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.
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.
Other models of abnormality might view psychological issues as illnesses with an underlying cause. The biological model, for example, says that there is a biological or genetic problem causing psychological disorders. That model might use medication to treat problems like depression or anxiety. But the behavioral model is different. It does not look for an underlying cause for a psychological issue. Instead, it focuses on the behaviors (or symptoms) themselves, what caused them, and how to change them.
So, how do you change behaviors that have been learned? For example, how could a behaviorist help Al with his fear of rats or Cleo with her drinking problem? Remember that Pavlov and Watson demonstrated that people sometimes associate two things with each other. This is called conditioning. Bells and food, rats and loud noises, even drinking with social acceptance - all of these things are conditioned behaviors.
But if associating two things can cause maladaptive, or negative, behaviors, could they also cause positive behaviors? Mary Cover Jones, a student of John B. Watson, showed that the principles of conditioning could be used to help treat patients with psychological problems in a process called counterconditioning.
Let's return to Al's problem. He associates rats with something negative, like a loud noise. This causes a fear in him. But what if you forced Al to associate the rats with something positive, like candy? A psychologist would expose Al to rats and then give him his favorite candy bar. After many times of doing that, he would begin to associate the rats with the candy and would no longer be afraid of them.
Most behavioral treatments are based on counterconditioning. For example, some psychologists treat anxiety symptoms by having the patient imagine whatever is causing the anxiety while at the same time relaxing his body. The relaxed body is a positive thing that's the opposite of the tense feeling usually associated with anxiety. The more the person does this, the more relaxed they feel when they think of the cause of their anxiety. Eventually, the person no longer feels anxious.
Abnormal psychology is the study of psychological issues and the best way to treat them. The behavioral model of abnormality says that psychological problems are learned behaviors. Behaviors are learned in a process called conditioning, whereby a person associates one thing with another. However, maladaptive behaviors can be unlearned by the process of counterconditioning, which involves changing a person's learned associations.
When you've completed the lesson, you should be able to:
- Characterize abnormal psychology
- Report on the use of behavioral models
- Detail the process of conditioning and counterconditioning