Skinner vs. Bandura

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Behaviorism has been a major school of thought in psychology since 1913, when John B. Watson published an influential article. Watson argued that psychology should abandon its earlier focus on mind and mental processes and focus exclusively on overt behavior. He contended that psychology could not study mental processes in a scientific manner because they are private and not accessible to outside observation. In completely rejecting mental processes as a suitable subject for scientific study, Watson took an extreme position that is no longer dominant among modern behaviorists. Thus, most behaviorists view an individual’s personality as a collection of response tendencies that are tied to various stimulus situations. A specific situation may be associated with a number of response tendencies that vary in strength, depending on an individual’s past experience. Nonetheless, his influence was enormous, as psychology did shift its primary focus from the study of the mind to the study of behavior. Although behaviorists have shown relatively little interest in personality structure, they have focused extensively on personality development. They explain development the same way they explain everything else – through learning. Specifically, they focus on how children’s response tendencies are shaped through for example operant conditioning and observational learning. Let us look at these processes. In this essay I am going to compare Skinner’s operant conditioning and Bandura’s observational learning theory, point out similarities and differences and include personal experiences. Considering the response I am engaging in right now – studying. It is definitely not a reflex as it would be in classical conditioning; life might be easier if it were. Instead, my studying response is mainly influenced by events that follow it like grades – specifically, its consequences. This kind of learning in called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which voluntary responses come to be controlled by their consequences (Skinner , 1953, 1974, 1990). Operant conditioning probably governs a larger share of human behavior than classical conditioning, since most human responses are voluntary, operant responses are said to be emitted rather than elicited. The study of operant conditioning was led by B. F. Skinner, a Harvard University psychologist who spent most of his career studying simple responses made by laboratory rats and pigeons. The fundamental principle of operant conditioning is uncommonly simple. Skinner demonstrated that “organisms tend to repeat those responses that are followed by favorable consequences, and they tend not to repeat those responses that are followed by neutral or unfavorable consequences” (Skinner, p.65). In Skinner’s scheme, favorable, neutral, and unfavorable consequences involve reinforcement, extinction, and punishment, respectively. We will look especially at the first one. According to Skinner, reinforcement can occur in two ways, which he called positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. “Positive reinforcement occurs when a response is strengthened (increased in frequency) because it is followed by the arrival of a (presumably) pleasant stimulus” (Skinner, p. 66). Positive reinforcement is roughly synonymous with the concept of reward. Notice, however, that reinforcement is defined after the fact, in terms of its effect on behavior. Why? Because reinforcement is subjective. Something that serves as a reinforce for one person may not function as a reinforce for another. For example, peer approval is a potent reinforcer for most people, but not all. Positive reinforcement motivates much of everyday behavior. I study hard because good grades are likely to follow as a result. I go to work because this behavior produces paychecks and I work extra hard in the hope of a pay raise. In each of these examples, certain responses occur because they have led to positive outcomes in...
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