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For as long as history can date back, humans have always had a certain interest in what makes up an individual; who they are, and what aspects of there being, have set them apart from others within there species. As behaviorist see it, these questions are answered by nothing more than the world in which you were brought up in.
“Behaviorism, focuses on variables we can observe, measure, manipulate; and avoid whatever is subjective, internal, and unavailable — i.e. mental (1998, C. George Boeree).” Behaviorism is a very old theory of personality. One of the oldest theories dates back to Rene Descartes. He introduced the idea of substance dualism, and called “the person a machine dependent on external events whose soul was the ghost in the machine (substance dualism).” Meaning that what is mental, and things that are physical are completely separate. Modern behaviorism however changes this theory in refusing to acknowledge any internal workings of the mind. Behaviorist believe that, persons are nothing more than “mediators between behavior and environment (Skinner, 1993).”
Because the inner workings or the human mind are ignored, opponents to the theory make a strong case against it. Behaviorism is unable to explain human language, and memory. Although these criticisms indicate a failure in this theory. It isn’t denied that behaviorism can teach the world a lot about human behaviors.
Behaviorism as it is known today was founded on the ideas of John B. Watson. Watson claimed that behavior should be examined, rather than describe how the mind was working. He contended that it was possible to condition humans and animals. In his famous study, Watson conditioned a young child named Albert to fear a white rat. He did so by creating a loud noise whenever Albert touched the rat. Frightened by the loud noise, the child associated the rat to this feeling, and feared the rat the same way he feared the noise.
Watson’s work was backed by the most noted behaviorist B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s entire system is based on operant conditioning. “The organism is in the process of operating on the environment (Skinner, 1993).” While operating, the organism encounters a special kind of stimulus, called a reinforcing stimulus, or simply a reinforcer. This special stimulus has the effect of increasing the behavior occurring just before the reinforcer. Operant conditioning is: “the behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organisms tendency to repeat the behavior in the future (Behaviorism, 1997).” Skinner ran experiments to prove this by placing a rat in a cage called a Skinner Box. His cage would have a bar or pedal on one wall that, when pressed, causes a little mechanism to release a foot pellet. The rat would then bounce around the cage, doing whatever it is rats do, when he accidentally presses the bar, a food pellet falls out. The operant is the behavior just prior to the reinforcer, which is the food pellet. In no time at all, the rat is furiously peddling away at the bar. “A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future (Stacy Breslau, 2003 ).” What if you don’t give the rat any more pellets? After a few attempts, the rat will stop pressing the bar. This is called extinction of the operant behavior. “A behavior no longer followed by the reinforcing stimulus results in a decreased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. (Stacy Breslau, 2003 )” Now, if you were to turn the pellet machine back on, so that pressing the bar again provides the rat with pellets, the behavior of bar-pushing will “pop” right back into existence, much more quickly than it took for the rat to learn the behavior the first time. This is because the return of the reinforcer takes place in the context of a reinforcement history that goes all the way back to the very first time the rat was reinforced for pushing on the bar. A question Skinner had to deal with was how we get to more complex sorts of behaviors.
He responded with the idea of shaping, or the “method of successive approximations.” Basically, it involves first reinforcing a behavior only vaguely similar to the one desired. Once that is established, you look out for variations that come a little closer to what you want, and so on, until you have an animal performing a behavior that would never show up in ordinary life. Skinner and his students have been quite successful in teaching simple animals to do some extraordinary things. Beyond fairly simple examples, shaping also accounts for the most complex of behaviors. You don’t, for example, become a brain surgeon by stumbling into an operating room, cutting open someone’s head, removing a tumor, and receive a reward. Instead, you are gently shaped by your environment to enjoy certain things, do well in school, take a certain class, see a movie, and so on. This could be something your parents were carefully doing to you, but much more likely, this is something that was more or less unintentional.
Another type of reinforcement is aversive stimulus. It is the opposite of a reinforcing stimulus, something unpleasant or painful. “A behavior followed by an aversive stimulus results in a decreased probability of the behavior occurring in the future (Stacy Breslau, 2003 ).”
