Behaviorism Approach Psychology Essay Questions

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Psychology Perspectives

Saul McLeod, updated 2013

There are various approaches in contemporary psychology. 

An approach is a perspective (i.e., view) that involves certain assumptions (i.e., beliefs) about human behavior: the way they function, which aspects of them are worthy of study and what research methods are appropriate for undertaking this study. There may be several different theories within an approach, but they all share these common assumptions.

You may wonder why there are so many different psychology perspectives and whether one approach is correct and others wrong.  Most psychologists would agree that no one perspective is correct, although in the past, in the early days of psychology, the behaviorist would have said their perspective was the only truly scientific one.

Each perspective has its strengths and weaknesses, and brings something different to our understanding of human behavior.  For this reason, it is important that psychology does have different perspectives on the understanding and study of human and animal behavior.

Below is a summary of the six main psychological approaches (sometimes called perspectives) in psychology.

Behaviorist Perspective

If your layperson's idea of psychology has always been about people in laboratories wearing white coats and watching hapless rats try to negotiate mazes in order to get to their dinner, then you are probably thinking about behavioral psychology.

Behaviorism is different from most other approaches because they view people (and animals) as controlled by their environment and specifically that we are the result of what we have learned from our environment. Behaviorism is concerned with how environmental factors (called stimuli) affect observable behavior (called the response).

The behaviorist approach proposes two main processes whereby people learn from their environment: namely classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves learning by association, and operant conditioning involves learning from the consequences of behavior.

Classical conditioning (CC) was studied by the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. Though looking into natural reflexes and neutral stimuli he managed to condition dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell through repeated associated with the sound of the bell and food. The principles of CC have been applied in many therapies. These include systematic desensitization for phobias (step-by-step exposed to a feared stimulus at once) and aversion therapy.

B.F. Skinner investigated operant conditioning of voluntary and involuntary behavior. Skinner felt that some behavior could be explained by the person's motive. Therefore behavior occurs for a reason, and the three main behavior shaping techniques are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Behaviorism also believes in scientific methodology (e.g., controlled experiments), and that only observable behavior should be studied because this can be objectively measured. Behaviorism rejects the idea that people have free will, and believes that the environment determines all behavior. Behaviorism is the scientific study of observable behavior working on the basis that behavior can be reduced to learned S-R (Stimulus-Response) units.

Behaviorism has been criticized in the way it under-estimates the complexity of human behavior. Many studies used animals which are hard to generalize to humans, and it cannot explain, for example, the speed in which we pick up language. There must be biological factors involved.

Psychodynamic Perspective

Who hasn't heard of Sigmund Freud? So many expressions of our daily life come from Freud's theories of psychoanalysis - subconscious, denial, repression and anal personality to name only a few.

Freud believes that events in our childhood can have a significant impact on our behavior as adults. He also believed that people have little free will to make choices in life. Instead, our behavior is determined by the unconscious mind and childhood experiences.

Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and therapy. It is the original psychodynamic theory and inspired psychologists such as Jung and Erikson to develop their own psychodynamic theories. Freud’s work is vast, and he has contributed greatly to psychology as a discipline.

Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, explained the human mind as like an iceberg, with only a small amount of it being visible, that is our observable behavior, but it is the unconscious, submerged mind that has the most, underlying influence on our behavior. Freud used three main methods of accessing the unconscious mind: free association, dream analysis and slips of the tongue. 

He believed that the unconscious mind consisted of three components: the 'id' the 'ego' and the 'superego.'  The 'id' contains two main instincts: 'Eros', which is the life instinct, which involves self-preservation and sex which is fuelled by the 'libido' energy force. 'Thanatos' is the death instinct, whose energies, because they are less powerful than those of 'Eros' are channeled away from ourselves and into aggression towards others.

The 'id' and the 'superego' are constantly in conflict with each other, and the 'ego' tries to resolve the discord. If this conflict is not resolved, we tend to use defense mechanisms to reduce our anxiety. Psychoanalysis attempts to help patients resolve their inner conflicts.

An aspect of psychoanalysis is Freud's theory of psychosexual development. It shows how early experiences affect adult personality. Stimulation of different areas of the body is important as the child progresses through the important developmental stages. Too much or too little can have bad consequences later.

The most important stage is the phallic stage where the focus of the libido is on the genitals.  During this stage little boys experience the 'Oedipus complex,' and little girls experience the 'Electra complex.' These complexes result in children identifying with their same-sex parent, which enables them to learn sex-appropriate behavior and a moral code of conduct.

