In case you didn’t know, Psychology is one of the subjects that I’m taking for A level and a subject which I find absolutely fascinating – I love exploring different explanations and theories for different behaviours. I might not have any qualifications but I do have my A level knowledge (and textbook!) and I thought it would be interesting for me to try to explain eating and exercise habits in relation to maintaining a healthy lifestyle using an approach that we learnt about last year; the Behaviourist Approach. This approach explains behaviour in terms of what can be observed and measured. Please note that I’m not stating that the explanations given by this approach are the causes of these behaviours, it’s simply one explanation out of many that I’m offering. I did my research from my AQA Psychology textbook and applied it to the theme of healthy living, as this is what I’m particularly interested in.
Behaviourists identified 2 types of learning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning, the former of which we’ll focus on first.
1.) Classical condition refers to learning by association and occurs when 2 stimuli are repeatedly paired together: an unconditioned (unlearned) stimulus and a new ‘neutral’ stimulus. After consistently being paired together, the neutral stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus and will produce the same response (now the conditioned response) that was first produced by the unlearned stimulus alone.
This can obviously be applied to unhealthy eating as well as healthy eating, however I’m going to apply it to healthy eating, which is more relevant to my blog theme. Here is my first example: the unconditioned stimulus is houmous. Yes, you LOVE houmous. When you eat houmous with a spoon, you experience the unconditioned response of pleasure. Now I’m going to introduce the neutral stimulus to you: the humble carrot. So you swap the spoon for a carrot and whenever you snack on houmous, you eat it with carrots. After they’ve been repeatedly paired together, the carrot is now the conditioned stimulus and the carrot on its own is enough to produce feelings of pleasure (the conditioned response).
Next, I’ll apply classical conditioning to exercise. This time the unconditioned stimulus is going to be a brand new pair of headphones. The unconditioned response will be happiness, because you can listen to great music, and the neutral stimulus will be running. You decide to wear these headphones when you go running, and over time, the running itself becomes the conditioned stimulus and will produce the conditioned response of happiness on its own, without the headphones. So, if you forget your headphones or they break, it might not matter so much, because now you like to go for a run.
2.) Moving on to operant conditioning. This is a form of learning in which behaviour is modelled and maintained by its consequences. Possible consequences include positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment. Obviously punishment is a consequence of behaviour that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated, but I’m just going to focus on reinforcement here. Positive reinforcement is receiving a reward when a certain behaviour is performed and negative reinforcement occurs when we avoid something unpleasant.
First, I’m going to give you an example of negative reinforcement. Let’s imagine that you’re eating a huge slab of a sweet, fluffy, sugar-loaded sponge cake. And as you’re relishing that delicious last mouthful, you begin to feel really quite sick. So sick that you have to rush to the bathroom where your cake makes an unfortunate reappearance (sorry). Because of this traumatic experience, the idea of cake no longer appeals to you, since it reminds you of the upsetting event. In fact, the idea of the sponge cake alone makes you feel extremely queasy. So you avoid cake in order to avoid being sick, even if it was only a one-off occasion.
Now I’m going to give you an example of positive reinforcement. You’re cooking a healthy, balanced lunch, with lots of green vegetables, sweet potato and fresh fish. When you finish, you feel satisfied and full of energy, much more so than when you’ve eaten a big bowl of white pasta, which tends to make you feel bloated and sluggish. You feel so good after eating this healthy lunch that you make the same lunch the next day. So you’ve understood that this wonderful feeling is the result of this delicious, healthy lunch, and therefore the chances of you cooking it again have increased.
We can also apply this to exercise. Now, this can go two ways. If you go to an exercise class or play a sport that you love and gain an endorphin rush from, then you’ll be positively reinforced and want to do that exercise again. However, if you go for a run and it makes you feel overexerted, sick and in pain, then you’re unlikely to want to go for a run again to avoid the unpleasant experience – negative reinforcement.
If I haven’t lost you, then I hope you’ll agree with me that this is a really interesting approach. It has its strengths and limitations, which I’m not going to go into now, but think about the impact this could have in terms of our lifestyles. It can be applied to real-life and could lead to some really helpful experiments and consequences. Perhaps you could use one of these methods to “train” yourself, or someone else, to like something, such as a new exercise, or a new vegetable. Or you could use negative reinforcement to break a bad habit. You could effectively create your own reward system, or the opposite. It would be a fascinating challenge to see if I could “train” myself to like something new. Except for kiwi fruit, which I’m allergic to and have therefore learnt to avoid through negative reinforcement! Anyone up for a challenge, or willing to suggest one?!
Thanks for reading!