Behaviourism: can this be used to fix us?
John B. Watson (1878-1958) formally introduced behaviourism with the publication of his book ‘Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist’ (Watson, 1919) where he showed psychology to be completely objective (with no need for introspection). He promoted the use of scientific methods which involved the control of variables, and accurate measurements to gain observable, reliable results. Cognitive learning processes, genetic influences, any innate differences, and the artificial conditions of the experiment were not taken into consideration.
Maladaptive behaviour would therefore be seen by the behaviourist to be learned (maladaptive) behaviour, learned through classical conditioning and maintained through operant conditioning. Therefore, if a female adult presented with a fear of spiders, for example, the fear would be explained by her childhood experience (classical conditioning) of a spider suddenly appearing on her hand (fright paired with stimulus) as she reached to the back of the wardrobe to pick up her shoes. Since then her continual avoidance of spiders would have negatively reinforced (operant conditioning) the behaviour to the point that she would later fear leaving the house in case she encountered a spider.
With the additional aspect of cognition, where the cognitive steps behind the behaviour are taken into consideration, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective in treating adult anxiety disorders, and in this case, the technique of systematic desensitization would help by gradually exposing the woman to the feared stimulus (i.e., the spider) so that the maladaptive behaviour could be unlearned (extinction). This technique might begin with simply mentioning the word ‘spider’, talking about a spider, and gradually progressing on to looking at a picture of one, until eventually she could actually be in the same room as a spider and finally be able to come into contact with a spider without feeling anxiety. Behaviour modification techniques have also been shown to be effective in anxieties, phobias, depression and multiple sclerosis amongst many other disorders.
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