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6) The Behaviour Model of Abnormality

This model, put forward by Behaviourists, explains abnormality through behaviour that we learn. Behaviourists believe that normal and abnormal behaviours are acquired as a result of experiences that we have in life. These behaviours are learnt in 3 ways, classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning theory.

Classical conditioning – This is where we learn behaviour through association, this can be used to explain some abnormal behaviour. For example if a boy was once bitten by a dog, he might associate the dog with pain. He then could associate all dogs with pain, and this could lead to the abnormal behaviour of a phobia of dogs

Operant conditioning – This is where we learn from the consequences of behaviour, reward and punishment. For example the boy might have a phobia of dogs, so when they see a dog they become anxious. Their parent might comfort them, so the boy learns that becoming anxious around dogs will merit the award of comfort from a parent. So inadvertently the parent is reinforcing the abnormal behaviour of a phobia of dogs.

Social learning theory – This is learning through imitating and copying the behaviour of others around you. If the boy with the dog phobia grew up and had a child, and then showed behaviour of the phobia of dogs, the child might copy his dad. This is the child learning the abnormal behaviour of a phobia of dogs through social learning.


+ Provided useful insight – This model has given us insight into abnormal behaviour, particularly that of eating disorders and phobias.

+ Doesn’t blame person – This model supports the view that abnormality is not just due to the person, but also to the environment around them

+ Led to developments in treatment – Without this model we might play down the effects of our environment, so we can treat these as well as the patient, making the treatments more effective


– Limited View – The model has been criticised as being very limited in how it sees abnormality. It doesn’t appreciate the effects of physiological or cognitive factors as a cause and treatment of abnormality.

– Counter Evidence – Lots of evidence suggests that the learning theory isn’t entirely correct. For example this model says that phobias are learnt at a certain point, however many people cannot recall any traumatic experience which could lead to being conditioned into the phobia.

– Devalue the importance of feeling – This model concentrates solely on the way the patient behaves, so ignores how the patient feels, which some psychologists say is just as important


About Sam Cook

A blog set up to help A Level students revise Sociology


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