Major perspectives within psychology

Psychology is a discipline divided into many contrasting approaches, each attempting to explain human behaviour through varying methods and theories. Cognitivism and behaviourism are two perspectives within psychology that have had great influence, not only upon the subsequent methods and philosophy within psychology, but also in their application throughout society. However, despite their successes both approaches come with limitations. This essay will give an evaluation of the behaviourist and cognitivist explanations of human behaviour. It will focus on the strengths and weaknesses that the two approaches share or differ upon particularly in terms of their methods, complications and contributions outside of the academic realm.

Behaviourism is a psychological perspective based on the observation of behaviour and the relationship between subject and environment. This perspective was developed as an attempt to make psychology more rigorous and scientific. It dismisses methods such as introspection – as used by Wundt (1832-1920) – as invalid, since introspective reports cannot be checked for accuracy. This behaviourist philosophy is clarified in what is known as the ‘behaviourist manifesto’, an article written by John B. Watson in 1913.

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“Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective natural science. […] Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependant upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness.” (Watson, 1913)

The scientific method employed by behaviourists, that allowed psychology to become objective and verifiable, is one of its greatest strengths and a major contribution to modern psychology. These scientific methods can be seen in the work of E. Tolman (1948). In one particular study using two groups of rats, one group were placed randomly in a maze with food placed for them always in the same place. The second group would have the food placed in different locations that always required the same sequence of turns from the starting location. This was an objective and scientific experiment, using an independent-groups design where the independent variable was the location of food in relation to the rats, and the dependant variable was the rats’ ability or speed in finding the food. It will have had clearly laid out instructions, making the experiment repeatable and therefore verifiable.

Although behaviourist theories are able to explain much about behaviour through simple principles, this reductionist approach can only provide a limited explanation of behaviour as it does not take into account the mental processes involved. An example of such criticism is demonstrated in the results of Tolman’s study, referred to above. According to behaviourist theory, the second group should have had the most success as they would have learned the necessary sequence of turns. However, it was the first group that had the most success, leading Tolman to infer some sort of ‘mental map’ within the rats; something that we would now call a schema. Another example of behaviourism’s limitations is the behaviourist idea that learning language is merely an example of operant conditioning i.e. a learned response in children reinforced by praise from parents. This form of theory of language, particularly as set out by B. F. Skinner in his book ‘Verbal Behaviour’ (1957), came under criticism following Noam Chomsky’s publication ‘Syntactic Structures’ (1957), which focussed on human performance when using language and claimed that language required some sort of mental representation. Such criticisms made it clear that behaviourism left much to be explained.

Cognitive theories often see the human mind as a computer-like processor of information; a model based on the theories of Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon amongst others (Giles, 2005). Cognitivism has the advantage of going beyond the reductionist behaviourist philosophy and tries to use scientific methods to identify thought processes and explain ideas including perception, memory, language and problem solving. The methods involved include observation of behaviour and measurement of the verbal responses of participants. In the research of F. Bartlett we can see how cognitivism uses scientific methods to try to identify thought processes, particularly those involved in memory. In his ‘War of the Ghosts’ research (1932), participants were given a story to read and asked to recall as much as they could about the story over progressively later intervals. This was a scientific study using a repeated measures design, where the dependant variable was the accuracy of information recalled. Bartlett found that over time participants would alter the story and impose their own meaning on it, concluding that memory is a reconstructive process and that the changes given were through participants trying to make sense of the information (Woods, 2004, pp 134-136).

However, cognitive research such as the example given can lead to complications in terms of their validity. Bartlett’s study can be criticised because the story used was not comparable to everyday life experiences where recollection of peoples’ memories are much more accurate, therefore this study can be said to lack ecological validity i.e. the method or setting of the experiment is not faithful to the real-life situation it claims to be investigating. Also, repeated measures designs such as that employed here can lead to demand characteristics if participants’ behaviour is affected by the experimental setting, or order effects if participants become bored of the study over time or if in fact participants perform better through practice. Another example of ecological validity being an issue in cognitive research is Asch’s famous conformity experiment (1951). This experiment was carried out in a laboratory setting. The setting and task given were unlike anything true to everyday life, making it difficult to generalise from this study (Woods, 2004, pp 27-29).

A similar criticism of validity can be made of behaviourism and its use of animals in laboratory experiments. It was stated by Watson (1913) that differences between human and non-human behaviour are only quantitative, however this principle has been widely criticised as there is little reason to assume that results from experiments conducted on animals will apply to humans whose behaviour appears much more complex than that of animals. The philosopher Richard Garrett argues that:

“…when humans acquire a language, they can think about things unseen, reason about them, and be motivated by them and that makes all the difference. For when that happens, their behaviour is now shaped by what goes on inside their heads… and not simply by what goes on in the external environment.” (Garrett, 1996)

This point argues that complex human language (that is not present in non-humans) is an integral part of human thought, and human thought governs much of human behaviour. If this type of thought is lacking in animals, it is hard to conclude that differences in their behaviour are only quantitative i.e. only vary by degree.

One strength that is true of both behaviourism and cognitivism is their usefulness in terms of real life application. One area of society that is heavily influenced by cognitive theories is education and particularly child development. An important theorist in this field is Piaget, whose theory of cognitive development assists in devising appropriate levels of education depending upon a child’s progress through stages of development. Other theorists such as Vygotsky and Bruner have also influenced this field. Vygotsky’s findings emphasise the importance of guidance and social interaction in the cognitive development of children, especially in the development of language and rational thought. Bruner took influence from both Vygotsky and Piaget. Bruner’s 1960 text ‘The Process of Education’ emphasises the importance of children understanding the structure of a discipline being taught, rather than simply learning facts. It also argues that the notion that certain subjects (deemed too difficult) should be avoided until secondary school was ill-founded, and that such subjects should be introduced at an earlier age and revisited over time with greater depth. The text, despite being at odds with the general consensus on education, was successful from publication and had much impact upon the education system in America at the time (Gardner, 2001).

Behaviourist findings have proved useful in the fields of health and clinical therapy. As outlined by Cooligan (2007, pp.166-167), both classical and operant conditioning can help explain smoking behaviour. For example, when attempting to quit smoking, surroundings or circumstances that remind an individual of smoking such as coffee breaks or after meals may act as cues in the environment for smoking. Or when a teenager starts to smoke, approval from peers may act as a positive reinforcer. Within clinical therapy, behaviourist findings have been applied to produce many methods of treatment. An example of which is systematic desensitisation, a method of behavioural therapy used in the treatment of phobias. It was developed by J. Wolpe and is based upon the principle that it is impossible to feel both anxious and relaxed simultaneously. Those treated devise a ‘hierarchy of anxiety’ – a number of anxiety provoking situations, set out from least to most anxiety provoking – and whilst in a state of relaxation are asked to imagine each stage, progressing to the next only when relaxation is achieved. The result is desensitisation to the anxiety provoking stimulus.

From the arguments laid out in this essay, a number of conclusions can be made. Firstly; cognitivism through trying to identify mental processes can offer a much broader and deeper explanation of human behaviour than the reductionist behaviourist approach. But despite this, the methods employed by behaviourism in an attempt to make psychology more scientific have done much for the integrity of psychological research. This is clear from the fact that methods of observation remain core to psychological research, particularly in regards to cognitivism. Secondly; both perspectives suffer from problems with validity through their use of laboratory experiments. Behaviourism suffers particularly through its extensive use of animals in research, and cognitivism is subject to the complications that arise from the measuring of verbal responses. Finally; despite their aforementioned weaknesses, both perspectives have had many findings that have proven useful in their application throughout society.

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