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Behaviorism is an approach within psychology based on the proposition that behavior, human as well as animal, can be researched scientifically and understood without recourse to inner mental states. Three major figures led to the development of this approach: Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner. Their research produced theories of learning based entirely on reactions, or "responses," by the organism (human or animal), directly to stimuli in the environment through processes of conditioning. This was a significant turning point in psychology as a scientific discipline, and led to extensive research in comparative psychology and experimental psychology, providing valuable data on how both animals and humans learn appropriate responses to their external environment.

While such theories are no longer considered adequate to explain all forms of learning and behavior, nonetheless, methodologies developed through such studies continue to be utilized in numerous research programs that have greatly expanded understanding of human nature.


Behaviorism was developed with the mandate that only observations that satisfied the criteria of the scientific method, namely that they must be repeatable at different times and by independent observers, were to be admissible as evidence. This effectively dismissed introspection, the main technique of psychologists following Wilhelm Wundt's experimental psychology, the dominant paradigm in psychology in the early twentieth century. Thus, behaviorism can be seen as a form of materialism, denying any independent significance to processes of the mind. A similar approach may be found in political science, known as "Behavioralism."

The behaviorist school of thought ran concurrent with psychoanalytic movement, originated by the work of Sigmund Freud, who was also a proponent of a mechanistic view of human nature, but regarded the mind, particularly the unconscious, as the arena in which uniquely human activities occurred.

One of the assumptions many behaviorists hold is that free will is an illusion. As a result, behaviorism dictates that all behavior is determined by a combination of genetic factors and the environment, either through classical or operant conditioning. Its main instigators were Ivan Pavlov, who investigated classical conditioning, John B. Watson who coined the term "behaviorism," and sought to restrict psychology to experimental methods, and B.F. Skinner who sought to give grounding to behaviorism, conducting research on operant conditioning.

Key concepts

  • Learning: A change in behavior attributed to the result of experience.
  • Parsimony: The principle that states in the philosophy of science, a person should always opt for the simplest explanation.
  • Stimulus: Anything that may affect the environment and thereby affect an individual's behavior.
  • Response: Any reaction to a stimulus. For behaviorists, the response is limited to any measurable behavior.
  • Reflex: An unlearned response that is triggered by certain stimuli.
  • Voluntary Response: A response that the individual has control over.
  • Classical Conditioning: The study of learning that focuses on reflex responses.
  • Operant Conditioning: The study of learning that focuses on the changes in voluntary responses as a result of their consequences.
  • Radical Behaviorism: A position adopted by Watson and Skinner, which stated that the study of internal processes are impossible to study objectively and are irrelevant to understanding a person's behavior.
  • Behavior Modification: Applying conditioning principles to alter a person's behavior.
  • Equipotentiality: The idea that the principles of condition should apply to all behaviors and all species.
  • Ethology: The study of the behavior of animals in their natural habitat.
  • Species-specific Behavior: Sometimes referred to as instincts, these are behaviors that are characteristic of a specific species.

The founders of behaviorism

John B. Watson

Early in the twentieth century, Watson argued, in his book Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, for a psychology which concerned itself solely with the objective observation of behavior. At the time, this was a substantial break from the predominant structuralist psychology, which used the method of introspection and considered the study of behavior obsolete.

Watson, unlike many of his colleagues, studied the adjustment of organisms to their environment. More specifically, he was interested in determining the particular stimuli that led organisms to make their responses. Watson's approach was much influenced by the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who discovered the phenomenon of classical conditioning in his famous study of dogs' digestive systems. Watson adopted Pavlov's model, emphasizing physiological responses and the role of stimuli in producing conditioned responses. For this reason, Watson may be described as a "stimulus-response" (S-R) psychologist.

Methodological behaviorism

Watson's theory persuaded most academic researchers of the importance of behavioral study. In the field of comparative psychology in particular, it was consistent with the warning note that had been struck by Lloyd Morgan's canon, against some of the more anthropomorphic work, such as that of George Romanes, in which mental states had been freely attributed to animals. Watson's approach was eagerly seized on by researchers such as Edward L. Thorndike who had been studying cats' abilities to escape from puzzle boxes. However, most psychologists took up a position that is now called "methodological behaviorism:" They acknowledged that behavior was either the only, or the most effective, method of objective observation in psychology.

