Outline and Evaluate the Behavioural Approach to Psychopathology

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Outline and evaluate the behavioural approach to psychopathology. (12 marks)

Behaviourists believe that all of a person’s complex behaviours are the result of learning through interaction with the environment. Behaviourists deal with the following forms of learning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In classical conditioning people learn to associate two stimuli when they occur together, such that the response originally elicited by one stimulus is transferred to another. The person learns to produce an existing response to a new stimulus.

Watson and Rayner (1920) showed how classical conditioning can make someone learn to have a phobia. They conditioned a young boy (Little Albert) to respond with anxiety to the stimulus of a white rat; they achieved this by pairing the rat with a loud noise that already made Albert anxious. The anxiety response was transferred to the rat because it was presented together with the loud noise. The response overgeneralised to other stimuli that resembled the rat, including a rabbit and a fur coat. Over time conditioned responses like this gradually diminish in a process called extinction. This was a single case study and there was no systematic and objective measure of any signs of ‘fear’; instead Watson and Rayner relied on general verbal descriptions. There are also some serious ethical issues with this study: Little Albert was made to feel frightened causing psychological harm, and Watson and Rayner did not decondition Little Albert.

In operant conditioning, people learn to perform new behaviours through the consequences of the things they do. If a behaviour they produce is followed by a reinforcement then the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated increases in the future, so the behaviour is strengthened. A consequence can be reinforcing in two ways: Positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Conversely, if a behaviour is followed by a punishment then the likelihood of that behaviour being...
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