The behavioral approach to psychology holds that human development is chiefly behavior learned through observation and the interaction with the environment around a person. The theories associated with behaviorism state that human development does not necessarily occur in stages; instead, it is a continuous process. In this regard, two main theories linked to the behavioral approach exist - B. F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory and Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory. These two theories establish the perspective of the behavioral approach in explaining human development. Accordingly, the various concepts and terms of the two theories apply in explaining my choice of professional direction, which is nursing. Primarily, I can describe my decision to pursue nursing as more of a calling than anything else. However, analyzing the different approaches to human development and psychology, particularly the behavioral approach, broadened my understanding of how various factors intrinsically linked to an individual’s psychological development can heavily impact such vital decisions, such as my career choice.
The Operant Conditioning Theory by B. F. Skinner holds that “…the consequences of a behavior produce changes in the probability of the behavior’s occurrence” (Santrock, 2018, p. 2). In essence, when a rewarding consequence follows a behavior, it increases the chances of the behavior recurring. However, when a consequence that is punishing follows a behavior, it increases the likelihood of the behavior not recurring. Therefore, according to Skinner, the issuance of rewards and punishments is what molds human development through a pattern of modifications in behavior (Santrock, 2018, p. 2).
Skinner’s theory coined the term reinforcement, which applies to how reinforced behavior is more likely to reoccur, while unreinforced behavior is less likely to reoccur. Skinner’s theory identifies three responses that can emerge after a behavior. These are namely neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishers. Neutral operants refer to the responses that do not have an impact on a behavior reoccurring. Reinforcers are those responses that increase the chances of the reoccurrence of behavior. Lastly, punishers are those responses that decrease the likelihood of the reoccurrence of a behavior. According to the theory, the term reinforcement can further subdivide into two, which is positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement refers to the strengthening of behavior through reward whereby an individual tries to reinforce good behavior in another, for instance, a child; therefore, the reward serves as the incentive that reinforces the behavior. On the other hand, negative reinforcement refers to the strengthening of behavior by removing a negative consequence. For instance, a parent ensuring that every time their children do not eat all their vegetables, they get to do the dishes. To avoid doing dishes, the children will start to eat all their vegetables. Punishment works in the same way as reinforcement. It can occur through administering an unpleasant stimulus or by eliminating a rewarding stimulus (Mcleod, 2018).
A schedule of reinforcement is a phrase that forms part of the Operant Conditioning Theory. It refers to how the different patterns and ways of offering reinforcement influence how one learns and either forgets or drops the behavior. Skinner’s reinforcement schedules include continuous reinforcement, fixed ratio reinforcement, fixed interval reinforcement, variable ratio reinforcement, and variable interval reinforcement. Variable ratio reinforcement produces the highest levels of behavior repetitions because of its unpredictability. On the other hand, continuous reinforcement produces the lowest levels of behavior repetitions; they are quick to abandon because of its predictability (Mcleod, 2018).
Behavior modification is another term comprising part of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory. It mainly applies to techniques that involve modifying individual behavior through altering the environmental factors that may have caused the undesired behavior. One can best understand behavior modification in that there is the reinforcement of desired behaviors while punishment exists for the undesired ones. Accordingly, under this context, the concept of positive reinforcement can further subdivide into primary reinforcement and secondary reinforcement. The primary one refers to an instance where a reward is responsible for strengthening a behavior on its own. On the other hand, the secondary one is where a stimulus leads to behavior strengthening because it precipitates a primary reward (Mcleod, 2018). Examples of behavior modification techniques include token economy and behavior shaping. Token economy refers to “…a system in which targeted behaviors are reinforced with tokens (secondary reinforcers) and later exchanged for rewards (primary reinforcers)” (Mcleod, 2018). On the other hand, behavior shaping serves a significant contribution by Skinner’s theory. It holds that various concepts of Operant Conditioning can produce complex behavior. It can occur if person A can offer the principles of punishment and reward to person B in a way that makes person B want to make a move towards the desired behavior each time person A offers the stimulus. Skinner coined the term successive approximation. It refers to how “…the conditions (or contingencies) required to receive the reward should shift each time the organism moves a step closer to the desired behavior” (Mcleod, 2018). According to the theory, this process can explain some of the most complex behaviors exhibited by humans and animals (Mcleod, 2018).
The central argument of the Social Cognitive Theory by Albert Bandura is that “…human behavior operates within a framework of triadic reciprocality involving reciprocal interactions among three sets of influences: personal (e.g., cognitions, beliefs, skills, affect); behavioral; and social/environmental factors” (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 14). Although similar to Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory concerning acknowledging the influence of behavior and the environment in development, it adds the element of cognition, demonstrating how the process of cognition has a connection with behavior and the environment. Through Bandura’s focus on observational learning, the theory stresses the significance of observing other people’s behavior in the environment. Therefore, the Social Cognitive Theory asserts that the primary mode of acquisition of the vast behaviors and feelings exhibited by people is through the process of observing other people’s behaviors and mannerisms and, thus, these observations are an integral part of progressive human development (Santrock, 2018, p. 24). In terms of cognition, the theory asserts, “…people cognitively represent the behavior of others and then sometimes adopt this behavior themselves” (Santrock, 2018, p. 24). Bandura proposed a model of psychological development that had three elements of the environment, behavior, and cognition or person, which can function interactively (Santrock, 2018, p. 24).
