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Skinner vs. Bandura

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    Behaviorism has been a major school of thought in psychology since 1913, when John B. Watson published an influential article. Watson argued that psychology should abandon its earlier focus on mind and mental processes and focus exclusively on overt behavior. He contended that psychology could not study mental processes in a scientific manner because they are private and not accessible to outside observation. In completely rejecting mental processes as a suitable subject for scientific study, Watson took an extreme position that is no longer dominant among modern behaviorists.

    Thus, most behaviorists view an individual’s personality as a collection of response tendencies that are tied to various stimulus situations. A specific situation may be associated with a number of response tendencies that vary in strength, depending on an individual’s past experience. Nonetheless, his influence was enormous, as psychology did shift its primary focus from the study of the mind to the study of behavior. Although behaviorists have shown relatively little interest in personality structure, they have focused extensively on personality development.

    They explain development the same way they explain everything else – through learning. Specifically, they focus on how children’s response tendencies are shaped through for example operant conditioning and observational learning. Let us look at these processes. In this essay I am going to compare Skinner’s operant conditioning and Bandura’s observational learning theory, point out similarities and differences and include personal experiences. Considering the response I am engaging in right now – studying. It is definitely not a reflex as it would be in classical conditioning; life might be easier if it were.

    Instead, my studying response is mainly influenced by events that follow it like grades – specifically, its consequences. This kind of learning in called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which voluntary responses come to be controlled by their consequences (Skinner , 1953, 1974, 1990). Operant conditioning probably governs a larger share of human behavior than classical conditioning, since most human responses are voluntary, operant responses are said to be emitted rather than elicited. The study of operant conditioning was led by B. F.

    Skinner, a Harvard University psychologist who spent most of his career studying simple responses made by laboratory rats and pigeons. The fundamental principle of operant conditioning is uncommonly simple. Skinner demonstrated that “organisms tend to repeat those responses that are followed by favorable consequences, and they tend not to repeat those responses that are followed by neutral or unfavorable consequences” (Skinner, p. 65). In Skinner’s scheme, favorable, neutral, and unfavorable consequences involve reinforcement, extinction, and punishment, respectively.

    We will look especially at the first one. According to Skinner, reinforcement can occur in two ways, which he called positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. “Positive reinforcement occurs when a response is strengthened (increased in frequency) because it is followed by the arrival of a (presumably) pleasant stimulus” (Skinner, p. 66). Positive reinforcement is roughly synonymous with the concept of reward. Notice, however, that reinforcement is defined after the fact, in terms of its effect on behavior. Why? Because reinforcement is subjective.

    Something that serves as a reinforce for one person may not function as a reinforce for another. For example, peer approval is a potent reinforcer for most people, but not all. Positive reinforcement motivates much of everyday behavior. I study hard because good grades are likely to follow as a result. I go to work because this behavior produces paychecks and I work extra hard in the hope of a pay raise. In each of these examples, certain responses occur because they have led to positive outcomes in the past. Positive reinforcement influences personality development in a straightforward way.

    Responses followed by pleasant outcomes are strengthened and tend to become habitual patterns of behavior. For example, I clowned around in class and gained appreciative comments and smiles from schoolmates. This social approval reinforced my clowning-around behavior. If such behavior would have been reinforced with some regularity, it would have gradually become an integral element of my personality. Similarly, whether or not I developed traits such as independence, assertiveness, or selfishness depended on whether I got reinforced for such behavior by parents or by other influential persons. Negative reinforcement occurs when a response is strengthened (increased in frequency) because it is followed by the removal of a (presumably) unpleasant stimulus “(Skinner, p. 67). Do not let the word negative here confuse you. Negative reinforcement is reinforcement. Like positive reinforcement, it strengthens a response. However, this strengthening occurs because the response gets rid of an aversive stimulus. Consider a few examples: I rush home in winter to get out of the cold. I clean my house to get rid of a mess. Parents gave in to my begging to halt my whining.

    Negative reinforcement plays a major role in the development of avoidance tendencies. As you have may notices, many people tend to avoid facing up to awkward situations and sticky personal problems. This personality trait typically develops because avoidance behavior gets rid of anxiety and is therefore negatively reinforced. Like the effects of classical conditioning, the effects of operant conditioning may not last forever. In both types of conditioning, extinction refers to the gradual weakening and disappearance of a response.

    In operant conditioning, extinction begins when a previously reinforced response stops producing positive consequences (Skinner, 1990). As extinction progresses, the response typically becomes less and less frequent and eventually disappears. Thus, the response tendencies that make up one’s personality are not necessarily permanent. For example, me finding that my classmates reinforce clowning around in grade school I found out that my attempts to comedy earned nothing but indifferent stares in high school. This termination of reinforcement led to the gradual extinction of the clowning-around behavior.

    How quickly an operant response extinguishes depends on many factors in the person’s earlier reinforcement history. Some responses may be weakened by punishment. In Skinner’s scheme, “punishment occurs when a response is weakened (decreased in frequency) because it is followed by the arrival of a (presumably) unpleasant stimulus” (Skinner, p. 72). The concept of punishment in operant conditioning confuses many students on two counts. First, it is often mixed up with negative reinforcement because both involve aversive stimuli.

