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Behaviourism and the Law of Effect

The study of human behaviour is immensely fascinating and intriguing. Understanding and having knowledge of both how and why we act and behave the way we do can be a great way to build relationships with others, pass on and teach behaviours and even alter unwanted or unhelpful behaviours.

Recently my mind had been pondering as to why, within my neurodivergent brain, certain situations evoke potent and noticeable behaviours and reactions. For example driving, particularly new routes, can often fill me with feelings of anxiety or dread or the evoked fear of being presented with a task I find difficult and overwhelming.

Thinking about the driving forces behind these relationships I thought back to my student days and into the field of Cognitive Psychology and the realm of Behaviourism. A renowned strand of psychological study, Cognitive Psychology, also knowns as the Cognitive Approach, encompasses how people think, make decisions and process information. The brain can be viewed as an information processor and computer, of which exists to process, store and retrieve information; of which ultimately will influence our behaviour. Within Cognitive Psychology lies the realm of Behaviourism. The main assumption and notions of Behaviourism are listed below (McLeod, 2007).

This environmental-centred approach has not been without criticism. Behaviourism has often been coined as somewhat reductionist and deterministic (Practical Psychology, 2022), as is ignores and fails to take into account other factors that can influence, impact and effect behaviours. Crucially this can include; biological factors (such as hormones and genetics), personality traits and individual differences and social factors including upbringing and the impact of relationships and social interactions.

Law of Effect

Within Behaviourist thought the Theory of Law and Effect exemplifies how particular environmental factors and stimuli produce certain responses. Developed whilst studying cats escaping puzzle boxes, Edward Thorndike found that when a response yields a positive outcome (in this case the cats pressing a leaver and exiting to find food) the behaviour was more likely to be adopted and repeated (McLeod, 2007). Findings found that the cats in subsequent trials pressed the exiting leaver quicker and successfully escaped faster. Used to explain learning in animals, the Law of Effect emphasises how the connections and relationships between a stimulus and favourable/reinforcing responses (in this case finding food after exiting the box) can predict and increase the likelihood of those behaviours resurfacing (American Psychological Association, 2023). Conversely, behaviours that elicit unwanted, negative or harmful responses are less likely to be repeated and performed. Conforming to Behaviourist principles, the Law of Effect outlines how animal learning can be observable and predictable due to the type of responses that occur from situations and stimuli (Thorndike, 1927).

Critically, this notion can be applied to human behaviour and learning. For example, when completing chores and being rewarded with a treat it is likely that one would repeat that behaviour again to yield the same results. On the other hand, if we were to touch an iron, leading to pain and discomfort, we would be very much unlikely to repeat this behaviour. When planning, writing and executing my blogs I always wish for these to be useful, practical and applicable to everyday life. Often the ‘take away messages’ can be useful to all, regardless if one is dyslexic or not. Although the notion of Law of Effect, and the theory of a stimulus evoking a response, is somewhat simplistic it can be highly useful when reflecting on our own behaviour.

Earlier I referred to the negative emotions and feelings of dread and fear that can be induced when completing tasks I find really difficult and stress-inducing. In producing such a strong response it is unlikely that I would freely and willingly wish to partake in these tasks. These rage, stress and anger-inducing tasks and situations sadly exist for us all. However, it is facing these adversities head on and challenging negative responses that can help lead to positive results. Training ones brain to recognise negative responses and try to see these in a different light can be extremely beneficial. The classic term turning a negative into a positive springs to mind. As an exemplar, individuals with dyslexia may find it really hard to finish that essay due immanently or read the text needed for work or school. But the sense of satisfaction, achievement and confidence gained when trying, attempting and completing these tasks, even after negative responses can be tremendous. Moreover, identifying and adopting a suitable reward system is a great way to reinforce wanted behaviours and for being willing to overcome challenges (Practical Psychology, 2022). Whether it be an edible delight, putting on a favourite or guilty pleasure TV show or a new snazzy jumper trying to adjust and view negative outcomes/responses in a more positive light can be an empowering behaviour.

Within the realm of Behaviourism, all behaviour is driven wholly by environmental factors and interactions and interplays between stimuli and responses. Thorndike’s renowned notion of the Law of Effect encapsulates this by emphasising that when situations provide positive outcomes or responses the behaviour is more likely to be repeated, and vice versa. Despite this, by recognising negative outcomes, seeing situations from a different perspective and using a reward system one can challenge such adverse feelings and turn negative outcomes into more positive, wanted and proactive outcomes.

Useful Links

American Psychological Association. (2023). APA Dictionary of Psychology.

Li, P. (2022). Difference Between Classical vs Operant Conditioning.

McLeod, S. (2007). Behaviourist Approach.

Practical Psychology. (2022). Stimulus Response Theory.

Thorndike, E, L. (1927). The Law of Effect, The American Journal of Psychology, 39: 212-222.

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