Behaviourism, a school of thought in psychology that emerged in the early 20th century, advocates the objective analysis of observable behaviours rather than subjective experiences. One of the principal theories of behaviourism is operant conditioning, first proposed by B. F. Skinner. This model assumes that behaviour is shaped by its consequences, with individuals more likely to repeat actions that bring rewards and less likely to continue actions that bring punishment or negative outcomes. However, in recent decades, this model has been criticized as oversimplified, outdated, and, in certain contexts, potentially harmful, especially when applied to children.
The criticism of operant conditioning predominantly emanates from its roots. Its principles were largely derived from studies conducted on animals, most notably rats and pigeons, and generalized to human behaviour. These studies involved controlled experiments where the subjects' behaviours were conditioned through reinforcement and punishment. Although these experiments provided valuable insights into learning processes, the leap from animal behaviour to human behaviour is a significant one. Humans have highly complex cognitive and emotional systems, significantly outmatching those of the animals studied, which raises questions about the applicability of these principles to human behaviour.
Children, especially, possess a richness of emotional experiences, imaginative capabilities, intricate social relationships, and basic human life needs. Operant conditioning can be too simplistic a model to capture the breadth of their psychological experiences. Notably, it disregards the role of internal states, such as thoughts, emotions, drives, and intentions, in behaviour. It assumes that all learning is a direct result of the environment's impact, which overlooks the capacity for self-determined, insightful, and imaginative learning that children demonstrate.
The potential dangers of operant conditioning stem from its focus on external stimuli controlling behaviour. While rewarding positive behaviour and punishing negative behaviour can indeed modify a child's actions in the short term, it can inadvertently encourage the child to perform actions merely to gain rewards or avoid punishment. This method may not foster intrinsic motivation, critical thinking, or empathy, which are vital components of a child's holistic development.
Moreover, consistent use of operant conditioning techniques may cause children to associate learning with external pressure, leading to stress, fear, and potentially long-term psychological damage. Children may grow to view authority figures as sources of punishment rather than guidance, impairing their capacity to form healthy, trusting relationships.
While operant conditioning has historical significance (particularly in sparking a response and alternative ideas from thought leaders proposing alternative ‘humanistic’ frameworks and theories), its roots in animal studies and potential harm when applied uncritically to children render it an outdated and insufficient approach to human learning and behaviour. Current perspectives in psychology emphasize a more holistic understanding of human behaviour, considering cognitive, emotional, and social factors, offering more nuanced, humane, and respectful approaches to child development, children’s needs, and children’s rights.
For a comical take on behaviourism, look at this sketch written by Ben Kingston-Hughes from Inspired Children.
Rat on a talk show sketch
Interviewer: Welcome to the show. Our first guest needs no introduction, please welcome to the couch, a laboratory rat from behaviourism experiments. A big round of applause for Steve the Rat. (Applause)
Steve the Rat: Please don’t hurt me!
Interviewer: No one is going to hurt you. This is a safe space.
Steve the Rat: You said there would be cheese?
Interviewer: Of course, lots of cheese after the interview!
Steve the Rat: Cheese now? (Looks expectant)
Interviewer: Fine you can have some cheese now (gives cheese). So, am I right in thinking you will only answer questions if I give you cheese?
Steve the Rat: (Nods whilst chewing) Ninety-five.
Interviewer: So, Steve, you have been through some experiments. How was that experience? (Gives cheese)
Steve the RatGlances around nervously) Well, If I’m being honest, I wasn’t expecting the electric shocks. I originally signed up for Jaak Panksepp’s tickling experiments so the whole maze of death thing was frankly a bit of a nasty surprise. Ninety-six
Interviewer: Yes, but has it improved your behaviour?
Steve the Rat: Oh definitely, although the side effects of repeated electric shocks have left me in constant and I startle very easily. Also, I can’t feel the left side of my body. Ninety-seven.
Interviewer: Would you say the experiments were a success though? ( cheese)
Steve the Rat: The thing is, I can reliably navigate a maze now, but I can’t help wondering what is it all for? I mean, yes, I automatically take the correct but I don’t really know why. I mean obviously I love cheese and I really hate electric but you know, it just feels like there should be something more? Ninety-eight.
Interviewer: What about the psychological impact though? ( cheese)
Steve the Rat: No one has ever asked me that before. I can’t say it has been a great experience. I am in a perpetual state of fear and lose my temper at the slightest thing and I have this constant expectation that something bad is about to happen. Not to mention I am completely indecisive and can do anything if I am offered cheese first. Ninety-nine.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for your time and remember viewers, Steve’s new book, “Help me please, I am in terrible available from bookstores now. One final question though. Why do you keep counting whenever I ask you a question?
Steve the RatLooks expectant)
Interviewer: Ok fine (gives a piece of cheese)
Steve the Rat: That’s simple. In experiments, the behaviour conditioning only lasts for about one hundred repetitions and then breaks down. So, in essence the experiments have only temporarily changed my behaviour whilst at the same time systematically ignoring parts of the brain associated with positive social processes such as empathy and moral and ethical code. In short, you have created a . An angry with teeth! One hundred.
Ben is the Managing Director of Inspired Children providing award-winning, inspirational training for any agency working with children across the UK and internationally. Ben also delivers entertaining and thought-provoking key note speeches for a wide range of conferences and events. He has now twice appeared on TV working with vulnerable children and his book "A Very Unusual Journey into Play" was published in April 2022.