However, it has been criticized in the way that it over emphasizes the importance of sexuality and under emphasized of the role of social relationships. The theory is not scientific, and can't be proved as it is circular. Nevertheless, psychoanalysis has been greatly contributory to psychology in that it has encouraged many modern theorists to modify it for the better, using its basic principles, but eliminating its major flaws.


Humanistic psychology is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person (know as holism).  Humanistic psychologists look at human behavior, not only through the eyes of the observer, but through the eyes of the person doing the behaving.

Humanistic psychologists believe that an individual's behavior is connected to his inner feelings and self-image. The humanistic perspective centers on the view that each person is unique and individual, and has the free will to change at any time in his or her lives.

The humanistic perspective suggests that we are each responsible for our own happiness and well-being as humans. We have the innate (i.e., inborn) capacity for self-actualization, which is our unique desire to achieve our highest potential as people.

Because of this focus on the person and his or her personal experiences and subjective perception of the world the humanists regarded scientific methods as inappropriate for studying behavior.

Two of the most influential and enduring theories in humanistic psychology that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s are those of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow.

Cognitive Psychology

Psychology was institutionalized as a science in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt, who found the first psychological laboratory.

His initiative was soon followed by other European and American Universities. These early laboratories, through experiments, explored areas such as memory and sensory perception, both of which Wundt believed to be closely related to physiological processes in the brain. The whole movement had evolved from the early philosophers, such as Aristotle and Plato. Today this approach is known as cognitive psychology.

Cognitive Psychology revolves around the notion that if we want to know what makes people tick then the way to do it is to figure out what processes are actually going on in their minds. In other words, psychologists from this perspective study cognition which is ‘the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired.’

The cognitive perspective is concerned with “mental” functions such as memory, perception, attention, etc. It views people as being similar to computers in the way we process information (e.g., input-process-output). For example, both human brains and computers process information, store data and have input an output procedure.

This had led cognitive psychologists to explain that memory comprises of three stages: encoding (where information is received and attended to), storage (where the information is retained) and retrieval (where the information is recalled).

It is an extremely scientific approach and typically uses lab experiments to study human behavior. The cognitive approach has many applications including cognitive therapy and eyewitness testimony.

Biological Psychology

We can thank Charles Darwin (1859) for demonstrating the idea that genetics and evolution play a role in influencing human behavior through natural selection.

Theorists in the biological perspective who study behavioral genomics consider how genes affect behavior. Now that the human genome is mapped, perhaps, we will someday understand more precisely how behavior is affected by the DNA we inherit. Biological factors such as chromosomes, hormones and the brain all have a significant influence on human behavior, for example, gender.

The biological approach believes that most behavior is inherited and has an adaptive (or evolutionary) function. For example, in the weeks immediately after the birth of a child, levels of testosterone in fathers drop by more than 30 per cent. This has an evolutionary function. Testosterone-deprived men are less likely to wander off in search of new mates to inseminate. They are also less aggressive, which is useful when there is a baby around.

Biological psychologists explain behaviors in neurological terms, i.e., the physiology and structure of the brain and how this influences behavior.  Many biological psychologists have concentrated on abnormal behavior and have tried to explain it.  For example, biological psychologists believe that schizophrenia is affected by levels of dopamine (a neurotransmitter).

These findings have helped psychiatry take off and help relieve the symptoms of the mental illness through drugs. However, Freud and other disciplines would argue that this just treats the symptoms and not the cause. This is where health psychologists take the finding that biological psychologists produce and look at the environmental factors that are involved to get a better picture.

Evolutionary Psychology

A central claim of evolutionary psychology is that the brain (and therefore the mind) evolved to solve problems encountered by our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the upper Pleistocene period over 10,000 years ago.

The Evolutionary approach explains behavior in terms of the selective pressures that shape behavior. Most behaviors that we see/display are believed to have developed during our EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptation) to help us survive.

Observed behavior is likely to have developed because it is adaptive. It has been naturally selected, i.e., individuals who are best adapted survive and reproduce. Behaviors may even be sexually selected, i.e., individuals who are most successful in gaining access to mates leave behind more offspring.

The mind is therefore equipped with ‘instincts’ that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce.

A strength of this approach is that it can explain behaviors that appear dysfunctional, such as anorexia, or behaviors that make little sense in a modern context, such as our biological stress response when finding out we are overdrawn at the bank.

