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Examples of Behaviorism in Psychology

Behaviorism is a theory of human psychology that suggests that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. According to this approach to psychology, it is our interactions with our environments that shape what we learn, who we are, and how we act.

Examples of behaviorism include theories such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning, as well as techniques like token economies and behavior modeling.

Behaviorists believe that people are shaped by their interactions with their environment. They emphasize the importance of observable, overt behaviors and believe changing a person’s environment will change how they act, think, and feel.

Behaviorism rose to prominence early in the 20th century. During that time, psychologists strove to make psychology a more scientific and empirical science.

This article covers examples of behaviorism, how it works, and how it is still used today. It also discusses the history of behaviorism and its contributions to psychology.

What Is Behaviorism?

At its most basic, behaviorism can be defined as the study of observable behavior. The central idea of behaviorism is that all actions are acquired through conditioning processes.

  • Behaviorism suggests that psychology should be the science of observable behavior. Instead of focusing on what goes on inside the mind, the behaviorists suggested that psychology should focus on the environmental influences that cause behaviors.
  • Behaviorism suggests that learning and behavior are the result of stimulus-response associations. Behaviors can be explained by looking at these learned associations rather than focusing on internal events inside the human mind.

The behaviorist influence was stronger during the middle half of the 20th century than it is today. However, behavioral concepts and theories remain important in fields such as education and psychotherapy.

The History of Behaviorism

Earlier schools of thought in psychology focused on either identifying the structures of the human mind (structuralism) or understanding how the mind functioned (functionalism). The behaviorists, however, felt that psychology needed to focus only on what could be observed to become a more scientific discipline.

Influenced by the work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, psychologist John B. Watson began using the concept of classical conditioning to describe how and why people learn. Watson felt that this conditioning process could explain much of human behavior.

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own special world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, beggarman and thief.”

John B. Watson

While most experts would disagree with Watson’s statement, many of the early, staunch behaviorists believed that conditioning could explain all learning and behavioral responses.

Modern behaviorists recognize that not all human thought, learning, and behaviors can be accounted for by the conditioning process, yet Watson’s approach had a significant impact on the field of psychology.

Behaviorism helped establish psychology as a more experimental and scientific discipline.

Types of Behaviorism

Behaviorism can be divided into two main types: methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism.

  • Methodological behaviorism is focused on studying and measuring observable behavior. This type of behaviorism suggests that you don’t need to look at the internal mental states or processes in order to understand behaviors. Instead, you simply need to scientifically study the behavior itself.
  • Radical behaviorism suggests that all behavior is the result of conditioning. This includes behaviors that are influenced by external stimuli as well as internal ones. This approach incorporates the role of mental events and treats them the same as behaviors that can be observed and understood.

Examples of Behaviorism

Two of the most important concepts to emerge from behaviorism were classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a learning process in which an association is formed between a naturally occurring unconditioned stimulus and a previously neutral stimulus. The unconditioned stimulus naturally and automatically triggers an unconditioned response. Once this association has been made, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus capable of invoking a conditioned response.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a learning process that involves reinforcing or punishing a behavior. Reinforcement makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future, whereas punishment makes it less likely that the behavior will be repeated.

There are two types of reinforcement that can be used to increase the likelihood of a behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement involves introducing a positive outcome that increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future.
  • Negative reinforcement involves removing an unpleasant outcome in order to increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again.

There are also two different types of punishment that can be used to decrease or weaken responses:

  • Positive punishment involves adding an aversive stimulus to decrease a behavior.
  • Negative punishment involves taking away a desirable stimulus to decrease a behavior.

To distinguish between reinforcement and punishment, remember that reinforcement increases a behavior while punishment decreases it. You can also distinguish between negative reinforcement and punishment by remembering that negative reinforcement removes an unpleasant outcome, while punishment adds an aversive outcome or takes something pleasant away.

Examples of Behaviorism Concepts

Other key concepts in behaviorism include:

  • Shaping: Shaping is an example of behaviorism that involves rewarding progressively closer approximations toward a goal until the target behavior is acquired.
  • Stimulus generalization: Stimulus generalization happens when a learner applies what they have learned with regard to one stimulus to a similar stimulus.
  • Acquisition: Acquisition is an early part of the learning process when a response is first acquired.
  • Extinction: Extinction involves removing the reinforcement or consequences for a behavior, which then causes a response to weaken and eventually be eliminated.

Important Thinkers in Behaviorism

There were a number of key people who shaped the history and practice of behaviorism. Some of these thinkers include:

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who first discovered and described the conditioning reflex.

