behaviourism

An approach which can be found in philosophy, but more especially psychology, which denies (with greater or lesser insistence) that consciousness has any relevance to the understanding of human behaviour. Behaviour is seen in terms of an identifiable and measurable response to external or internal, recognizable, and measurable stimuli. The response can be modified by reward or various forms of discouragement-a process known as conditioning . Behaviourism is thus both a theoretical orientation, of enormous influence in academic psychology, and a practical technique used to alter what is perceived as undesirable conduct.
As a theory, behaviourism blossomed at the beginning of the twentieth century, as a reaction against the then dominant introspectionism. While introspectionism concentrated on the study of consciousness, in this case via self-examination, behaviourism rejected the idea that states of consciousness could be apprehended. In the first behaviourist manifesto (Behaviourism, 1913), John B. Watson argued that introspection was unreliable because self-reports may be vague and subjective, and the data thus obtained cannot be independently verified. Behaviourists, basing their arguments on the philosophical foundations of logical positivism , then proposed that all that can truly be known is what is observed through the senses. They staunchly maintained that observable behaviour is the only legitimate subject-matter for psychology. Observation is best achieved, according to behaviourist tenets, via the conduct of controlled experiments. In practice, such experiments often use animals, under the assumption that the characteristics of animal behaviour can fruitfully be generalized to humans (see, for example,’s The Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 1938).
The behaviourist project in the academy can be illustrated by the influential work of the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1904, for his work on the process of digestion in dogs. Pavlov conducted a number of experiments on dogs, which purported to show that reflexes could be learned, or (in the behaviourist terminology) conditioned. In Pavlov's experiments, the animals were exposed to the sight or smell of food, thus eliciting salivation. They were then exposed to the ringing of a bell at the same time as the food was produced. This stimulated further salivation. Finally, the dogs were exposed only to the ringing of the bell, which produced salivation even though no food was present. Pavlov and other behaviourists have taken this and similar experiments as proof of the idea that reflexes can be conditioned through environmental stimuli. Their conclusion is, then, that both animal and human behaviour works according to a stimulus-response model. Subsequent behaviourists, such as B. F. Skinner in the United States and Hans Eysenck in Britain, have elaborated on these premisses in their own work (see’s About Behaviourism, 1973, or any one of Eysenck's numerous books and articles about mental illness-or ‘abnormal behaviour’ as he prefers to call such conditions). Skinner also outlined his own behaviourist social utopia, in Walden Two (1948), a novel which paints a picture of a society controlled by operant techniques.
As a direct application of behaviourist theories, aversion therapy, desensitization, and operant conditioning are among the behaviourist techniques used within the health, mental health, and prison services. Aversion therapy involves the use of a noxious physical stimulation or punishment to reduce the frequency of unwanted behaviour. Electric shocks and injections of apomorphine have been used in attempts to make patients averse to certain anti-social behaviours. Desensitization, used particularly in the treatment of phobias, is a psychological therapy in which the practitioner steers the patient through an ‘anxiety hierarchy’, with the intention of allowing the patient to become less sensitive to the feared object or event. Operant conditioning involves the systematic manipulation of the consequences of a behaviour through rewards and punishments so as to modify the subsequent behaviour. At present there is extensive and intensive controversy about both the effectiveness and the ethics of all these techniques.
Behaviourism represents an extreme environmentalist position as regards the question of what guides human actions. According to behaviourists, all behaviour is learned through association and conditioning of one kind or another, and this same behaviour can therefore be unlearned or altered by external (environmental) manipulations. As might be expected, the theory has been regarded with suspicion or rejected outright by sociologists, mainly for two reasons: it is primarily individualistic in its approach; and it is very difficult to carry out a sociological study without taking some account of how people think about the social world. For example, a frequent criticism of behaviourism voiced by George Herbert Mead was that it can account only for what people are doing, not what they are thinking or feeling. It therefore ignores the many aspects of human conduct which may not be readily amenable to observation. For a long time, however, behaviourism dominated theoretical and clinical psychology, especially under the influence of Skinner, although cognitive psychology now seems to be replacing it as the central orthodoxy.
Elements of behaviourism do nevertheless appear in sociology: George Homans's exchange theory borrows from some of Skinner's work, and more often there are generalized behavioural assumptions implicit in theories of socialization . For example,’s own Mind, Self and Society (1934) is about consciousness, yet Mead often calls himself a social behaviourist , and symbolic interactionism can indeed be seen as propounding the view that society, as a structure of social roles, conditions people into acceptable social behaviour. It must be emphasized, however, that this is a very loose usage of the term, and a very general form of behaviourism. See also neo-positivism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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