Learning Approaches: The Behaviourist Approach

March 10, 2021 - Paper 2 Psychology in Context | Approaches to Human Behaviour

Learning Approach: The Behaviourist Approach including;

  1. Classical Conditioning and Pavlov’s research,
  2. Operant Conditioning, types of reinforcement and Skinner’s research
  3. Social Learning Theory including imitation, identification, modelling, vicarious reinforcement, the role of mediational processes and Bandura’s research.

Main assumptions of the Behaviourist Approach Description (AO1):

  •  Behaviour is  learned  from  experience
  • Only  observable  behaviour is measurable scientifically and it is only these behaviours that should be studied
  • Animal  research is valid as they  share  the  same principles  of learning as humans
  •  All humans are born as a  blank slate, there is  no genetic influence  on behaviour

(1) Classical Conditioning, Description, AO1: Learning by association. This type of learning occurs when two stimuli are repeatedly paired together to the point whereby both stimuli present the same response, this response can be positive or negative. This type of learning is passive, the individual who is learning is not actively behaving in a specific way or seeking anything.


Pavlov’s Research classically conditioned dogs to salivate on the sound of a bell ringing.

There are a number of key terms that you need to remember when you are describing Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning process:

  1. Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS)
  2. Unconditioned Response (UCR) a natural response that hasn’t been learned.
  3. Conditioned Stimulus (CS)
  4. Conditioned Response (CR) a response to a stimulus (CS) that has been learned through repetition (classical conditioning).

Have a look at the diagram below which explains how classical conditioning takes places.

Pavlovs Dogs CC Schedule

This diagram illustrates how Pavlov classically conditioned his dogs to salivate when hearing a bell ring. Initially, the salivation response was a natural, unlearned response as a result of being presented with food  when we are presented with a nice meal that we know we are going to enjoy, our mouth fills with salvia in anticipation of eating the food.

For Pavlov’s dogs, after lots of repetition of the food being presented after the ringing of a bell, the dogs soon associated the bell ringing with the presentation of food. As a result, over a period of time, even when food wasn’t presented, the dogs began to salivate when hearing the ringing of a bell. This response is known as a conditioned  or  learned response.

Time Contiguity Pavlov discovered that the association only occurs if the unconditioned stimulus and neutral stimulus are presented at the same time, or around the same time as each other.

Exam Tip: Remember, we have already seen an example of classical conditioning when studying the Learning Theory of Attachment. 


(2) Operant Conditioning, Description, AO1:

Learning by reinforcement. This is a type of learning in which behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences. Positive reinforcement encourages the behaviour to be repeated whereas punishment decreases the chances of the behaviour occurring again. This type of learning is active, the individual who is learning is actively changing their behaviour according to the type of reinforcement offered in return.

Skinner’s Research used operant conditioning to encourage rats to press a lever in response to specific visual and auditory signals.

Skinners Box.jpg

Skinner introduced a hungry rat into the box and inside the box was a lever that when pressed, would deliver a food pellet. The rat soon learned that pressing the lever would result in a food pellet (the reward).


Skinner observed that as a consequence of its actions (receiving a pellet of food), the rat continued to display this new behaviour. The rat’s behaviour had been positively reinforced.

Positive Reinforcement.jpg

Punishment: Skinner changed the mechanism so that when the rat pressed the lever, instead of receiving a food pellet it was given an electric shock to its paw. Very quickly the rat stopped pressing the lever. The electric shock acted as a punishment.

Negative Reinformcement.jpg

Negative Reinforcement: Skinner also set up the box so that the light came on and the floor was electrified and the lever switched off the current. Once Skinner electrified the floor the rat started to bounce about and accidentally pressed the lever. The electric current was turned off. Then the light came on again and the rat learned to press the lever before the current came on. This is an example of negative reinforcement.Negative Reinformcement.jpg

Evaluation, AO2 of the Behavioural Approach (Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning):


(1) POINT: There is evidence to support the behaviourist approach. EVIDENCE: For example, Watson and Rayner classically conditioned an 11 month old boy (Little Albert) to fear rats by presenting them with a loud noise. EVALUATION: This is a strength because the fact that Little Albert learned to fear white fluffy animals supports the role of Classical Conditioning in learning behaviour.