John B. Watson

John B. Watson is often described as the “father of behaviorism.” While influential, his work was controversial and posed numerous ethical issues. He conducted the Little Albert experiment, a classic psychological experiment.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner was an influential thinker responsible for introducing operant conditioning and schedules of reinforcement.

Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike introduced a psychological principle known as the law of effect. According to this principle, responses that produce a satisfying effect are more likely to occur again in the future. Conversely, responses that produce undesirable effects become less likely to occur again in the future.

Clark Hull

Clark Hull was a psychologist who utilized drive theory to explain learning and motivation. According to this theory, deprivation creates needs and drives, which then lead to behavior. Because this behavior is goal-oriented, the behavior itself is important for survival.

Important Events in Behaviorism

  • 1863 – Ivan Sechenov’s Reflexes of the Brain was published. Sechenov introduced the concept of inhibitory responses in the central nervous system.
  • 1900 – Ivan Pavlov began studying the salivary response and other reflexes.
  • 1913 – John Watson’s Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It was published. The article outlined the many of the main points of behaviorism.
  • 1920 – Watson and assistant Rosalie Rayner conducted the famous “Little Albert” experiment.
  • 1943 – Clark Hull’s Principles of Behaviorwas published.
  • 1948 – B.F. Skinner published Walden II in which he described a utopian society founded upon behaviorist principles.
  • 1959 – Noam Chomsky published his criticism of Skinner’s behaviorism, “Review of Verbal Behavior.”
  • 1971 – B.F. Skinner published his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in which he argued that free will is an illusion.

What Impact Did Behaviorism Have?

Behaviorism was a major force in psychology during the first half of the 20th century and played an important role in establishing psychology as a science rather than a philosophical pursuit.

While behaviorism is not the dominating force that it once was, it still plays an important role in contemporary psychology.

Examples of Behaviorism in Therapy

A number of important therapeutic techniques have been derived from behavioral principles. Some examples of behaviorism in therapy include:

  • Token economies
  • Aversion therapy
  • Modeling
  • Behavior analysis
  • Systematic desensitization

Behaviorism’s greatest contributions to the field of psychology may be these many practical applications. Such techniques help people learn new behaviors and eliminate unwanted or unhealthy behaviors.

Limitations of Behaviorism

However, it is important to note that the behavioral school of thought does have some weaknesses.

It ignores internal states: Behaviorism can be helpful in understanding certain types of learning, but it leaves out important elements such as emotions, moods, and thoughts.

It doesn’t explain all types of learning: It also does not explain learning that take place without association, reinforcement, or punishment.


Behaviorism is not as dominant today as it was during the middle of the 20th-century. However, it still remains an influential force in psychology.

Outside of psychology, animal trainers, parents, teachers, and many others make use of basic behavioral principles to help teach new behaviors and discourage unwanted ones.

Behaviorism Study Questions

Who was the founder of behaviorism?

John B. Watson is generally regarded as the founder of behaviorism. Although he made no claims to be the founder of this school of thought and his academic career was relatively short-lived, he made important contributions to behaviorism that helped establish behaviorist positions and theories.

“Watson deserves the fame he has received, since he first made a strong case for a natural science (behaviorist) approach and, importantly, he made people pay attention to it,” suggested John C. Malone in an article published in the journal The Behavior Analyst.

What is radical behaviorism?

Radical behaviorism was the perspective that behavior should be the sole focus of psychological science. B.F. Skinner, the best-known behaviorist along with Watson, was a proponent of radical behaviorism.

He acknowledged the existence of internal mental events such as thoughts and feelings but believed that it was better to study only behaviors that could be observed.

What was the Little Albert experiment?

The so-called “Little Albert” experiment was a study conducted by John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner. In the experiment, they used classical conditioning to teach an infant (the eponymous Albert) to fear a white rat by pairing the sight of the animal with a loud, scary sound.

The child not only learned to fear the white rat; he also generalized the fear and was afraid of similar white objects.


Malone J. C. (2014). Did John B. Watson really “found” behaviorism?. The Behavior Analyst37(1), 1–12.

Molteni, J. (2013). Behaviorism. In: Volkmar, F.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Springer, New York, NY.

Pavlov IP. The Work of the Digestive Glands. London: Griffin; 1897.

Phillips, D.C. (2012). Behaviorism and Behaviorist Learning Theories. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA.

Skinner BF. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf; 1971,

Watson JB. Behaviorism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers; 1930.

Watson JB. Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review. 1913;20:158-178.