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The behavioural approach assumes OCD is a result of a learnt association between a stimulus and anxiety. Firstly, a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a particular learned response and whenever the stimulus is present, the individual carries out the response. For example, dirty objects became associated with anxiety and this is called classical conditioning. This response is furthered by avoidance of the stimulus, so positive outcomes are achieved. The anxiety is maintained over time by negative reinforcement which leads to the obsessions and the compulsive behaviours are then developed as the person believes that by performing them, the anxiety will decrease.

A strength of this theory is that there are also supporting evidence. For example, Tracy used an eye-blink task; when a puff of air is blown in the eye the unconditioned response is to blink if a bell is rung along with the puff. A person therefore acquires a conditioned response of blinking to the sound of the bell. OCD-like participants were conditioned more rapidly. This is a strength because it improves the internal validity of the theory, because it shows that those with OCD are more prone to develop conditioned responses which can provide an explanation for the compulsions.

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Similarly, a weakness of the behavioural theory is that there are problems with the evidence. For example, the participants used in Tracy’s study are OCD-like; they haven’t been diagnosed with OCD but have more obsessions and/or compulsions than ‘normal’ people. This is an issue because any conclusions may not be appropriate to generalise to understand the causes of OCD, as the participants used do not reflect the behaviour of an individual who truly does have OCD, so the study lacks population validity, weakening the ability for the behavioural approach to make applications to others.

Despite this, the fact that the study used participants who haven’t been diagnosed OCD means that ethical guidelines haven’t been breached, particularly protection of psychological harm. Causing such participants to suppress thoughts could worsen their symptoms of OCD, whereas participants without the disorder will be less affected. These approaches sit on the reductionist side of the debate. For example, the behavioural approach only focuses on environmental factors and doesn’t take into account cognitions, biological factors such as biochemistry, genetics and brain dysfunction and psychodynamic factors.

The cognitive approach draws attention to cognitions, ignoring behavioural, psychodynamic and biological factors. This is a strength because the reductionist nature of the approach means a higher level of detail is given because only one idea is taken into consideration. These approaches also only focus on one variable in an attempt to establish causal relationships, as opposed to looking at a variety of variables. However, this could also be seen as a weakness of the approach, because it leads to a limited theory overall and therefore, any treatments developed from the assumptions of these approaches solely may not treat the whole of the OCD sufferer, and there may not be a correct diagnosis.

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