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Simply Speaking: The world of behaviourism and why it matters in marketing

That people can condition themselves to produce emotional responses to objects is a huge matter for marketing.

By  Shubhranshu SinghOct 17, 2022 7:09 AM
Simply Speaking: The world of behaviourism and why it matters in marketing
Marketing is a stimulus. Like with all other stimuli, a person builds up a ‘cognitive map’ of the world. Human behaviour obviously leaps way beyond conditioned learning. (Representational image via Unsplash)

Man is the only species that moderates its behaviour on the basis of continuous learning. All other creatures have an unfolding of instinct almost as a pre-programmed guide to action. But there is more than meets the eye.

For a long time behaviourism was confined to studies with animals.

In the 1890s German-born biologist Jacques Loeb first explained animal behavior in purely physical- chemical terms. At around the same time, the principle of classical conditioning was established by Ivan Pavlov using experiments on dogs. This ‘Pavlovian conditioning’ acquired fame though much of the rest of his work remained obscure.

In 1905 Edward Thorndike established that animals learn through achieving successful outcomes from their behavior. Edward Tolman added the critical aspect of cognition into behaviorism in his theory of latent learning published in 1932.

Through the 1950s Cognitive psychologists focus on understanding the mental processes that both lie behind and produce human behavior.

It’s a vast subject to summarise but essentially the consensus was that the fundamental human emotions are fear, rage, and love. These are reflexive and unlearned. However where evoking feelings is concerned, they can be attached to objects through stimulus–response conditioning.

This simple outcome, namely that people can condition themselves to produce emotional responses to objects - when appreciated for its psychological foundations - is a huge matter for marketing .

It established that just anyone, regardless of their nature, can be responding conditionally to be anything.

John Watson was the leading light of the experimental behaviorist approach. His academic career was cut short by his marital infidelity, but migrating on to advertising, he became one of the most influential and controversial psychologists of the 20th century thanks to his work on the stimulus– response learning theory. His 1913 lecture, ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’, put forward the revolutionary idea that “a truly scientific psychology would abandon talk of mental states... and instead focus on prediction and control of behavior.” This lecture became known to later psychologists as the “behaviorist manifesto.”

Before Watson’s research at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland, the majority of experiments on behavior had concentrated on animal behavior, with the results extrapolated to human behavior.

Watson himself studied rats and monkeys for his doctorate but influenced by his experience working with the military during World War I , he was keen to conduct experiments using human subjects.

He wanted to study the stimulus–response model of classical conditioning and how it applied to the prediction and mapping of human behavior. In the 1920s he conducted a set of experiments with response and object identification by an infant . The work gained academic fame as ‘Little Albert’

In the “nature versus nurture” debate, Watson was firmly on the side of nurture. He believed response conditioning is learned, not instinctive.

In subsequent decades there was the rise of Cognitive or ‘purposive’ behaviorism’ as the dominant movement in psychology.

Cognition as a starter and settler or behaviour was, till then, not universally acknowledged. The logic propounded was broadly as follows. As a mouse goes around in a maze he explores and learns. Each exposure makes the maze known, even familiar. Every journey builds on previous exposure.

Mental processes, including perception, cognition, and motivation, earlier parts of Gestalt psychology advanced mostly in Germany were developed into a new theory summarily termed cognitive behaviourism in the United States.

Marketing is a stimulus. Like with all other stimuli, a person builds up a ‘cognitive map’ of the world. Human behaviour obviously leaps way beyond conditioned learning. It is folly to think that behaviour is learned simply by an automatic response to a stimulus. In fact humans can originate thoughts and emotions independently as well without the reinforcement of a reward.

But the experience of reward guides and makes decision-making easier.

Edward Tolman in the 1930s designed a series of experiments using rats in mazes to examine the role of reinforcement in learning. Comparing a group of rats that were rewarded with food daily for successfully negotiating the maze, with another group who were only rewarded after six days, and a third group rewarded after two days, Tolman’s ideas were confirmed.

The second and third groups made fewer errors when running the maze the day after they had been rewarded with food, demonstrating that they already “knew” their way around the maze, having learned it prior to receiving rewards. Once rewards were on offer, they were able to use the “cognitive map” they had built in order to negotiate the maze faster.

Latent learning

Tolman referred to the rats’ initial learning period, where there was no obvious reward, as “latent learning.” He believed that as all animals go about their daily lives, they build up a cognitive map of the world around them -the “God-given maze”—which they can apply to locate specific goals.

He then established this extends at an even higher rate of learning and contextual absorption to humans. He gave the example of how we learn the locations of various landmarks on our daily journeys, but only realize what we have learned when we need to find somewhere along the route.

In ‘Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men’, Tolman outlined his theory of latent learning and cognitive maps.

Truly Edward Tolman did the work that made the confluence of the many streams of work on behaviourism possible.

Edward Chace Tolman was born into a well-to-do family in West Newton, Massachusetts. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating in electrochemistry in 1911, but after reading works by William James opted for a postgraduate degree at Harvard in philosophy and psychology. While studying, he travelled to Germany and was introduced to Gestalt psychology. After gaining his doctorate, he taught at Northwestern University, but his pacifist views lost him his job, and he moved to the University of California at Berkeley. It was here that he experimented with rats in mazes.

He died in Berkeley, aged 73, in 1959.

Key works

1932 Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men

1942 Drives Toward War

1948 Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men

Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.

First Published on Oct 17, 2022 7:09 AM