Behaviorism: An Overview of Behavioral Psychology

(Last Updated On: May 13, 2018)

Behaviorism is a theory of human psychology that suggests that all behaviors are acquired through the process of 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.

Behaviorism rose to prominence early in the twentieth-century as psychologists strove to make psychology a more scientific and empirical science.

What Is Behaviorism?

First things first, it is important to understand exactly what behavior is and what it focuses on.

Behavioral psychology is one of the major subjects studied in almost every introductory psychology course. The behaviorist influence was stronger during the middle half of the 20th century than it is today, but behavioral concepts and theories remain important in fields such as education and psychotherapy.

The central idea of behaviorism is that all actions are acquired through conditioning processes. Start your exploration of this topic by learning about some of the major people, themes, and issues within the field of behavioral psychology.

So what are some of the basic tenets of behaviorism?

  • Behaviorism suggested that psychology should be the science of observable behavior. Rather than focusing on what goes on inside the mind, the behaviorists believed that psychology should focus on the environmental influences that cause behaviors.
  • Behaviorism suggested 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.

How is behaviorism defined?

At its most basic, behaviorism can be defined as the study of observable behavior. Earlier schools of thought had 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 in order to make psychology a more scientific discipline.

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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,” he was famously proclaimed.

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 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.

Important Concepts in Behaviorism

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

  • Classical conditioning is a learning process in which an association is formed between a naturally occurring stimulus and a previously neutral stimulus. Once this association has been made, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus that capable of invoking a conditioned response.
  • Operant conditioning is a learning process that involves either reinforcing or punishing a behavior. Reinforcement makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future, where punishment makes it less likely that the behavior will be repeated.

Other key concepts in behaviorism include:

Important Thinkers in Behavioral Psychology

Now that you have gotten a general idea of what behavioral psychology is all about, let’s turn our focus to some of the key people who have shaped the history and practice of behaviorism. By learning more about their lives and works, you will gain a better understanding of the influence they had on behaviorism.

  • Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who first discovered and described the conditioning reflex.
  • John B. Watson is often described as the father of behaviorism.
  • B.F. Skinner was an influential thinker responsible for introducing operant conditioning and schedules of reinforcement.
  • 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 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.
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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.

Contributions of Behaviorism to Psychology

Behaviorism was a major force in psychology during the first half of the twentieth-century and played an important role in establishing psychology as a science rather than a philosophical pursuit. However, it is important to note that the behavioral school of thought does have some weaknesses. Behaviorism can be helpful in understanding certain types of learning, but it leaves out important elements such as emotions, moods, and cognitions. It also does not explain learning that take place without association, reinforcement, or punishment.

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While behaviorism is not the dominating force that it once was, it still plays an important role in contemporary psychology. A number of important psychotherapeutic techniques have been derived from behavioral principles. Token economies, aversion therapy, modeling, behavior analysis, and systematic desensitization are just some of the methods that are based upon principles from behaviorism. Behaviorism greatest contributions to the field of psychology may just be the many practical applications, by helping people learn new behaviors and eliminate unwanted or unhealthy behaviors.

Final Thoughts

While behaviorism is not as dominant today as it was during the middle of the 20th-century, 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.


Pavlov, I. P. (1897). The Work of the Digestive Glands. London: Griffin.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf.

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

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-178.