    Please note, however that they are altogether different events with opposite outcomes! In negative reinforcement, a response leads to the removal of something aversive, and this response is strengthened. In punishment, a response leads to the arrival of something aversive, and this response tends to be weakened. The second source of confusion involves viewing punishment as only a disciplinary procedure used by parents, teachers, and other authority figures. In the operant model, punishment occurs whenever a response leads to negative consequences.

    Defined in this way, the concept goes far behind actions such as parents spanking children or teachers handing out detentions. For example, if I wear a new outfit and my friends make fun of it and hurt my feelings, my behavior has been punished, and my tendency to wear this clothing will decline. Similarly, if I go to a restaurant and have a horrible meal, in Skinner’s terminology my response has led to punishment. Albert Bandura is one of several theorists who have added a cognitive flavor to behaviorism since the 1960s.

    Bandura (1977) takes issue with Skinner’s view. He points out that humans obviously are conscious, thinking, feeling beings. Moreover, these theorists argue that in neglecting cognitive processes, Skinner ignores the most distinctive and important feature of human behavior. Bandura and like-minded theorists call their modified brand of behaviorism social learning theory. Bandura (1986, 1999) agrees with the basic thrust of behaviorism in that he believes that personality is largely shaped through learning.

    However, he contends that conditioning is not a mechanical process in which people are passive participants. Instead, he maintains that individuals actively seek out an process information about their environment in order to maximize their favorable outcomes. Bandura’s foremost theoretical contribution has been his description of observational learning. “Observational learning occurs when an organism’s responding is influenced by the observation of others, who are called models” (Bandura, p. 21).

    Bandura does not view observational learning as entirely separate from operant conditioning. Instead, he asserts that operant conditioning can take place indirectly when one person observes another’s conditioning. The theory of Skinner makes no allowance for this type of indirect learning. After all, this observational learning requires that I pay attention to my friends behavior, that I understand its consequences, and that I store this information in my memory. Obviously, attention, understanding, information, and memory involve cognition, which behaviorists used to ignore.

    As social learning has been refined, it has become apparent that some models are more influential than others (Bandura, 1986). Both children and adults tend to imitate people they like or respect more than people they don’t. People are also especially prone to imitate the behavior of those they consider attractive and powerful. In addition, imitation is more likely when individuals see similarity between the model and themselves. Thus, children imitate same-gender role models somewhat more than other-sex models. Finally, as noted before, people are more likely to copy a model if they see he model’s behavior leading to positive outcomes. According to social learning theory, models have great impact on personality development. Children learn to be assertive conscientious, self-sufficient, dependable, easygoing, and so forth by observing others behaving in these ways. Parents, teachers, relatives, siblings, and peers serve as models for young children. Bandura has done extensive research showing how models influence the development of aggressiveness, gender roles, and moral standards in children (Bandura, 1973).

    His research on modeling and aggression has been particularly influential. Bandura (1993, 1997) believes that self-efficacy is a crucial element of personality. “Self-efficacy is one’s belief about one’s ability to perform behaviors that should lead to expected outcomes” (Bandura, 1993). When my self-efficacy is high, I feel confident in executing the responses necessary to earn reinforcement. When my self-efficacy is low, I worry that the necessary responses may be beyond my abilities. Perception of self-efficacy are subjective and specific to different kinds of tasks.

    For instance, I might feel extremely confident about my ability to handle difficult social situations but am doubtful about my ability to handle academic challenges. Although specific perceptions of self-efficacy predict behavior best, these perceptions are influenced by general feelings of self-efficacy. Perception of self-efficacy can influence which challenges people tackle and how well they perform. Studies have found that feelings of greater self-efficacy are associated with greater success in giving up smoking for example (Boudreaux et al. , 1998).

    Behaviorists have also provided the most thorough account of why people are only moderately consistent in their behavior. For example, a person who is shy in one context might be quite outgoing in another. Other models of personality largely ignore this inconsistency. The behaviorists have shown that inconsistency occurs because people behave in ways they think will lead to reinforcement in the situation at hand. In other words, situational factors play a significant role in controlling behavior. Of course, each theoretical approach has its shortcomings, and this behavioral approach is no exception.

    Major lines of criticism include the following (Liebert&Liebert, 1998): The behaviorists used to be criticized because they neglected cognitive processes, which clearly are important factors in human behavior. The rise of social learning theory, which focuses heavily on cognitive factors, blunted this criticism. However, social learning theory undermines the foundation on which behaviorism was built – the idea that psychologists should study only observable behavior. Thus, some critics complain that behavioral theories are not very behavioral anymore.

    Another point is that many principles in behavioral theories were discovered through research on animals. Some critics, especially humanistic theories, argue that behaviorists depend too much on animal research and that they indiscriminately generalize from the behavior of animals to the behavior of humans. Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive theory.

    Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologist, 28, 117-148. Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman. Boudreaux, E. , Carmack, C. L. , Scarinci, I. C. , & Brantley, P. J. (1998). Predicting smoking stage of change among a sample of low socio-economic status, primary care outpatients: Replication and extension using decisional balance and self-efficacy theories. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 5(2), 148 – 165.

    Liebert, R. M. , & Liebert, L. L. (1998). Liebert & Spiegler’s personality strategies and issues. Pacific Grove: Brooks/ Cole. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan. Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Knopf. Skinner, B. F. (1987). What happens to psychology as the science of behavior? American Psychologist, 42, 780-786. Skinner, B. F. (1990). Can psychology be a science of mind? American Psychologist, 45, 1206-1210. Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

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