The first major and central element of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory is reciprocal interactions, which refers to the interaction between the personal, environmental, and behavioral factors of influence. The personal factor of self-efficacy can best demonstrate this interaction (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 14). Self-efficacy refers to “… people’s perception of their competence in dealing with their environment and exercising influence over events that affect their lives” (Miller, 2009, p. 243). It impacts behaviors that affect achievement and thus affects aspects like the effort a person opts to put into something, the choice of task, and their level of persistence. In the same way, these behaviors also have a returned effect on self-efficacy. Therefore, Bandura’s theory emphasizes the concept of human agency, where individuals usually have a proactive engagement with their progress and development (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 14). Bandura’s theory also proposes that learning can occur through the processes of enactive and vicarious learning. Enactive learning follows Skinner’s theory whereby the consequences of one’s action foster information that helps to either strengthen a behavior or weaken it (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 15). On the other hand, vicarious learning involves the process of learning behavior “…through observing modeled performances” (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 15). In effect, vicarious learning, unlike enactive learning, removes the need for active involvement for learning to occur.
To further explain human development in the cognitive sense, Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory argues that humans have a natural set of capabilities that distinguish them from other animals, making them uphold a sense of urgency regarding development and learning. The vicarious processes, symbolic processes, and self-regulatory processes are significant amongst these capabilities (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 15). Vicarious processes acknowledge that the models in an individual’s environment are significant sources of information for learning behavior. Therefore, vicarious processes allow “… people to regularly shape their lives, because they select environmental features (e.g., individuals, materials) to which they want to attend” (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 15). Bandura’s theory identifies three types of vicarious responses. The first one is response facilitation, which refers to acting in the same way as the other due to observation. The second one is inhibition and disinhibition, referring to acting due to the pattern of consequences of reward and punishment. The third one is observational learning, which refers to learning through observing new behavior (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 15). Symbolic processes refer to “…symbolic representations, which involve language, mathematical and scientific notation, iconography, and cognition, and which help people adapt to and alter their environments” (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 17). Therefore, the symbolic representations observed in the environment, which foster learning and development, guide people's behaviors and actions. Self-regulatory processes center around the concept of self-regulation, which refers to how individuals control their behaviors and actions to conform to particular goals, targets, and standards. Assessment and reflection when there is the attainment of these goals offer an opportunity to identify the strengths and weakness of the process, improving their self-efficacy and thus stimulating learning (Ryan et al., 2012, p. 17).
The behavioral approach to psychology offers a comprehensive explanation for opting for nursing as my professional direction. Both Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory and Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory establish the perspective that most likely led me to choose nursing as a career option. I believe that some of my best qualities and attributes, such as empathy, attention to detail, time consciousness, and thirst for knowledge, which make for a great nurse, were reinforced in me through a system of reward and punishment by my parents, as explained by Skinner’s Operant Conditioning. Growing up, my parents acknowledged and rewarded me for desirable attributes, such as going home on time, avoiding procrastination, engaging in charitable courses, and excelling in schoolwork. On the other hand, through negative reinforcement, they constantly made me accomplish academic tasks or endure the strenuous task of tidying up after everybody. This form of upbringing fostered a sense of duty and discipline and an understanding of other’s situations.
However, I believe that Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory offers a better explanation for my choice of nursing as my career path. I have always wanted to be a nurse, and I believe my aunt, a nurse, greatly influenced me. Growing up, she exposed me to the most fulfilling work I had ever seen. The vicarious process of observational learning best applies to me, as I had several opportunities to watch my aunt work as a nurse for years. It left an impression and shaped my perspective on what I wanted to do for a career and who I wanted to emulate. Self-regulation enabled me to model my goal of becoming a nurse and align it to my behavior and course of action. Apart from volunteering as an emergency worker in a non-profit organization, I structured my education to get advanced training and education in nursing. Because of all this influence and structuring, my self-efficacy has always been high regarding wanting to be a nurse, pushing me to want to attain more knowledge on the nursing career and what the nursing practice entails. Therefore, Bandura’s three elements of explaining human behavior apply to why I chose to be a nurse. In terms of social or environmental factors, my aunt was a massive influence. In terms of behavioral factors, my parents reinforced many of my core attributes, characteristic of great nurses, through the system of reward and punishments. In terms of personal factors, my high self-efficacy has driven me towards the path of becoming a nurse, which is a long-held dream and goal. Therefore, as evident through my life and career choice in nursing, the behavioral approach to psychology is significant in understanding human behavior and decisions across the developmental life span.
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