3.3 Child Development: Do you know the various Behavioural Theories?

Chapter THREE


3.3 Analyze the various Behavioral theories

Behavioural Theories

In contrast to Psychoanalytic Theorists, who focus on inner personality developments over time and Maturational Theorists who believe biological influences determine development, Behavioural Theorists pay little attention to inner influences.  They focus instead on observable, external behaviour and how specific environments affect it. They believe that only observable behaviour can be understood and explained. Behavioural theory recognizes no biological base for development. Behavioural theory originated in studies with animals, and it has been known by various names over the years, including learning theory, S-R theory, and behaviourism.  The name “Learning Theory”, refers to the focus on how a new behaviour can be acquired. The name “S-R” Theory” refers to the connection between a stimulus (“S”) in the environment and a response (“R”) on the part of the organism. The name “behaviourism” reflects the belief that psychological theories should be based only on observable behaviour and should not include references to inner states, such as thoughts, feelings, desires, anxieties and so on.


A. Classical Conditioning

The roots of Behavioural Theory can be found in the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936).  Pavlov showed that under certain circumstances an animal could learn a new physiological response to a stimulus with another stimulus that produces a particular response naturally.  After repeated pairings, the new stimulus produces the same response as the original stimulus. The response to the new stimulus is “conditional” on the previous pairing of the two stimuli.  This type of learning is known as classical conditioning.  Pavlov called the stimulus that produces the response naturally the unconditioned stimulus (often abbreviated UCS) and the new stimulus that is paired with it, or presented slightly before it, the conditioned stimulus (CS).


Pavlov’s most famous illustration of classical conditioning involved teaching a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell.  He rang a bell at the same time that he gave the dog some food (the unconditioned stimulus) which naturally causes the dog to salivate (the unconditioned response, or UCR).  After several of these learning situations, the sound of the bell alone caused the dog to salivate (the conditioned response, or CR). The sound of the bell  is the conditioned stimulus.


We often see apparent examples of classical conditioning in child development.  Placing a nipple in a baby’s mouth naturally elicits sucking. After the baby repeatedly sees the nipple just before it’s placed in her mouth, the sight of the nipple alone may cause sucking movements in the baby. The sensation of the nipple in the mouth is the unconditioned stimulus that elicits sucking, the unconditioned response.  The sight of the nipple is the conditioned stimulus that also comes to elicit sucking, which in this situation is a conditioned response.


Another idea related to classical conditioning is that of secondary versus primary rewards.  Primary rewards reduce the physiological tensions of hunger, thirst, sex and pain. Secondary rewards come to have rewarding qualities by being associated with primary rewards.  For example, a mother’s smile may become a reward after being paired with food and other primary rewards.


B. Instrumental Conditioning

Pavlov studies how behaviour was influenced by stimuli that occurred before the behaviour.  An American psychologist, Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949), was interested in how behaviour was affected by events that occurred after the behaviour.  He showed that he could increase or decrease the frequency of a voluntary behaviour if he followed it consistently with regard or a punishment. This type of conditioning is known as instrumental conditioning, and it provides the basis for behaviour modification programs.


Another American psychologist, John B. Watson (1878 – 1958), was sharply critical of the introspective methods of studying human behaviour used by other psychologists.  He felt that there were bound to be inaccuracies in people’s own reports of their own reactions to various stimuli, and these procedures couldn’t be used with children or animals, the subjects in whom he was most interested.  Above all, Watson wanted psychology to be a science of behaviour, which he called Behaviourism. He believed that valid data could be obtained only from the observation of behaviour, those things that people actually say or do.  Because of his revolutionary work Watson is known as the “Father of Behaviourism”.


C. B. F. Skinner

The most influential, and probably the most radical, contemporary behaviourist is B. F. Skinner (1904).  Skinner’s brand of Behaviourism completely rejects such concepts as drives that are in some sense inside the organism and therefore unobservable. Instead, he attempts to explain behaviour only in terms of what can be observed.


Skinner replaces the concept of reward with the concept of reinforcement.  A reinforcer is defined as any observable stimulus that increases the frequency of a response when it’s presented after (following) the response.  Skinner called this process of increasing the frequency of behaviour by adding a reinforcing stimulus operant conditioning.  (Thorndike had referred to the same type of learning as instrumental conditioning).


Some reinforcers are positive – they consist of something added to the environment following a response.  If a child asks politely for a sweet, for example, and her parent gives her one, the child is positively reinforced for being polite.  If the child begs and shouts for the cookie and gets one, she’s positively reinforced for begging and shouting. The cookie is the positive reinforcer that increases the likelihood that the behaviour – whether polite or shouts – will occur again.


Other reinforces are negative – they consist of removing something from the environment following a response.  Let’s consider the case of the child and the sweet again but from the parent’s point of view.  If the child is shouting, and the parent promises her a sweet, the shouting stops. Something offensive (crying) has been removed from the parent’s environment.  If the parent then gives and then gives sweets frequently to stop the shouting, we say that the parent’s sweet–giving behaviour has been negatively reinforced because it was not her (parent) preferable habit. However the child’s shouting in order to get a sweet has been positively reinforced. Both positive and negative reinforcers increase the likelihood that certain responses will occur again, the former by adding something and the latter by removing something.


One of Skinner’s interest was how new behaviours are acquired.  He and his followers became well known for teaching a new behaviour by taking an existing, similar behaviour and reinforcing successive approximations until the desired behaviour appears. This is known as shaping. Parents do this all the time with their infants. An example is when they get excited and raise them for their efforts to walk and talk.


D. Social Learning Theory

Some Behavioural Theorists, particularly Albert Bandura, have been much more willing to discuss thinking, reasoning, and other conscious mental processes than earlier Behaviourists were. Their ideas have been labelled Social Learning Theory.  Bandura proposed that much behaviour is learned not gradually through shaping but quickly through observation and imitation. It’s unlikely, for example that many of us could learn to write through shaping, which depends so heavily on trial and error.  Instead, we learn through the cognitive (mental) processes of observation and imitation.


Children learn to do many things by observing and imitating the behaviours of others particularly adults.  I am sure you have seen children try to do what adults do. A two-year-old child for instance will take a book and pretend to read though he does not exactly understand what adults do in reading.  This is called imitation and it occurs after attending to the action of the adult observation. Children consistently observe and imitate others. After several such attempts the imitated behaviour is added to the child’s behaviour repertoire. This kind of learning takes place in a social context so it is referred to as social learning. Social learning accounts for a great deal of learning in children.




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