Core Features of Psychological Theories

The Central Features of Psychological Theories

All theories within the psychological literature can be placed into two broad categories: namely, cognitivism and behaviourism, which some people characterize as internalism and externalism. The primary differences between these two categories stem from explanation and causation; a cognitivist relies on the internal components of the brain for explanatory power and causation, whereas a behaviourist relies on data about the stimulus-response relationship. The cognitivist could argue for reflective, stimulus-independent, thought, spontaneous behaviour, and so on; whereas a behaviourist, by nature, seeks a physical relationship between cause and effect: stimulus and response. For instance, a cognitivist could argue that there are innate rule-generating mechanisms that guide the behaviour of the organism and that these mechanisms function even with a poverty of stimulus; whereas a behaviourist, not being necessarily against a cognitivist explanation, thinks that we need only appeal to a stimulus-response relationship to understand the organism. Of course, there are behaviorists that were concerned about variables which seem more cognitive, such as processing time, but the dependency on stimulus-response methodology assures that such approaches are still behaviourist. The explanation and causal attributes that stem from these paradigms not only inform many other academic fields such as psycholinguistics, memory, and cognitive neuroscience, but they also contribute greatly to the nature-versus-nurture debates.

Causation and Explanation

Suppose a child receives candy on Halloween, and that this child consumes the candy after he or she received it; how would either the cognitivist or behaviourist explain the child’s behaviour?

From the Cognitivist viewpoint, the child would have engaged in a series of if-then cognitions. First, the child would have been operating under the cultural image schema associated with Halloween; that is, within the child’s culture it is well understood that, on Halloween, children are expected to go around door-to-door asking strangers for candy. This gives us our first if-then cognition: If stranger gives candy on Halloween, then it is safe to eat; If stranger gives candy and it is not Halloween, then it is not safe to eat. The image schema associated with Halloween gives the child a series of rules to use while processing information in the environment. For example, if a person is covered in blood and its Halloween, then it is part of the costume; if a person is covered in blood and it is not Halloween, then danger. Halloween can be used as a cognitive filter for interpreting incoming data. Secondly, the cognitivist could also explain the child’s behaviour through information processing related to the condition of the candy its self; that is, if the candy is received and it is already open, then discard the candy. In this instance, the child would be using if-then cognition about probabilities. If open, then probability of danger increases; therefore, discard candy.

On top of these two primary points about information processing, each instance can vary due to the relationship between the child and the environment. Consider that a child with an allergy to peanuts would engage in different cognitions than one without such an allergy; for example, if candy contains peanuts, then discard. Or, another example would be if the child lacked the cultural image schema for Halloween, which would lead to markedly different information processing for October 31st.

Comparatively, from the behaviourist point of view, the child’s behaviour is explained through either reinforcement or association with a stimulus. The obvious explanation from the behaviourist paradigm is that candy falls under the category of positively reinforced stimulus; most children enjoy candy. As such, the behaviour is explained in a classical behaviourist manner: the child ate candy because the child likes candy (positively reinforced). If the candy were received in an already open state, then the child would recall the negative reinforcement which the parent instilled into them regarding already opened candy and refuse to consume it. In addition to this, one could also argue that the perception of candy triggers metabolic processes, which then drive food seeking behaviours; and if the candy is dangerous, then the child will have other context-relative bodily responses that cause the child to avoid the food.

In essence, a cognitivist is concerned primarily with the internal aspects of the organism. The child, from this view, is not born as a blank slate. They come with innate data structures that organize reality apriori. The children also develop mental models which they then use to manipulate and interact with variables within the environment. Comparatively, the behaviourist considers a cognitivist approach unnecessary and full of metaphors. They believe that human behaviour can be explained by stimulus-response relationships alone.

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