(2) POINT: The behaviourist approach has had many useful practical applications. EVIDENCE: For example, this approach has allowed Psychologists to develop successful therapies for treating abnormalities (e.g. flooding) which require individuals to unlearn their disorder using the principals of classical conditioning. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, the fact that flooding is such a successful treatment shows that if behaviours (e.g. phobias) can be unlearned through classical conditioning then other behaviours that individuals learned must have developed through classical conditioning.

(3) POINT: The behaviourist approach uses scientific methods of research. EVIDENCE: For example, in the case of Pavlov and Skinner’s research, specific conditions and variables could be manipulated in order to assess the main assumptions of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. EVALUATION: This is a strength because, it means that the principals of the behavioural approach have been measured in a scientific and objective way (not influenced by human bias).



(1) POINT: The behaviourist approach is deterministic claiming that all thought and behaviour is caused by factors outside of our control. EVIDENCE: For example, the approach states that we develop behaviours through stimuli-response associations and through the learning that takes place as we interact with our environment. EVALUATION: This is a weakness because, the Behavioural approach fails to consider the role of free will, it states that we do not have control over our actions and that the behaviours we develop are governed by external experiences when surely our actions in some part must be as a result of our own free choice?

(2) POINT: The behaviourist approach is reductionist, as it attempts to reduce all aspects of human behaviour down to just one level of explanation. EVIDENCE: For example, the Behavioural approach reduces complex behaviours down to learning through our environment through association and rewards and punishment. EVALUATION: This is a weakness because, the behavioural theory is an over-simplification of complex human behaviours. Surely our behaviour must be a product of nurture (experiences in our environment) and nature (our own biology, e.g. genes).

(3) POINT: The behaviourist approach uses animals within its research. EVIDENCE: For example, studies looking at classical conditioning have focused on dogs (Pavlov) and studies looking at operant conditioning have focused on rat behaviour (e.g. Skinner). EVALUATION: This is a weakness because, animals (such as a rats and dogs) are physiological different to humans. As a result, findings generated from animal studies can be criticised for extrapolation and the findings cannot be generalised to humans.

(3) Social Learning Theory SLT), Description, AO1:


Main assumptions of the Social Learning Theory:

  • Behaviour is learned from experience
  • People learn via a process of observing and imitating others within a social context
  • SLT differs from the behaviourist approach by arguing that mediational processes (mental or cognitive processes) are essential for learning to take place.
  • Observational learning is the result of observing the behaviour of a role model
  • Imitation of the behaviour depends on the observed consequences, vicarious reinforcement (whether the observed role model is rewarded or punished)

Mediational Processes SLT recognises the importance of cognitive factors involved in learning. These cognitive factors determine whether a new response is acquired (learned).

Bandura identified 4 mediational processes involved in SLT.

1. Attention  the extent to which the individual notices certain behaviours
2. Retention how well the behaviour is remembered.
3. Motor reproduction  the ability of the observer to perform the behaviour
4. Motivation  the will to perform the behaviour, often determined by whether the original observed behaviour was rewarded or punished.


Identification A role model doesn’t necessary have to be present to be influential, people are influence constantly by the media, however there are a number of factors that determine whether a person is likely to be selected as a model and imitated. For example;

  • Possess similar characteristics to the observer
  • Are attractive
  •  Have a high status

Vicarious reinforcement Whether we imitate a behaviour we have observed will partly depend upon the observed consequences of that behaviour. Reinforcement doesn’t have to be direct, but can be vicarious reinforcement (observing someone else being rewarded or punished for a behaviour). If the model is observed to be reinforced for their actions, then imitation becomes more likely (assuming that the observer values the reinforcer that the model was observed to receive). Conversely, if the model is observed to be punished, then imitation becomes less likely.

To look specifically at how the behavioural approach explains phobias click here.

Take a look at the behavioural approach to treating phobias.

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