B.F. contrast, nomothetic theorists aim to provide universal systems

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) was the key founder of behaviourism. He proposed that behaviour is governed by environmental influences and that humans learn through consequences. Humanistic theorist such as Carl Rogers, however, critised this idea as he believed that humans should be seen as a whole and pushed the idea of free will. Such approaches are great examples of opposing idiographic and nomothetic ideas. The idiographic school of thought believe that people should be viewed as individuals and thus each case is unique and cannot be compared or used to explain other behaviours (McLeod, 2011). This outlook is embedded throughout the humanistic approach, who proposed a holistic, self-centred approach to understanding human behaviour.  In contrast, nomothetic theorists aim to provide universal systems or characteristics which generalise to all individuals (Phelps, 2015). This is evident throughout behaviourism who reduce behaviour to environmental stimuli suggesting behaviour is learnt through association and consequence.


Behaviourists based their theories on observable behaviours. They criticised introspection (e.g. the psychoanalysis approach) due to its subjective nature so it cannot be seen as scientific (Pennington D, 2002). Furthermore, they believe each person is born to a blank slate and is nurtured to become who they are. Thus placing emphasis on environmental influences on behaviour. However, biologists such as Wundt would oppose such ideas as they believe behaviour is governed by innate neurological impulses. Conversely, both behaviorists and biologists share the fact that such approaches are both deterministic and reductionist which a humanistic approach would oppose as it eliminates free will and reduces behaviour rather than looking at individuals as a whole.

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Skinner proposed the idea of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning refers to learning behaviours through environmental consequences (Skinner…).  Skinner used mechanisms which he called Skinner’s box to observe behavior of animals such as pigeons and rats and to condition their responses through reinforcement (consequence). He experimented with different schedules of reinforcement to mold behaviour. E.g. Food can be released with every press, every 5 minutes (fixed interval) and/or every 50 presses (fixed ratio). He found that when they were rewarded it would reinforce the behaviour. After learning through trial and error, they were conditioned to produce the behaviour even when there was no reward. Thus concluding that behaviour is learnt through environmental stimuli and consequences. Pavlov later developed the idea of classical conditioning which refers to learning to produce a conditioned response due to learning through association of a stimulus to a response.


Skinner and behaviourism as a whole has been criticised for rejecting the idea of free will. Likewise, the idea that people are solely the product of their environment has been criticised.  Bandura (1986), for example showed that people also learn through observing others and through insight. Thus, cognitive processing occurs between the stimulus and response. Hence one limitation of the behaviourist perspective is that mental processes of the individual were not taken into account as they were not seen as an appropriate area of study due to the fact that these process are not objective (Pennington, 2002). Nevertheless, behaviourism has had a key influence on psychology as a science due to its objective nature. It has also had many influences on education especially the idea of reinforcement and punishment.


The humanistic approach on the other hand, promotes the idea that humans have free will unlike the deterministic nature of behaviourism. They believe that one chooses how they act and behave, the idea of personal responsibility and the idea that humans do not just passively respond to environmental stimuli. The approach also recognises a person as having their own needs as an individual. Thus the humanist approach adds validity to the subjective experience and feelings (McLeod, 2007). Additionally, this approach puts emphasis on viewing behaviour in a holistic manner, this contradict the Skinner’s view as he reduces behaviour to responses to stimuli.


Rogers was an influential individual in developing the humanistic approach. He proposed that

behaviour is goal driven. However, he suggested that the basic motivation and goal is to reach one’s full potential which he called self-actualisation (Rogers & Koch, 1959). The process of self-actualisation requires congruency between how others perceive us and how we wish to be precieved. He believed that humans have conscious control over their lives which contradicts Skinner’s view that behaviour is determined by environmental stimuli. However, Rodger’s theory has been criticised for being over simplistic in implying that we only have one goal as human beings. It has been criticised by behaviourists for being too subjective. Rodgers did not place much importance on objective behaviours, however, Skinner would argue that objective behaviours are important in order for psychology to be viewed as a science (Skinner 1953). 


Humanists believe that approaches such as behvaiourism neglect the essence of being a human by relying too much on scientific measures and observable behaviours. Thus it does not allow for thoughts, feelings and choice to be taken into account. While behaviourists criticise humanistic approach for not using scientific methods. The fact that Humanism rejects the scientific methods means the approach has little empirical evidence available. Nevertheless, humanists would argue that the lack of objective material is not relevant as long as people benefit from the humanist approach to therapy, and lead better lives (Pennington, 2002). In fact, the humanistic approach has applications in client centered therapy.


In conclusion, both theories provide significant theories of psychology and investigating human behaviour. Skinner and behaviourism on a whole focused on the role of the environment in developing behaviours while humanists place more emphasis on the person themselves and believe they are in conscious control of their behaviours. Behaviourism took a nomothetic standpoint in developing their theories, placing importance on scientific measures. While humanistic theorist use case studies and place importance on the uniqueness of individuals rather than generalising. Nevertheless, both approaches have validity and applications in society today through therapy and also in the education system.