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TMA 02

Assignment Question: Part 1: Compare and contrast the approaches of Skinner and Harlow to investigating influences on behaviour.

Behaviour has been a topic that has been investigated by many psychologists over the years. Two of the key figures that have investigated behaviour are B.F. Skinner and Harry Harlow. This essay will look at the influences on Skinner and Harlow that started them looking into the field of behaviour, the ways in which they went about conducting their experiments and what conclusions and explanations they both drew from their results. Both Skinner and Harlow, conducted their research at different periods in history, and this essay will show that although there are naturally differences between Skinner and Harlow due to their approaches and how they interpreted their results, it will also show the similarities that can be drawn from each individual. Both Skinner and Harlow have individually made their mark on how behaviour was perceived after their investigations and have also influenced how we now view and investigate behaviour today.

Both Skinner & Harlow’s approaches were based on the previous works by other psychologists. The works of Edward Thorndike and Ivan Pavlov, provided a historical context for Skinner’s later work (Toates, 2010, p158). Skinner favoured J. B Watson’s concept that psychology isn’t necessarily what someone’s mental processes and what happens in a person’s mind, but rather something that’s observable and measurable behaviour (Brace and Byford, 2010 p271) and wanted to pursue it further.

Harlow was similar in the sense that his research was influenced by the scientist John Bowlby who sought to show that the attachment and bond of a parent and its child was not cupboard love but the provision of comfort (Brace and Byford, 2010 p272). Harlow was also influenced by ethologists work who investigating things such as imprinting and attachments in non-human species such as birds.

Now although both Skinner and Harlow sought to examine the behaviour of humans, both had a slightly different focus with their aims. Skinner for instance wanted to break away from subjective focuses and prove theories through observable data collecting. He wanted to explore instrumental conditioning where the outcome of the situation is dependent on the behaviour of the participant (Toates, 2010, p162).

Harlow however, sought to explore a different aspect of behaviour, that of attachment. As mentioned before, at the time one of the main theories for the bond between a parent and its child was the mental process of cupboard love (provision of food). Harlow wanted to test this theory and see if this bond of attachment was not cupboard love but was in fact down to ‘innate tendencies to be attached to stimuli that possess certain properties’ (Custance, 2010, p201). Harlow hypothesised that the provision of food was to be less of an important factor in the bond of the baby and its mother than tactile qualities of stimuli (Custance, 2010, p202).

Both Skinner and Harlow’s approaches used non-human species rather than humans to conduct their experiments. Each however, used different non-human species. Skinner opted for rats and pigeons and Harlow used monkeys, (incidentally Harlow would have used rats in his experiments but the rat laboratory at the university he worked at had been dismantled) (Custance, 2010, p201). Harlow used rhesus macaques monkeys because humans share 94% DNA and thus inferences could be drawn about human behaviour (Custance, 2010, p205). Also the use of human participants was seen as unethical as to test the theory, Harlow would need to get two groups of mothers; one to be prevented from feeding their babies and the other prevented from holding and cuddling their babies (Custance, 2010, p201). This therefore created ethical reasons as to why humans could not be used so therefore Harlow chose the monkeys. In both cases of Skinner & Harlow, using non-human animals...
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