Compare and contrast the approaches of Skinner and Harlow
to investigating influences on behaviour
Investigating influences on behaviour has been a key objective of psychological research over many
years culminating in several critically acclaimed theories and models. Employing different
techniques and methodologies this diversity of approach has “helped to build a more complete
understanding of human behaviour and its complexity” (Brace and Byford 2010, p273). Many
studies, often for ethical reasons, used animals as the subject of research the outcomes of which
were extrapolated to provide meaningful insights into similar aspects of human behaviour. Drawing
on such studies by the eminent American psychologists, B F Skinner and Harry Harlow this essay
critically examines their approaches to the investigation of influences on behaviour. It also evaluates
the ecological validity of their respective findings and the degree to which our knowledge and
understanding of this complex and dynamic aspect of the human condition has benefited as a result.
Skinner and Harlow shared several philosophical perspectives. They individually challenged the
orthodox psychology prevailing at the time of their studies. Both were pragmatists decreeing a strict
empirical approach to psychological research based exclusively upon objective and measurable
phenomena. They were advocates of comparative psychology in which the results from the studies
of animal behaviour in a controlled laboratory environment could be amplified to understand and
explain similar behavioural traits in humans. Interestingly, Harlow’s early investigations into learning
(Erupting Mind, 2012) were also similar in some respects to Skinner’s initial conditioning studies.
Monkeys presented with different shaped containers were tested to establish their ability to
discriminate between them by the reward of food beneath the correctly selected container.
Coincidentally, their key...