Behaviorism and social-learning theory both seek to describe human behavior in the context of social learning and culture. These viewpoints exclude any affect genetic information plays in behavior, but rather only consider observable behavior shaped by our environment.
In order to put things in perspective it is important to understand that social-learning theory is deeply rooted in behaviorism, and therefore social-learning theory can be seen as an elaboration of traditional behaviorism. Behaviorism works through many mechanisms which shape our behavior through environmental stimuli. Some of these mechanisms are classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and reinforcement. Moreover, tabula rasa is the belief that we are born as a “blank slate”, that our environment fully shapes our behavior rather than any inherited or genetic traits. On the other hand, social-learning theory seeks to explain human behavior, not through conditioning or reinforcement, but through observational learning and self-efficacy.
The founder of behaviorism, John Watson, once boasted that if given an infant he could raise that infant to become anyone as an adult (McAdams, 2006). This is an overstatement of behaviorism but it does illuminate one interesting point; namely, that our behavior is largely influenced by our environment. Specifically, behaviorism seeks to explain the world in purely observable behavior rather than the Freudian tradition of subconscious stimuli. In the behaviorist tradition certain types of conditioning and reinforcement can be used to alter behavior. It is these mechanisms of behaviorism that will comprise the next three slides…
Associationism is the belief that objects and ideas that happen close to each other form meaningful units (McAdams, 2006). In laymen’s terms, if two things happen close to each other, then we tend to associate them with each other. In the above example the dog’s response to the unconditional stimulus of the dog food is the unconditional response of salivation. That is to say that the dog has a natural response to food, which is salivation. Next the dog is exposed to a neutral stimulus, such as the tuning fork. During conditioning the dog is only allowed to eat after hearing the sound of the tuning fork. As classical conditioning starts to work the dog begins to associate the sound of the tuning fork, now a conditioned stimulus, with food and therefore the now conditioned response of salivation. It is through this type of learning that organisms associate two objects or ideas with each other.
Operant conditioning can be summarized simply as consequences and rewards. This is the basis of operant conditioning. Therefore, positive reinforcers work to strengthen a response which follows a stimulus (McAdams, 2006). For instance, a treat is given to a dog who sits when told. However, a negative reinforcer comes into play when a response is strengthened by the removal of a stimulus. An example would be the removal of criticism about being overweight when one starts to exercise. Both of these reinforcers comprise the rewards side of operant conditioning. Consequently, the flip side of the coin is punishment. A positive punishment entails a response, like speeding, being weakened by a stimulus like a speeding ticket. Conversely, a negative punishment is a stimulus which when removed weakens a response. A good example of this type of punishment would be a parent taking something that a child enjoys in response to disobedience. Next, an extinction is nothing more than the sidelining of a previously reinforced behavior. Additionally, shaping is the implementation of reinforcing certain behaviors in order to bring about a desired complex response. An example would be complimenting a drivers-ed student on particular, small achievements in an effort to make the student a good driver. Lastly partial and continuous reinforcement concern the consistency of reinforcement as it pertains to conditioning.
Tabula rasa is the belief that we are born a blank slate, that we are purely a product of only our environment. This goes back to John Watson’s statement that he could conditioning an infant to be anyone. The idea is that we are born an empty book, that genetics or heredity have no impact on behavior. In this viewpoint, the personality is a product of our environment and our reaction to that environment. Figuratively, the book of our life is written word by word, page by page through our experiences. One obvious conclusion of this doctrine is that we are all born psychologically equal.
Next we will turn to the many aspects of the social-learning theory…
Social-learning theory seeks to explain learning in the absence of punishment and reinforcement. Two main ways that we learning without consequences are observational learning and self-efficacy. These are behaviors that are not motivated by punishment or reinforcement. Furthermore, Albert Bandura is one of the most influential social-learning theorists of our day. He pioneered an understanding of behavior that includes the complex interactions between cognitive processes, behavior, environmental variables, and person variables.
Sometimes we learning by just observing other people’s response to a certain stimulus. For instance, in the above picture the boy is afraid of the dinosaur because maybe it is large and has sharp teeth. On the other hand, the older man understands that the dinosaur is not real and can therefore examine specific aspects of the dinosaur without fear. Through the boys observation of the older man he can learn behavior. With all of this in mind, the four steps of observational learning can be seen in this example. The modeled event would be the older man showing no fear at the sight of the fake dinosaur. The boy would then execute the attentional processes by observing the older man’s absence of fear. Then the retention processes would take over and he would encode the experience and retain it in memory. The motor reproduction processes would then take over and the boy would decide whether he had the capacity to show no outward fear when confronted with the fake dinosaur. Lastly, motivational processes entail whether or not the child has motivation enough to imitate the behavior of the older man. If the cycle completes itself, then sometime in the future the boy will likely see another fake dinosaur and show no outward fear.
Social-learning theory is built upon the principle of self-efficacy. Accordingly, self-efficacy is the belief that one can succeed, no matter what the obstacles, at a particular task or behavior Self-efficacy also speaks to the heart of behavioral capability. The ability to adapt and perform a particular behavior even in the face of ambiguous and unpredictable obstacles is what characterizes a person with high self-efficacy. Likewise, four sources of self-efficacy are performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and emotional arousal. Performance accomplishments entails, “Past experiences of success and failure in attempts to accomplish goals…” (McAdams, 2006, p.83) and are the most necessary regulators of self-efficacy. On the other hand, vicarious experience has to do with watching other people’s success and failure in an attempt to create a basis of comparison through which a contrast with one’s own experiences can be made. Verbal persuasion includes others telling us that we can accomplish a particular behavior or task; however, the effects of this sources of self-efficacy are sometimes weak. Lastly, emotional arousal is about anxiety and the part that it plays in self-efficacy. If higher levels of anxiety are felt in a given performance situation it can tell us about perceived stress associated with that particular task. On that note stress usually weakens the bodies immune system when the stressor is not moderated properly. However, stress associated with self-efficacy, or stress when gaining coping mastery, actually has proven to enhance the response of the human immune system.
Behaviorism is as relevant today as it was when it was first proposed. In all, behaviorism helps to explain human behavior from an entirely observational standpoint. Social-learning theory is a logical next step because we do learn in many ways outside the domain of consequences and rewards. There are many ways to look at the same situation, as this little cartoon shows. Behaviorism is a key psychological doctrine which helps us to better understand individual people as a product of their individual environments.
McAdams, D.P. (2006). The person: A new introduction to personality psychology. Danvers, MA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.