Table of Contents
- Pros and Cons of Behaviorism
- B.F. Skinner
- Behaviorism in the Classroom
- Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement
- Lesson Summary
Behaviorism is the theory that all behaviors are learned by interacting with the environment. This differs from other theories, which state that behaviors are an innate part of biology. As a branch of psychology, it seeks to predict and control behavior. It assumes that there is no difference between humans and other biological organisms and their ability to learn in response to the environment. It wants to find the simplest explanation possible rather than get conflated with many variables and complexities.
Despite its contributions to psychology, behaviorism has many criticisms. Because it assumes that nearly everything an organism learns comes from how it interacts with its environment, many holes can arise due to the complex nature of human psychology. Many other fields point out these conflicts. For example, in humanism, humanity's ability to make decisions with free will plays a key role in understanding psychology, and behaviorism ignores the idea entirely because of its core principles. Biological psychology theorizes that every behavior comes from an organic source, which lies on the other end of the spectrum from behaviorism that states that everything comes from external stimuli. Behaviorism also does not take into account memory, problem-solving, critical thinking, etc., all of which play a key role in how humans make decisions and interact with the environment.
While it might not paint a complete picture of psychology, it is still possible to learn more about an individual's mind based on their principles. For example, if someone lives next to a railroad and always eats exactly when the train is roaring by, they will find that if the train goes by and they don't eat, they will get hungry. People can learn how they respond to particular stimuli and how it affects them, rather than living by them and never knowing why they're always suddenly hungry right when the train goes by. The main advantages of this theory are that it can generate predictable outcomes, which can be measured and tested. It can be used in therapy to help shift behaviors away from negative ones to positive ones. One of the biggest shortcomings of this theory, though, is that it doesn't take into account critical thinking and decision-making skills. Once the person notices they get hungry when the train goes by, they aren't stuck living that way forever. They can make a change if they desire, eating at a different time of the day instead. This is the concept of free will, which happens when a person does whatever they wish. Rather, behaviorism seeks to explain every choice that is made through responses to external stimuli.
B.F. Skinner began his career as a writer, though returned to college to receive a Ph. D. in psychology, and then went on to become a professor at several institutions, but became the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1958 and held the position until his retirement in 1974. He founded the theory of Radical Behaviorism following the establishment of behaviorism by John Watson in 1913. Because things within the mind like beliefs and memories could not be empirically defined, he dismissed them entirely. Thus, adopting the theory that every observable response comes from an external stimulus, completely outside of what is felt within the mind. In his novels Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he argued that humanity should seek to craft their environment to optimize behaviors and forget concepts of free will. Additionally, he continued to refine the theory of operant conditioning, based on Thorndike's Law of Effect, furthering his theory of behaviorism by developing explanations for more intricate things like superstitions and complex chains of behavior.
Behaviorism has led to the development of many learning techniques for classroom use. A common technique is a regular review of the material. Going over material and giving students positive reinforcement during the process can help retention. Question-answer techniques are also extremely common, where a teacher will ask a question, and a student will have to raise their hand and answer. When a student answers, they receive positive reinforcement, and the teacher slowly integrates more difficult questions. This lets students recite the information that they are learning, reinforcing it in their minds. Nearly any form of learning that hinges on positive reinforcement of desired behaviors stem from behaviorism. Additionally, the grading system serves as both a means of positive reinforcement and positive punishment. When the student answers all the questions correctly on a test, they receive something they want, which is a high grade. This is positive reinforcement. When a student performs poorly on a test, they receive something they don't want, which is a low grade. This is positive punishment. Negative punishment is also a common way to eliminate unwanted behaviors in the classroom, and the best example of this is by taking away recess time. If a student is unruly in class, they can get their recess time taken away from them and have to stay in the classroom away from their friends. The teacher is taking away something the student wants, which is called negative punishment.
Positive Reinforcement is the rewarding of desired behavior. In Skinner's experiments, he would place hungry rats in a box that had a lever on the side. When the rats moved around, they would accidentally hit the lever, which would cause food to drop in the box. The rats learned that hitting the lever meant they received food, a reward for the hungry rat. This concept can be easily identifiable, like when a child is learning new behaviors. To take a real-world example, imagine that someone hates doing the dishes. Because they don't want to do it, they don't, and the dishes pile up until they have to do them because there is no room in the sink. Then, doing the dishes is a huge chore, and spending an hour or more doing them all can feel like a punishment. Imagine that this person loves audiobooks. They see that they hate dishes, but they enjoy audiobooks, and the dishes might be the perfect thing to occupy their mind while they do the chore. The audiobook becomes positive reinforcement for keeping up on the dishes, with the added benefit of spending less time doing them because of the regularity in which the chore is being done. By incorporating some kind of positive reinforcement of the behaviors someone wants, they can change, stepping away from the things they want less of in their lives.
Negative reinforcement is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus following a response. Skinner had another experiment with rats in which he would place them into a box that conducted an electric current along the floor, which was uncomfortable for the rats. There was a lever on the side of the box that would shut off the current. So, when the rats accidentally hit the lever trying to get away from the electricity, it would turn off, rewarding the rats by removing negative stimulus. The rats learned that hitting the lever means comfortability, so it became one of the first things they did when they entered the box. The easiest example of negative reinforcement is something that is used by many people every single day: alarm clocks. At the designated time, the alarm goes off, presenting an uncomfortable stimulus, while the person is sleeping. They have to wake up and turn the alarm off for it to stop, rewarding them for being awake at the right time by removing a negative stimulus.
Behaviorism, founded first by John Watson and later built upon by B.F. Skinner is the theory that all behavior stems from a response to an external stimulus to the environment. While there are many uses for behaviorism, it also has many criticisms. It disregards humanism, stating that humans are the same as all other animals. It also does not take into account free will and the effects of memory and beliefs. That being said, it does produce results that are predictable and scientifically measurable and has many experiments to support its claims. It outlines different types of rewards and punishment: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.
Each of these is capable of reshaping someone's behaviors, though they do so in different ways. Positive reinforcement gives a reward for a wanted behavior, negative reinforcement takes away a negative stimulus for a wanted behavior, positive punishment gives something unwanted for negative behavior, and negative punishment takes something away for unwanted behavior. These concepts apply both in the classroom and in adult life to shape how a child behaves in class and around peers, as well as to change how people approach various tasks in everyday life. It helps individuals in understanding certain responses they have to particular stimuli.
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Behaviorism is the theory that all behaviors are determined entirely by external stimuli in the environment. This means that every choice that is made, every action that is taken, by any given person, is because of how they have been conditioned to respond to environmental stimuli.
Positive reinforcement drives social media, for example. Apps want people to keep scrolling and viewing content which often includes ads, and each new piece of information from the people they follow is interesting to them, which makes it a reward for scrolling. The app generates ad revenue when someone sees the ads and shows the content that they want to see.
B.F. Skinner performed a variety of experiments on rats to test if they could be conditioned to perform a particular action in response to different kinds of stimuli, through real-world examples.
For instance, treating one with their favorite dessert after finishing the laundry, and giving a reward for doing something that they want to do are examples of positive reinforcement.
Similarly, waking up to an alarm in the morning and turning it off, and rewarding yourself by removing an uncomfortable stimulus are examples of negative reinforcement.
The best example is the grading system. When a student completes all of their work and answer questions correctly, they receive something they want: a good grade. This is positive reinforcement. When they don't do work, miss school, and answer questions incorrectly, they receive something they don't want: a bad grade. This is positive punishment.
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