This both defines an aversive stimulus and describes the form of conditioning known as punishment. If you shock a rat for doing something, it won’t do what ever it is it got shocked for. If you spank Johnny for throwing his toys he will throw his toys less and less (maybe).
If you remove an already active aversive stimulus after a rat or Johnny performs a certain behavior, you are doing negative reinforcement. If you turn off the electricity when the rat stands on his hind legs, he’ll stand a lot more. Notice how difficult it can be to distinguish some forms of negative reinforcement from positive reinforcement. “If I starve you, is the food I give you when you do what I want a positive? Or is it the removal of a negative, the aversive stimulus of hunger? (1998, C. George Boeree)”
Skinner doesn’t approve of the use of aversive stimuli, because they don’t work well. Earlier I said that Johnny will maybe stop throwing his toys? That’s because whatever was reinforcing the bad behaviors hasn’t been removed. This hidden reinforcer has just been hidden with an aversive stimulus. So, sometimes the child will behave, but it still feels good to throw those toys.
All this boils down to a theory of personality that says that one’s environment causes one’s behavior. A man named Albert Bandura found this a bit too simplistic for the phenomena he was observing, aggression in adolescents, and decided to add a little to it, “environment causes behavior, but behavior causes environment as well(Bandura, 2000).” He labeled this concept reciprocal determinism. He then went a step further. Bandura began to look at personality as an interaction among three things the environment, behavior, and the person’s psychological processes. Adding imagery and language to the mix allows Bandura to theorize much more effectively than someone like, B. F. Skinner, about two things that many people would consider the humans strong point, observational learning or modeling, and self-regulation.
Of the hundreds of studies Bandura was responsible for, one group stands out above the others. The bobo doll studies. Bandura made of film of one of his students, a young woman, beating up a bobo doll. In case you don’t know, a bobo doll is an inflatable, balloon creature with a weight in the bottom that makes it bob back up when you knock him down. The woman punched the clown, shouting “sockeroo!” She kicked it, sat on it, hit with a little hammer, and so on, shouting aggressive phrases. Bandura then showed his film to groups of kindergartners. The children then were let out to play. In the play room, were several observers with pens and clipboards, a bobo doll, and a few little hammers. The observers recorded: A lot of little kids beating on the bobo doll. They punched it and shouted “sockeroo,” kicked it, sat on it, hit it with the little hammers, and so on. In other words, they imitated the young lady in the film.
This might seem like a worthless experiment at first, but the children changed their behavior without first being rewarded for that behavior. While that may not seem extraordinary to the average person, it didn’t work well with standard behaviorist learning theories. He called the phenomenon observational learning or modeling, and Bandura’s theory is usually called the social learning theory. Bandura did a large number of variations in his study. All these variations allowed Bandura to establish that there were certain steps involved in the modeling process.
If you are going to learn anything, you have to be paying attention. Likewise, anything that doesn’t allow you to pay attention is going to decrease learning. If, for example, you are sleepy, groggy, drugged, sick, or nervous, you will learn less. Second, you must be able to remember what you have paid attention to. This is where imagery and language come in. We store what we have seen the model doing in the form of mental images, or verbal descriptions. When stored, you can later bring up the image or description, so that you can reproduce it with your own behavior. At this point, you’re just sitting there daydreaming. You have to translate the images or descriptions into actual behavior. So you have to have the ability to reproduce the behavior in the first place. For example, I can watch Olympic swimmers all day long, and not be able to reproduce their times, because I may not even know how to swim. But if I can swim, my performance would in fact improve if I watch swimmers who are better than I am. Our abilities improve even when we just imagine ourselves performing. Many athletes, imagine their performance in their mind prior to actually performing. With all this, you’re still not going to do anything unless you are motivated to imitate. Bandura says there are many motives, past reinforcement, promised reinforcements, vicarious reinforcement. These are, considered to be the things that cause learning. Bandura is saying that they don’t cause learning but, only cause us to demonstrate what we have learned. He sees them as motives. The negative motivations are there too, giving you reasons not to imitate someone such as past punishment, promised punishment (threats), vicarious punishment. Like most traditional behaviorists, Bandura says that punishment in whatever form does not work as well as reinforcement and, in fact, has a tendency to backfire on us.
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