Perspectives Conclusion

Therefore, in conclusion, there are so many different perspectives in psychology to explain the different types of behavior and give different angles.  No one perspective has explanatory powers over the rest.

Only with all the different types of psychology, which sometimes contradict one another (nature-nurture debate), overlap with each other (e.g. psychoanalysis and child psychology) or build upon one another (biological and health psychologist) can we understand and create effective solutions when problems arise, so we have a healthy body and a healthy mind.

The fact that there are different perspectives represents the complexity and richness of human (and animal) behavior. A scientific approach, such as behaviorism or cognitive psychology, tends to ignore the subjective (i.e., personal) experiences that people have. 

The humanistic perspective does recognize human experience, but largely at the expense of being non-scientific in its methods and ability to provide evidence.  The psychodynamic perspective concentrates too much on the unconscious mind and childhood. As such, it tends to lose sight of the role of socialization (which is different in each country) and the possibility of free will.

The biological perspective reduces humans to a set of mechanisms and physical structures that are clearly essential and important (e.g., genes).  However, it fails to account for consciousness and the influence of the environment on behavior.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Psychology perspectives. Retrieved from

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Learning Frameworks

Behaviourism is a theory of stimulus and response. The emphasis here is on modifying behaviours; and internal mental states or states of consciousness are considered to be of little importance. They are not considered relevant to the idea or practice of learning. The learner is passive, and behaviours are understood as being caused by external stimuli as operant conditions. B.F. Skinner, a leading proponent, argued the following. Pleasant experiences are positive reinforcers. If experienced by a learner, they establish connections between stimuli and response. On the other hand, unpleasant experiences are negative reinforcers. They have the effect of causing learners to avoid undesirable responses to stimuli. If learning is continuously reinforced, this increases the rate and depth of that learning. Both positive and negative reinforcement can shape behaviours immediately and in the long-term. If the learner does not receive any reinforcement, then this can also shape behaviour. If learners do not receive any response to their behaviour, they may change their behaviour to induce or encourage some kind of external reinforcement.

An example of a programme of learning underpinned by a behaviourist meta-theory is the Keller method. This method, or, more accurately, teaching and learning approach, has been influential, if not decisively successful, in the education of the professions in Brazil (Mota, 2013). The Keller Plan (Keller, 1968) was launched in the early 1960s and it is an early attempt to use new technologies in teaching and learning environments. The Plan, also called the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI), was developed by Fred S. Keller with J. Gilmour Sherman, Carolina Bori and Rodolpho Azzi, among others, in the middle 1960s as an innovative method of instruction for the then new University of Brasilia. When the Keller Plan was launched, the new digital technologies were in their infancy and this meant that content delivery, the development of learning environments, and their capacity to deliver a deep learning experience, was limited. In addition, its reliance on a behaviourist approach meant that it was operating with a severely restricted pedagogy, and consequently its impact on learning was less than originally hoped for. However, it is worth examining because it constituted an early attempt to use the new technologies to create productive learning environments.

The Keller Plan is a type of personalized instruction in which learning materials are presented in small units. When a student feels ready, they take a test prior to completing the unit and, if they pass at an appropriate level, are allowed to continue on the unit. This test is also diagnostic in that it provides a description of the capabilities of the student, which allows the subsequent programme to be adjusted to the needs of the student. It is in this sense that the programme can be described as personalized. The student completes each of the subsequent units at his or her own pace. This indicates one of the benefits of this form of learning: the capacity of the system to accommodate students who wish to progress through the programme rapidly, as well as those who wish to take their time. This is one element of the inherent flexibility in these types of teaching and learning approaches. Under the Keller Plan, instructors (or teachers as we would know them) serve only as facilitators, administer no punishment at any stage of the learning, and award only pass or fail grades.

The Keller Plan is underpinned by a behaviourist philosophy (Zimmerman, 2002). The primary presentation of new content was through written texts. Given the forms of media available at the time when the Keller Plan was developed (e.g., lectures, movies, audio records, television, radio, paper-based text, etc.), paper-based texts gave students the greatest freedom; books and texts are portable, can be read at one’s own pace, can be started and stopped at any time, can be easily reviewed, and can be written upon by the reader. As an application of behaviourism, the Keller Plan was designed to maximize the number of operant behaviours that could be reinforced; this could best be done with written materials rather than learners being passive observers of other media.

