The Behavioral Model and Abnormal Functioning

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  • 0:05 Abnormality
  • 1:38 Behavioral Model
  • 3:46 Counterconditioning
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What causes mental illness? Why do some people have psychological problems, while others don't? In this lesson, we'll look at one theory of abnormal psychology, the behavioral model.


Al is terrified of rats. He's been this way since he was a child and doesn't know why. He's never been bitten by a rat, but he freezes in fear whenever he sees one. It's gotten so bad that he has trouble at the lab where he works because they have test rats there. Even when they are inside their cages, Al can't go into the part of the lab where the rats are. He's been diagnosed with a phobia of rats. What could have caused that?

Cleo, meanwhile, has an entirely different problem. She's the life of the party, and all her friends tell her how much fun it is when she drinks alcohol. She gets crazy and sometimes blacks out and can't remember what happened. But her friends are always ready to fill in the blanks with some funny story of something she did. Cleo's boyfriend worries that she might have a drinking problem, but she swears everything's fine.

Phobias and substance abuse disorders like alcoholism both fall under the category of abnormal psychology. Abnormal psychology is the study of abnormal thoughts, behaviors, and actions. More specifically, someone studying abnormal psychology looks at psychological disorders and how they are treated.

There are many ways to explain abnormality. One person might say that Cleo has a drinking problem because she is trying to escape the pain of her childhood. Another might argue that alcoholism is a disease and that genetics play a role. Let's look closer at one way of explaining abnormality, the behavioral model.

Behavioral Model

The behavioral model of abnormality says that people learn behavior patterns. Behaviorists see learned behaviors as the cause of psychological issues. This model was built on the theories of psychologists, like Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, who noticed that animals learned to associate one thing with another. For example, in a famous experiment with dogs, Pavlov showed that when he rang a bell every time he fed the dogs, they would eventually associate the bell with feeding time. After a while, just ringing the bell caused the dogs to salivate, even if there was no food in sight.

Remember Al? He's terrified of rats. A behaviorist might say that he's learned to be scared of rats because he associates them with something else. In fact, psychologist John B. Watson showed just that. He showed rats to a little boy who was not afraid of them. But when Watson exposed the boy to the rats, he also made a loud, scary noise. Because the boy associated the rats with the scary noise, he developed a phobia of rats.

But it's not just pairing one thing with another. Behaviorists also look at the way that behavior patterns are rewarded and punished and how that influences our actions. Remember that every time Cleo gets drunk, her friends talk about how much fun she is and how she's the life of the party. In this way, they are rewarding Cleo's drinking behaviors. As a result, she wants to drink more often because her friends think she's cool when she does.

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