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Understanding human behaviour

Posted on: March 15, 2022

Psychology is concerned with understanding what people do and why, otherwise known as the science of human behaviour. Understanding human behaviour has become increasingly important to commerce, so that brands and companies can manage their marketing strategies more effectively according to these behaviours. 

The explosion in data and analytics means that understanding the likelihood of an individual making a certain decision is, in theory, more predictable. Unfortunately, this also means that decision-making can be manipulated through the social environment of digital platforms. This is nothing new as behavioural experiments such as those of Milgram and Zimbardo have shown. However, with most people using social media, the ability to reach a larger audience and influence its opinions is much greater. 

Human behaviour involves a complex interplay between actions, cognition, and emotion. How we act, feel, and think combine and contribute to our behaviour. Actions initiate the transition of one state into another and include those that our bodies carry out such as sweating or muscle contractions. The thinking part of behaviour is sometimes referred to as cognitions, which can be verbal or non-verbal. Thinking can be expressed as a mental reminder to yourself not to forget an item when you’re grocery shopping, but also comprises skills and knowledge. Like cognitions, emotions cannot be observed directly. An emotion is a brief conscious experience that entails intense mental activity, and which does not arise from either reasoning or knowledge. 

Is behaviourism still relevant?

Behaviourism is the field of psychology which states that all behaviours are learned via interaction with the environment. This is also referred to as conditioning. Classical conditioning is demonstrated by Pavlov’s experiments that measured the salivation of dogs in response to sounds which became associated with the arrival of food. Operant conditioning is similar because it involves environmental stimuli, but unlike classical conditioning, it is not an involuntary response.

Sometimes called instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning is an associative learning process in which reward or punishment reinforces a particular behaviour. Both forms of conditioning have been applied to the study of social psychology, helping to clarify certain phenomena such as false consensus. This is sometimes called consensus bias and is a common cognitive bias that causes people to “see their own behavioural choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances” (Ross et al).

Individual differences are generally understood to be expressed as personality traits and are responsible for variation in behaviour. Behaviourists do not believe in free will. Behaviourist principles had a heavy influence on psychology throughout the mid-20th century but fell out of favour in the 1960s when cognitive psychology became popular. Cognitive psychology is more concerned with attention and memory, areas that behaviourism classes as part of the ‘black box’ of the mind. These inner processes are subjective rather than objective and cannot be measured or predicted in the ways that behaviourism favours.

Consciousness was also previously believed to be outside of the realms of psychology and the social sciences. It is often referred to as ‘the hard problem’ because science cannot currently explain the human brain’s role in something as intangible as subjective experience. Psychology and neuroscience increasingly overlap and we are gaining a better understanding of consciousness and how becoming aware of consciousness – such as through meditation – affects our well-being.

Behaviourism is still used by mental health professionals today in methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and it can be useful for conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, it is now understood to be potentially damaging for those on the autism spectrum or those who experience PTSD, for example. These are conditions that involve biochemistry which is still relatively unknown or misunderstood and require further research to better understand how mental health is intertwined.

Behavioural determinants are also considered in physical health and disease alongside social and environmental determinants. This is because factors such as whether we are motivated to exercise or how much we care about taking our medication at the right time affect our health and wellbeing.

Who is Daniel Kahneman?

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist and economist renowned for his work on the psychology of judgement and decision-making as well as behavioural economics. Kahneman began his academic career as a lecturer in psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1961. His work with Amos Tversky on prospect theory, which defines loss aversion, won him a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 2002. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explores the heuristics and biases that are intrinsic to human nature.

The cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker wrote In a 2014 article in The Observer,

“(Kahneman) pretty much created the field of behavioural economics and has revolutionised large parts of cognitive psychology and social psychology. His central message could not be more important, namely, that human reason left to its own devices is apt to engage in a number of fallacies and systematic errors, so if we want to make better decisions in our personal lives and as a society, we ought to be aware of these biases and seek workarounds. That’s a powerful and important discovery.”

How to read human behaviour

Learning how to read human behaviour is an advanced skill that comes from experience as much as from knowledge. Research has shown that words only account for 7-30% of communication, while body language and tone of voice account for the rest. 

Psychotherapists watch the body language of patients as much as they listen to what is being said. They are experts at noticing even minor head movements, micro expressions of the facial muscles, hand gestures, and changes in the body’s posture. Human beings are complex and what we say is not always what we think or feel. Someone who can read human behaviour will pick up on this dissonance.

Become a master of human psychology

Understanding human behaviour is just one facet of a master’s in psychology. Building a foundation of knowledge based on the biases that we all possess and often fail to acknowledge helps us to understand social norms and the contradictions of the human condition. 

From problem-solving to learning about different approaches, find out how an online MSc in Psychology from the University of Wolverhampton can change your perspective and help your career to flourish.

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