The study of human psychology is a fascinating subject because it deals with universal human concerns and issues. Human behaviour and performance is one focus area within broader psychology. The book titled Discovering Psychology co-edited by Nicola Brace and Jovan Byford deals with this area at length. By perusing the contents of the book and by assimilating and synthesizing salient points within, the rest of this essay will attempt to answer the topic question.
One of the accepted theories in child psychology is the ‘social learning’ theory. It states that children can grasp, assimilate and imitate the behaviour of those around them. This is very helpful when parents and teachers want to teach children good manners and decorum by way of setting an example. But in the modern household environment in which a child grows up, television sets and computers attract their attention easily. This is not a bad environment to grow up in entirely, for “The advent of digital media and the proliferation of technologies that support their delivery, such as the internet, mean that children now have easy access to lots of information. This ranges from educational material, through various types of entertainment, to interactive online experiences”. (Oates, p.103)
Unfortunately, though, these digital media and communication technologies tend to show a lot of emotionally intense imagery. This includes violent behaviour, aggression, etc. which can appear very realistic in their portrayal, leaving a lasting impression on the formative minds of children. Even something as outwardly benign as cartoons contains a lot of violence (at times even exceeding those of action movies). The rubbery cartoon characters are seldom shown as getting hurt in their physical exuberances. But the danger lies if children try to replicate such actions during their playtime. There is also the avenue of video games, through which children get shown more violence. Many popular games in action genre involve the player carrying guns and ammunition as he sets out to accomplish the mission. An unguided child, who gets exposed to excess of cartoons and video games, is bound to develop behaviour problems both at home and in school. This assessment is backed by studies conducted on the subject. Author John Oates encapsulates the study results thus:
“In the 1930s, a study showed that crime was a major of theme of 25 per cent of the 1500 ?lms that were analysed (Dale, 1935). There was also growing concern around this time about violence shown in comics. Behind these concerns lay a notion that there can be some sort of direct effect of viewing violent material on screen, an effect that either predisposes the viewer to change their attitude towards violence, for example by becoming more tolerant of violence, or renders them more likely to behave in violent ways themselves. Exposure to media violence, either in ?lms, on television or in computer games, is regularly cited as a possible factor causing violent behaviour in the real world.” (Oates, p.105)
So, there is no doubt that ‘social learning’ theory is at operation in problem children. An examination of various studies discussed in Chapter 3 serves as a proof of social learning theory’s validity. But what should be of concern to educators and parents alike is the issue of malefic media environment that children get exposed to. Since the assessment of media environment shows it in negative light, it is time for controlling access and exposure to such content.
Another interesting theory that helps examine human behaviour is the ‘consequence’ model. Here, the emphasis is not on imitation but on ‘outcomes’ of a particular behaviour – those that result in pleasant outcomes get sustained while those meeting negative outcomes are dropped. Renowned psychologists such as B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov have conducted and verified experiments in support of this theory. Pavlov’s famous experiment with a hungry dog is a classic illustration of the veracity of behavioural psychology. Although behavioural psychology does not explain all human qualities, its basis on the ‘pleasure principle’ and its identification of reward seeking behaviour in humans is amply supported by evidence. While most of the experiments in behavioural psychology are conducted on mammals, their results generally hold true for humans as well. Through this theory, the role played by environment (in this case that of rewarding or punishing environment) in moulding human behaviour is once again reinforced.
When assessing the implications of theories in behavioural psychology, a few areas prove controversial. The most prominent one is the ‘free will’ v. ‘determinism’ debate. Those opposing the scope of these theories argue that human beings are unique among life forms in that they can exhibit free will and self-determination and act accordingly. They question the value of a theory that hints at automatic processes behind human behaviour. On the other hand, supporters of the theory state that even those actions that appear as freely willed have a pre-condition to it, whereby they could be seen as subconsciously reinforced actions/behaviours. This debate has profound political, social and ethical ramifications. To be fair to Skinner, his theories have been successfully implemented in weaning people off drug addiction, modifying anti-social behaviour in prisoners, etc. It also has the potential to contribute to our dependency on fossil fuel, by making us behave in an environmentally friendly way. But, it should be remembered that that the debate is at the heart of what human beings are, and since it has implications for the dignity and superiority of our species over other animals, the theories pertaining to it have to be treated with healthy scepticism. It is perhaps a reflection of such doubts within the community of psychologists that not many have openly supported Skinner’s behaviourism.
Another key factor that shapes human behaviour is cognition. The way we perceive, remember and register things in our minds plays a crucial role in the kind of responses we will give. In this way, the ‘intellectual’ environment can be said to play a role in affecting behaviour and performance. The basis for theories in this area is the inherent limitation of the human brain. Even at their best mental condition, people’s brains and their sensory equipment can only pick up a fraction of all available information in their environment. In this scenario, the manner and emphasis with which information is presented assumes special significance. Researchers such as Loftus and Palmer have conducted experiments relating to the ethics, practicality, ecological validity and consequentiality of applied and theoretical experiments. The underlying assumption being that the manner in which experiments are constructed (in the case of a questionnaire, the way in which questions are framed) do influence information intake (memory) and later recall (performance). So, the theories that relate external environment to memory, recall and cognitive performance are well-grounded.