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Basics of Behavior Learning Theories in Psychology

All behavior is learned, whether it’s healthy or abnormal. Behavior therapy is based on the learning theories of psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning, B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, and Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Here’s how these theories understand learning:

  • In the classical-conditioning sense, learning refers to associations formed between events or actions.

  • In the operant-conditioning sense, learning refers to the process of increasing the likelihood of a behavior occurring or not occurring based on its consequences.

  • In the social learning theory sense, learning refers to discovering things by watching other people.

These days, it’s pretty hard to argue that smoking is not bad for a person’s health. Smoking is a good example of an unhealthy behavior that is learned. Cigarette advertisements associate sexy people and having fun with smoking (classical conditioning). Nicotine gives a pleasurable, stimulating sensation (operant conditioning). Teenagers sometimes learn to smoke by watching their parents, older siblings, or peers smoke (social leaning theory).

Classical conditioning and behavior therapy

Behavior therapy treats abnormal behavior as learned behavior, and anything that’s been learned can be unlearned — theoretically anyway. A key feature of behavior therapy is the notion that environmental conditions and circumstances can be explored and manipulated to change a person’s behavior without having to dig around their mind or psyche and evoke psychological or mental explanations for their issues.

A classic case cited by proponents of behavior therapy to support this approach is the case of Little Hans. Little Hans was a boy who was deathly afraid of horses. Why was Hans afraid of horses? According to psychoanalysis a mental or psychological explanation was that Hans’s fear of horses was a displaced fear of his powerful father. The behaviorists had a simpler explanation.

Hans had recently witnessed a number of extremely frightening events involving horses. On one occasion, he saw a horse die in a carting accident. This event made Hans very upset, and it scared him. The behaviorists proposed that the fear Hans developed from watching the horse die and from witnessing the other frightening, horse-related events had become classically conditioned to horses. He had associated fear with horses.

Remember how classical conditioning works? Here’s a little summary.

Unconditioned Stimulus (Accident) Unconditioned Response (Fear)
Conditioned Stimulus (Horse) + Unconditioned Stimulus (Accident) Unconditioned Response (Fear)
Conditioned Stimulus (Horse) Conditioned Response (Fear)

What do you get? Fear of horses à la classical conditioning. The beauty of this explanation comes from its implications for treating Little Hans’s horse phobia. According to behavior therapists, if he learned to be afraid of horses, he could learn how not to be afraid of horses. This type of result can be accomplished with a behavior therapy technique called systematic desensitization

Operant conditioning and behavior therapy

What about operant conditioning? Take a look at anger,. If you get your way every time you get angry, you’re being positively reinforced for that behavior; therefore, you’re more likely to keep using anger in this way. If a child behaves in a manner that is not acceptable, her parents may be inadvertently reinforcing that behavior by providing attention to her that they may not provide in any other way.

An example of a negatively reinforced behavior is seen when an individual gives in to peer pressure. The ridicule a teenager endures for not going along with the crowd can be hurtful. He may give in to peer pressure just to put a stop to the ridicule (the removal of a painful stimulus).

Having a difficult time being assertive is an example of a behavior, or the lack of that behavior, that is maintained through punishment. If you live in a home where you’re laughed at or otherwise punished for being assertive and speaking my mind, you’re far less likely to be assertive in other situations. Lacking assertiveness can be a serious problem, and it often leads to feelings of victimization and resentfulness.

Behavior that is reinforced is more likely to happen again and again. If your angry outbursts for a sandwich get rewarded with a sandwich then you’re just going to keep on yelling. If you’re punished for speaking you’re mind, then you’ll keep those thoughts to yourself. Simply put, you get behavior that you reward; you don’t get behavior you don’t reward (or punish).

Social learning theory and behavior therapy

Humans learn by watching other people. A common problem in marriages involves fighting over money. This is sometimes a consequence of watching our parents fight over money, engaging in nonproductive, emotionally hurtful, and frustrating exchanges over who’s to blame for spending too much or not earning enough, for example.

Modeling is a form of behavior therapy that is used to teach people new behaviors by showing them how to behave in a healthier way. You may ask that the husband begin a conversation with you about money and you can model, or show, the couple how to discuss money in a healthier manner. This only works, however, if the therapist knows how to model healthy behavior!

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