, you should be able to get his books through interlibrary loan. Although about 30 years old, they are still available.)
  • Finally, classical conditioning may explain why children like their mothers. It is not all that maternal love stuff, say classical conditioning theorists. No, they associate the mother with food, comfort from pain, dry clothes and so on. It's just like the scene in the movie, "Look who's talking" when the man looks at the mother's chest and says to the little boy, "I'll bet you're thinking what I'm thinking," and you hear what the baby is thinking, "Yeah, LUNCH!"
Operant conditioning theory is in agreement with classical conditioning that behavior is shaped by the environment. The difference is that operant conditioning theorists focus on what happens after a behavior. A few simple rules summarize operant conditioning theory.
  1. Behavior is determined by its consequences. If  a behavior is punished, it is less likely to be repeated. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated.
  2. These laws (about reward and punishment) apply to people regardless of age or developmental stage. People learn the same way that mice or pigeons do, that is by experiencing the consequences of their behavior. That's one reason that behaviorists do research with rats, mice, pigeons, dogs, etc.
  3. A-> B-> C  or Antecedent determines Behavior which determines Consequences.  An antecedent (also called a "cue"), signals that a behavior is likely to have a certain type of consequence. For example, witness the behavior of most classes with a substitute teacher. Students believe that the presence of a substitute indicates that misbehavior is less likely to be punished, and so they act out more often. Teachers who are very strict, who punish students severely for misbehavior, often have classes which are very well-behaved. The nice person down the hall may wonder why the same students, who are not punished for acting up in class, misbehave so much more, when the teacher is obviously "nicer" (the reason, according to Skinner, is that there are no negative consequences for bad behavior). Teachers who frequently reward their students for good behavior also tend to have students who are well-behaved, by the way, because there are positive consequences for behaving well.
 In graduate school , we rudely called the behaviorists "rat runners" and criticized their theories as over-simplified. They may have had the last laugh, because behavior modification, which is the application of the principles of operant conditioning theory, is one of the most used methods in classrooms throughout the country. You see it every day, gold stars for doing your work, sitting quietly, being a lunch helper. Sit in time-out, your name is on the board, detention, no recess for bad behavior.

I will now make a confession - I despise behaviorism and totally disagree with it. This is a minority position in psychology and education. Most teachers and most psychologist who state that they use a particular theory mention behaviorism. However, the great majority of both teachers and psychologists consider themselves "eclectic", that is, they use a variety of theories, whatever works.

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