Subject matter material was broken down into separable, meaningful units. These units could have various kinds of relationships; for example, one unit could provide learning which forms a prerequisite for understanding another, or a later unit could be an elaboration of an earlier one. Indeed, these forms of learning, because they allow flexibility, are able to accommodate different progression modes. A number of these progression modes have been identified. The first is prior condition. In the acquisition of particular knowledge, skill and dispositional elements, there are pre-requisites in the learning process. An example might be mathematical where knowledge of addition is a pre-requisite of multiplication. A second form is maturational. A maturational form of progression refers to the development of the mind of the learner. There are some mental operations that cannot be performed by the learner because the brain is too immature to process them. A third form is extensional. An extensional form of progression is understood as an increase in the amount, or range, of an operation. Greater coverage of the material is a form of progression, so a learner now understands more examples of the construct, or more applications of the construct, and can operate with a greater range of ideas.

A fourth form is intensification. Related to the idea of extension is a deepening or intensifying of the construct or skill. Whereas extension refers to the amount or range of progression, intensification refers to the extent to which a sophisticated understanding has replaced a superficial understanding of the concept. Then there is a notion of complexity. In relation to the knowledge constructs, skills and dispositions implicit within a learning environment, there are four forms of complexity that allow differentiation between units. These are: behavioural complexity, symbolic complexity, affective complexity and perceptual complexity. There is also a type of progression, abstracting, which involves moving from the concrete understanding of a concept to a more abstract version. A further measure of progression is an increased capacity to articulate, explain or amplify an idea or construct (i.e., learners retain the ability to deploy the skill and in addition, they can now articulate, explain or amplify what they are able to do and what they have done). A final form of progression is pedagogical, and this refers to the way that learning is also influenced by its means of delivery. An example could be moving from an assisted performance to an independent one. Students are allowed to advance through the course material at their own pace and in an order which suits the type of progression that is most appropriate for them. Learners then move through a programme as quickly or slowly as they choose, as long as they finish the whole programme within a determined period of time.

Students are required to satisfy a mastery requirement in one unit before proceeding to the next. Typically, a unit in the programme would have more than one equivalent form of assessment; for example, three quizzes of equal difficulty or three primary sources or data sets to be analysed. Students are required to demonstrate mastery of a unit’s objectives at a certain level. If the student does not reach the threshold, he or she is redirected to unit materials (or supplements if provided) and can then take an equivalent form of the unit assessment. From a behaviourist perspective, demonstrating mastery, and being allowed to continue to a subsequent unit, was presumed to be reinforcing.

Teaching assistants or proctors were an important element of the Keller Plan. They could have been external to the programme (adults or peers recruited from external sources) or internal (advanced students on the programme who were doing well, had completed all the units to date, and had good interpersonal skills). They acted as the arbiters of unit mastery; they certified mastery, identified areas of weakness, and directed students to the next units. The Keller Plan was used extensively in the Brazilian higher education system, particularly as a more personalized form of instruction, but there is nothing inherent in the Keller formulation to restrict its application to particular grade levels, contents or types of programmes. There has been some research on the effectiveness of the Keller method which suggests that it has had robust, significantly positive effects on learning when compared to more traditional lecture-based formats (Pear and Crone-Todd, 1999).

The Keller Plan, as we have suggested, is underpinned by a behaviourist meta-theory and this may have contributed to its relative lack of success. Behaviourism can be contrasted with the two alternative meta-theories that we have already made reference to: cognitivism or symbol-processing and constructivism. The main focus of cognitivism is the role played by inner mental activities. The learner is viewed as an information processor, passively receiving information from an external source. Cognitivist perspectives on learning are a paradigm example of a symbol-processing learning philosophy.

On the other hand, constructivism entails an active process of learning and is generally associated with the work of the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. Moore (2012:18–19) summarizes Vygotsky’s views on development, instruction and consciousness. Cognitive development is achieved most effectively by elaborating ideas and understandings in discussion with teachers or pedagogical experts and peers. Learners perform and develop better with help than without help, and are given tasks that will test what is developing in them rather than what has already developed (the notion of stretching not just “able” students, but those who may be perceived as under-achieving in comparison with any accepted developmental or positional norm). Learners aim to develop “conscious mastery” over what they have learned rather than merely being able to recite facts which may have little meaning for them. The development of such expertise is not subject-specific, and once acquired becomes a tool through which all learning is facilitated and enhanced. Student–teacher relations therefore are dialogic rather than monologic, involve collaborative learning, both with peers and the teacher, recognize learning as an active and interactive process concerned with the provisional nature of the student’s knowledge, and emphasize articulation and meta-processes of learning.


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