What is the behavioural approach to psychopathology?

The behavioural approach, on the whole, focusses on how behaviours are learnt through the experiences that you have in your life. Behaviours are able to be learnt through:

1. Classical Conditioning

2. Operant Conditioning

3. Social Learning Theory

Classical conditioning describes how people learn through association. In life, there are natural stimulus response relationships. Classical conditioning manipulates this by pairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus. Eventually, the neutral stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus. The unconditioned stimulus is then no longer needed to create a response. This learning theory explains that people learn abnormality through association. Phobias can be learnt in this way. You could have once hit your leg when seeing a spider. You would then associate pain with spiders and develop a phobia of spiders due to expecting pain whenever a spider is seen. 

Operant conditioning could also be used as an explanation for psychopathology. This is when people learn through the consequences of their own and others behaviour. If we do something and receive a positive reaction, we are more likely to do it again; this is referred to as positive reinforcement. Therefore, if we do something and receive a negative reaction, we are less likely to do it again. Also, if we do something and it prevents an unpleasant consequence, we are more likely to do it again which is referred to as negative reinforcement. In the case of psychopathology, a mental illness such as Munchausen’s Syndrome could be explained using operant learning.  A mother could hurt her child and receive attention and sympathy, which is a positive reaction for the mother.  Therefore, she is likely to do it again in order to receive this attention and sympathy.

Social learning theory could also be used to explain psychopathology. This theory describes the learning of behaviour from others by:

-seeing someone rewarded for a behaviour (vicarious reinforcement), which makes you want to copy that behaviour

-seeing someone being punished for a behaviour, which doesn’t make you want to copy the behaviour

-being influenced by a role model.

In the case of psychopathology, anorexia could be explained using this theory. Anorexics may see models, who are stereotypically thin, being rewarded through modelling jobs and high income and so may copy the behaviour of the models, by trying to lose weight, in order to gain these rewards for themselves.

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