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The Effectiveness of the Learning Perspective in Explaining one Psychological or Social Question

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The Western culture that we live in has an enormous emphasis on thinness in society’s image of ultimate female beauty. The increasing media pressure on women to be thin causes many females to turn to eating disorders in order to achieve the ‘perfect’ body which is being pushed into our faces everywhere.

These women who are developing eating disorders as a result of their quest to be ‘beautiful’ start to lose weight at which point, they receive compliments of how well they are looking, get increasing attention from men and start to develop a new sense of confidence, which all results in the said females feeling good about their images and consequently leads to them maintaining the eating disorder.

According to the learning perspective, this is a form of how human beings learn behaviours called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is stimulus-response learning. This means a stimulus is performed i.e. a voluntary behaviour is carried out and it results in a response which is an environmental consequence. In the case of anorexia, the stimulus is the voluntary behaviour of the female adopting an eating disorder in order to lose weight. This result in the response, or environmental consequence, which are the compliments, increased male attention and increased confidence.

This type of environmental consequence is known as positive reinforcement i.e. the application of something pleasant as a result of the stimulus. There are huge individual differences for what is pleasant for different people but the most effective pleasantries which every human being craves are praise, affection and social respect which is exactly what these anorexic women increasingly experience as soon as they begin to lose weight. Therefore, it becomes clear that they are going to want to continue experiencing these pleasantries, as it is human nature to want these things, and so the anorexia continues.

B. F. Skinner, a psychologist from Harvard university who has carried out great amounts of psychological research into operant conditioning claims that when a behaviour is reinforced often enough, it would lead to the learning of that behaviour. Skinner demonstrated this with a number of experiments using animals in which the behaviours ranged from simple to complex. Even though his research was not carried out on humans, his results were rather conclusive.

One of Skinner’s more simple pieces of research was the Skinner box. This involved a rat being in a cage with no food but a lever. When the lever was pressed, a food pellet was distributed. In this case, Skinner conditioned the rat to press the lever.

One of Skinner’s more complex pieces of research was conditioning pigeons to play ping-pong. As this behaviour was so unusual shaping had to be used. Shaping is the reinforcing of successive approximations to the desired behaviour. In other words, pigeons playing ping-pong was very unlikely to ever be performed voluntarily therefore Skinner positively reinforced behaviours approximating to the desired behaviour until this behaviour was conditioned. He then stopped reinforcing it and reinforced a closer approximation until that was conditioned and so on until the desired behaviour was conditioned i.e. the pigeons playing ping-pong.

Through Skinner’s research, some psychologists adopted the view that the complexity of human behaviour can be explained as the result of so many instances of learning through reinforcement.

The schedule of reinforcement present on the case of anorexia would be continuous reinforcement meaning that every time the behaviour is carried out, i.e. losing weight, it is reinforced but there is no structure to the reinforcement and so the behaviour easily breaks down.

This is true for a form of operant conditioning known as the token economy within schools. James Swanson, a paediatric psychologist and Ron Kotkin, a clinical psychologist, were involved in developing the token economy. This system is used to opperantly condition children with behaviour disorders. Good behaviour is rewarded with points on a chart in the classroom. There are 3 levels to the chart and the more points they get, the more likely the child is to move up a level. To maintain good behaviour they are positively reinforced and parents are also taught and guided in how to develop a token economy with the child at home. However, there is a big problem with this continuous reinforcement, because once the child leaves the token economy environment,

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