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What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is based on the fact that our reaction to a given situation can change as a result of previous experience. We are likely to react in a way that previously produced a 'reward' or avoided a 'punishment'. However, according to behaviorists, we do not change our response in order to get that reward, the process is rather one of conditioning.

This concept was very much influenced by Ivan Pavlov's work with dogs and is now applied to human behavior. Pavlov found that a response produced by one stimulus can become attached to another stimulus paired with the first.

For example, the sight or smell of food promotes saliva flow, yet, by ringing a bell each time food is presented, the sound of the bell alone can eventually cause saliva flow. Most behaviorists hold that this conditioning occurs without any awareness or belief that the bell is a signal of food corning. Pavlov, and later C. L. Hull (1884-1952), speculated that the change in behavior was due to some sort of connection developing between the nerves going to the brain, which were excited by the bell, and those coming from it, which initiated salivation.

Behaviorism was initiated by Watson in 1913. B. F. Skinner put forward the idea of 'operant conditioning' to replace Watson's concept of mechanical stimulus response bonds. He talks of behavior being spontaneously produced rather than 'elicited' by a stimulus, and considers that reinforcement with another stimulus simply ensures that a particular behavior will be produced more frequently.

Neo-behaviorists, differing slightly from Skinner, believe that there are certain 'mediating processes' between the stimulus and the response, roughly comparable to popular notions of 'thinking'. This view is claimed to allow more flexibility than Watson's original concept of a simple connection between the two. However, the mediating processes are described as inbuilt sequences of stimulus-response connections, so some critics say they are the same as Watson's straightforward connections.

Psychology has benefited from Behaviorism's emphasis on objectivity and the concept that our behavior is determined by outside forces alone.

However, Behaviorism's mistrust of any concepts of behavior in which the organism's thought processes play a part is coming to be regarded as a unnecessary restriction on the subject matter of psychology. Cognitive psychologists - those who study perception, imagination, reasoning and so forth - think that learning consists of forming beliefs, as well as stimulus-response connections.

Modern studies regard thought processes as the result of outside forces, making frequent analogies between human thought processes and the running of computer programmes. Psychology is now advancing towards an understanding of behavior as determined by thought processes and drive states as well as by external stimuli.

Today, behaviorist psychologists do not feel it necessary to provide a biological basis to explain behavior. Behaviorism is now simply the conviction that learning consists of stimulus-response connections, explained by past conditioning rather than as a definite move towards a goal such as a reward.

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