Among well-known twentieth century behaviorists taking this position were Clark L. Hull, who described his position as "neo-behaviorism," and Edward C. Tolman, who developed much of what would later become the cognitivist program. Tolman (1948) argued that rats constructed "cognitive maps" of the mazes they learned to run, even in the absence of reward, and that the connection between stimulus and response (S->R) was mediated by a third component—the organism (S->O->R).

Methodological behaviorism has remained the position of most experimental psychologists. With the rise of interest in animal cognition since the 1980s, and more unorthodox views, such as Donald Griffin's (1976) argument that animals have conscious minds like those of humans, mentalistic language increasingly came to be used even in discussions of animal psychology, in both comparative psychology and ethology. However, even discussion of consciousness is in no way inconsistent with the position of methodological behaviorism.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner, who carried out experimental work in the field of comparative psychology from the 1930s to the 1950s, remained behaviorism's best known theorist and exponent until his death in 1990. Skinner developed a distinct kind of behaviorist philosophy, which came to be called "radical behaviorism." He is credited with having founded a new version of psychological science, called behavioral analysis, or the "Experimental Analysis of Behavior," (EAB) after variations on the subtitle to his 1938 work, The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis Of Behavior.

While EAB differs from other approaches of behavioral research on numerous methodological and theoretical points, radical behaviorism departs from methodological behaviorism most notably in its acceptance of the treatment of feelings, states of mind, and introspection as existent and scientifically treatable. However, radical behaviorism stops short of identifying feelings as causes of behavior. Among other points of difference was a rejection of the reflex as a model of all behavior, and the defense of a science of behavior complementary to, but independent of, physiology.

This philosophical position gained strength from the success of Skinner's early experimental work with rats and pigeons, summarized in his books The Behavior of Organisms (1938) and Schedules of Reinforcement (1957, with C. B. Ferster). Of particular importance was his discovery of the "operant response," which is famously remembered through what became known as "Skinner Box." An operant response contrasts with a reflex response in that it consists of a class of structurally distinct, but functionally equivalent, responses. For example, while a rat might press a lever with its left paw, its right paw, or even its tail, all of these different responses operate on the world in the same way and achieve a common outcome, namely, the depression of the lever. Thus, operants may be thought of as a series of responses that achieve similar ends or consequences.

Skinner's empirical work expanded on earlier research of trial-and-error learning by researchers such as Thorndike and Guthrie. Skinner also observed the effects of different schedules of reinforcement on the rates of operant responses made by the animals. He achieved remarkable success in training animals to perform unexpected responses, to emit large numbers of responses, and to demonstrate many empirical regularities within behavior. These findings lent some credibility to his radical conceptual analysis.

Relation to language

As Skinner turned from experimental work to concentrate on the philosophical underpinnings of a science of behavior, his attention turned to human language. His book, Verbal Behavior (1957) laid out a theory for the functional analysis of verbal behavior. The book was strongly criticized by the linguist Noam Chomsky (1959). Skinner did not respond in detail; but later he claimed that "[Chomsky] doesn’t know what I am talking about and for some reason is unable to understand it" (Skinner 1972).

What was important for a behaviorist analysis of human behavior was not language acquisition, so much as the interaction between language and overt behavior. In an essay republished in his 1969 book, Contingencies of Reinforcement, Skinner took the view that human beings could construct linguistic stimuli, which would then acquire control over their behavior in the same way that external stimuli could. The possibility of such "instructional control" over behavior meant that contingencies of reinforcement would not always produce the same effects on human behavior with the same reliability as they did in the various animals that had been studied.

Behaviorism in philosophy

In many ways, behaviorism is both a psychological and a philosophical movement. The basic premise of radical behaviorism is that the study of behavior should be an empirical science, such as chemistry or physics. Behaviorists sought to create a discipline that forsook all hypothetical and subjective internal states of the organisms they studied.

