The essence of the behavioural approach to psychopathology is that adaptive and maladaptive behaviours are learned by the same procedures. This is true for the actions that we typically display when faced with an examination situation. The behavioural model concentrates only on behaviours and the responses a person makes to their environment, these can be external or internal. Behaviourists have tended to focus their attention on the role of external events and behaviours as these are more observable and therefore make gaining results easier. This means that not all aspects of abnormality are considered.
Classical conditioning is where learning occurs through association and is a process that applies to emotional learning as well as behaviours. For example, behavioural explanations of phobias assume that the feared object, such as spiders or rats was associated with feat or anxiety sometimes in the past. As in the classical conditioning process, a neutral stimulus paired with an unconditioned stimulus, resulting in a new stimulus- reposes link. The neutral stimulus is now therefore a conditioned stimulus producing a conditioned response. The conditioned stimulus subsequently evokes a powerful fear response characterized by avoidance of the feared object and the emotion of fear whenever the object is encountered.
Operant conditioning suggests learning is done through reinforcement. An animal responds to the environment and some of these responses are reinforced, increasing the probability that they are repeated. If a response is punished, this decreases the probability that it will be repeated. Psychological disorder is produced when a maladaptive behaviour is rewarded. This means that such behaviours may be functional for the individual, at least at the time they are learned. For example if a child finds that he or she gets more attention from a parents when they have a panic attack, these attacks may well become more frequency until they become difficult to stop. This could lead to the same behaviour with their partner in later life.
Behaviours are learned by seeing others rewarded and punished and this is called social learning. An individual’s social context is important when considering the origins of abnormal behaviours, as this provides many opportunities for behaviour to be observed and imitated. When researchers report that some disorders, such as anxiety disorders run in families, it is difficult to separate the effects of genetics from the effects of social learning.
If an animal is taught that the sounds of a bell is associated with food then the animal will salivate to the sound of any bell (generalisation). If however, the animal is exposed to trails where food is presented only to the sound of a certain bell, but not presented when other bells are rung, then try animal will learn to discriminate between different stimuli. If no food is presented at all, the response that was learned will be extinguished. Many phobic responses are acquired not through direct experience with the feared object, but through generalisation from a conditioned stimulus. For example, people who develop a conditioned fear of rats may also fear anxious when in the company of mice and gerbils.
However there are many limitations to the behavioural approach such as behaviourist explanations tend to ignore the role of cognition in the onset and treatment of abnormality, although the emergence of cognitive behavioural theories did take the role of cognition into account. Also research on the behavioural approach has not always supported its claims. For example, conditioning theories of the acquisition of fear would have a problem explaining why many people are unable to identify an incident in their past which led to the traumatic conditioning, nor even to recall any contact with their feared object.
Another limitation is to gain a full understanding of behaviour all features would have to be monitored. It is easy for patients to show demand characteristics when being observed, especially if only external behaviours are studied. Strengths of the approach include Little Albert. The case study of Little Albert support the behavioural approach as its finding show that they were able to create a conditioned fear response in the baby.