The twentieth century was a turning point in the way we view behavior. Sigmund Freud shook the medical world when he claimed that unconscious forces dictate our behavior and childhood experiences play a large role in personality formation. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory placed the subject of behavior into the forefront of medical study. Freud’s theory brought much criticism and controversy but most importantly; it brought interest to the subject of behavior and personality. This newfound interest caused many young doctors to begin studying how behavior is created.
Many new theories would follow Freud’s and forever change the way science views behavior. Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner are three of the men that contributed in changing the scientific view of behavior. Ivan Pavlov was a Nobel Prize winning physiologist for his research on digestion. Pavlov was working with dogs when he made a significant discovery. Every day a bell would sound when it was time to feed the dogs. Pavlov noticed that the dogs were beginning to salivate at the sound of the bell before the meat was introduced to them.
Unintentionally, Pavlov discovered how we obtain learned reflexes. This phenomenon is known as classical conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to evoke a response (salivating) when the bell rang. Because the toll of the bell was repeatedly followed with meat, the dogs learned to salivate at this sound even before any meat was introduced. In this scenario, the meat is an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) because it is a stimulus that evokes an unconditioned response (UCR) which is salivation.
However, the bell has become a conditioned stimulus (CS) because it has acquired the ability to elicit a response; and that makes the dogs reaction a conditioned response (CR) because it is a learned reaction. This discovery is important because many problems and fears people have may be a result of conditioning. A person that was assaulted in a movie theater may develop a fear of going into dark places. When the source of an irrational fear can be pinpointed, it allows the person to be treated for the real issue and not the conditioned response. Eventually, the irrational fear may be deconditioned. B. F. Skinner agreed with Pavlov but he believed there was more than one way that conditioning takes place. Skinner believed that learning could take place as a result of stimuli that took place after the action. Skinner stated that a simple system of rewards and consequences governed much of human behavior. When a person is rewarded for an action they are more likely to repeat that action. When an action is followed by unfavorable consequences it is more unlikely the action will be repeated. Skinner called this operant conditioning. His principle has three components reinforcement, extinction, and punishment.
Skinner recognized two types of reinforcement, negative and positive (reward). An example of positive reinforcement would be a parent giving their child a dollar for every A they received on their report card. Negative reinforcement would be taking away your sons driving privileges because he failed his math exam. Positive reinforcement strengthens the chance behavior will be repeated while negative strengthens the chance negative behavior will cease. Extinction is a weakening of the response to the conditioning. Punishment refers to any response that leads to a negative outcome.
When an outcome continues to be negative the behavior will begin to cease. Skinner’s theories continue to be popular today. John Watson was the founder of the school of behaviorism. Behaviorism is based on psychology should study observable behavior. He believed that if you cannot observe something it isn’t worth studying. He did not feel that mental processes could be accurately studied. Watson had very little interest in the work of Freud because it could not be observed. One of Watson’s most famous experiments came with a subject “Little Albert”.
Watson conditioned fear in the young boy by making loud, scary noises simultaneously to introducing him to a rabbit. The boy originally loved the rabbit but was conditioned to be terrified of it because of the accompanying noise. Little Albert was traumatized for life because of the experiments. Today, Watson would be disbarred and probably jailed for his actions but it was legal at the time (unethical perhaps) and it proved that fear could be conditioned. Watson’s position on learning is no longer popular but his influence on the subject of learning and behavior was gigantic.