There are approaches within analytic philosophy that have named themselves, or have been coined by others, as behaviorist. In logical behaviorism (as held, for example, by Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel), the meaning of psychological statements are their verification conditions, which consist of performed overt behavior. Quine made use of a type of behaviorism, influenced by some of Skinner's ideas, in his own work on language. Gilbert Ryle defended a distinct strain of philosophical behaviorism, sketched in his book The Concept of Mind, in which his central claim was that instances of dualism frequently represented "category mistakes," and hence that they were really misunderstandings of the use of ordinary language.

Daniel Dennett likewise has acknowledged himself to be a type of behaviorist (Bennett 1993). It has sometimes been argued that Ludwig Wittgenstein defended a behaviorist position, and there are important areas of overlap between his philosophy, logical behaviorism, and radical behaviorism. (For example, the "beetle in a box" argument in which Wittgenstein referred to the concept wherein someone imagines that everyone has a box with a beetle inside. No one can look inside anther's box, and each claims to know what a beetle is only by examining their own. Wittgenstein suggested that in such a situation, the word "beetle" could not be the name of a thing, since everyone may perceive the beetle differently; the beetle "drops out of consideration as irrelevant.") However, Wittgenstein was not a behaviorist, and his style of writing is sufficiently elliptical to allow for a range of interpretations. Mathematician Alan Turing has also sometimes been considered a behaviorist, but did not make this identification himself.

Criticisms of behaviorism

Behaviorism can be critiqued as an overly deterministic view of human behavior—by ignoring the internal psychological and mental processes, behaviorism oversimplifies the complexity of human behavior. Some would even argue that the strict nature of radical behaviorism essentially defines human beings as mechanisms without free will.

The behaviorist approach has also been criticized for its inability to account for learning or changes in behavior that occur in the absence of environmental input; such occurrences signal the presence of an internal psychological or mental process.

Finally, research by ethologists has shown that the principles of conditioning are not universal, countering the behaviorist claim of equipotentiality across conditioning principles.

Behaviorism was developed as a counter to the introspective approach that relied primarily, if not entirely, on internal, self-reflection on conscious, mental activity. While radical behaviorism may be quite limited in its explanatory power, nonetheless, it served an important role in allowing psychology to develop a scientific pursuit of knowledge about human nature and behavior.

Nevertheless, the link between stimulus and response is not just a simple, direct, cause and effect relationship. Factors beyond the stimulus are involved in determining the response. Actions occur based on purpose, and purpose is determined by the mind of the subject. Thus, a more complete understanding of human behavior would need to include both the external actions of the body and the inner life of the mind.


Despite such criticisms of behaviorism, the study of operant and classical conditioning has greatly contributed to the understanding of human behavior in psychology. Even though no longer an authoritative voice, behaviorism was the dominant force in North American psychology for a considerable period of the twentieth century.

A natural outgrowth of behaviorism is behavior therapy, a technique of altering an individual's maladaptive reactions to particular stimuli. It involves the most basic of methods to alter human behavior, such as reward and punishment, reinforcement, and even biofeedback, using conditioning techniques. The cultivation of life skills is often a central focus. While founded in behaviorism, such forms of behavior modification are used by psychotherapists, parents, and caretakers of the disabled, generally without any underlying behaviorist philosophy.

Behaviorism developed as a reaction to the introspective approach, which was unsuccessful in explaining mental processes. In many ways, behaviorism paved the way for a new, scientifically based psychology, which greatly advanced understanding of human behavior.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Griffin, Donald R. 1976. Question of Animal Awareness. ISBN 0865760020.
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  • Mills, John A. 2000. Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York University Press.
  • Plotnik, Rod. 2005. Introduction to Psychology. Thomson-Wadsworth. ISBN 0534634079.
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  • Skinner, B.F. 2002. Beyond Freedom & Dignity. Hackett Publishing.
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External links

All links retrieved September 26, 2023.


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