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Behaviorism

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Behaviorism

If a tree falls in a forest, with nobody to observe its fall; did it even happen at all?

A behaviorist might say the same about schools of thought in psychology that focus too heavily on introspection, or the mental states of a subject. Behaviorists believe psychology should be studied as a science, and should only focus on behavior that can be observed and measured.

  • What is behaviorism?
  • What are the main types of behaviorism?
  • Which psychologists contributed to behaviorism?
  • What impact has behaviorism had on the field of psychology?
  • What are criticisms of behaviorsm?

What is the Definition of Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is the theory that psychology should focus on the objective study of behavior in terms of conditioning, rather than the arbitrary study of mental states such as thoughts or feelings. Behaviorists believe that psychology is a science and should only focus on that which is measurable and observable. Thus, this theory rejects other schools of psychology that only focused on introspection, such as Freud's school of psychoanalysis. At its core, behaviorism theory views behavior simply as a result of stimulus-response.

Main Types of Behaviorism Theory

The two main types of behaviorism theory are Methodological Behaviorism, and Radical Behaviorism.

Methodological Behaviorism

This is the view that psychology should only study behavior scientifically, and should be purely objective. This view says that other factors such as mental state, environment, or genes should be taken into account when studying an organism’s behavior. This was a common theme in many of John B. Watson’s writings. He theorized that the mind from birth is a “tabula rasa”, or a blank slate.

Radical Behaviorism

Similar to methodological behaviorism, radical behaviorism does not believe a person’s introspective thoughts or feelings should be taken into account when studying behavior. However, this view does state that environmental and biological factors can be at play and can influence an organism's behavior. Psychologists in this school of thought, such as BF Skinner, believed that we are born with innate behaviors.

Key Players in Psychology Behavior Analysis

Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, Edward Thorndike, and BF Skinner are among the most important players in psychology behavior analysis, and behaviorism theory.

Ivan Pavlov

Born on September 14 1849, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov was the first to discover classical conditioning, while studying the digestive system of dogs.

Classical Conditioning: a type of conditioning in which the subject begins to form an association between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

Pavlov's Dog

In this study, Pavlov began by ringing a bell every time food was given to the test subject, a dog. When the food was presented to the dog, it would begin to salivate. Pavlov repeated this process, ringing the bell before bringing the food. The dog would salivate at the presentation of the food. Over time, the dog would begin to salivate just at the sound of the bell, even before the presentation of the food. Eventually, the dog would begin to salivate even at the sight of the experimenter's lab coat.

In the case of Pavlov's dog, the environmental stimulus (or conditioned stimulus) is the bell (and eventually the experimenter's lab coat), while the naturally occurring stimulus (or conditioned response) is the dog's salivation.

Stimulus-ResponseAction/Behavior
Unconditioned Stimulusthe presentation of the food
Unconditioned Responsethe dog's salivation at the presentation of the food
Conditioned Stimulusthe sound of the bell
Conditioned Responsethe dog's salivation at the sound of the bell

This experiment was one of the first behavioral psychology examples of classical conditioning, and would later influence the work of other behavioral psychologists at the time, such as John B. Watson.

John B. Watson

John Broadus Watson, born January 9 1878, near Greenville, South Carolina, is considered the founder of the school of behaviorism. Watson released several writings that had a considerable influence on the development of behaviorism theory in psychology. His 1913 article, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It", is popularly known as the "behaviorist manifesto." In this article, Watson stated an important behaviorist view that psychology, as a natural science, should have the theoretical goal to predict and control behavior. Watson advocated for the use of conditioned responses as an important experimental tool, and believed the use of animal subjects was imperative to psychological research.

"Little Albert"

In 1920, Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner conducted a study on an 11-month old baby referred to as "Little Albert." In this study, they began by placing a white rat on a table in front of Albert. Albert initially did not fear the rat and even responded with curiosity. Then, Watson would begin to bang a steel bar with a hammer behind Albert every time the white rat was presented. Naturally, the baby would begin to cry in response to the loud noise.

Behaviorism, Baby and Psychology Behavior Analysis, StudySmarterBaby afraid and crying, Pixabay.com

Over time, Albert began to cry just at the sight of the white rat, even without the presence of the loud noise. This is another example of, you guessed it, classical conditioning. Watson found that Albert would also begin to cry at similar stimuli that resembled the white rat, such as other animals or white furry objects.

This study created a lot of controversies because Watson never deconditioned Albert, and thus sent the child into the world with a previously nonexistent fear. While this study would be considered unethical today, it has been an important study used to support behaviorism theory and classical conditioning.

Edward Thorndike

Edward Thorndike is an important player in psychology behavior analysis due to his contributions to learning theory. Based on his research, Thorndike developed the principle of the "Law of Effect".

The Law of Effect states that behavior that is followed by a satisfying or pleasant consequence is likely to be repeated in the same situation, while behavior that is followed by a dissatisfying or unpleasant consequence is less likely to occur in the same situation.

Puzzle Box

In this study, Thorndike placed a hungry cat inside of a box and placed a piece of fish outside of the box. Initially, the cat's behavior would be random, trying to squeeze through the slats or bite its way through. After some time, the cat would stumble upon the pedal that would open the door, allowing it to escape and eat the fish. This process was repeated; each time, the cat took less time to open the door, its behavior becoming less random. Eventually, the cat would learn to go straight to the pedal to open the door and reach the food.

The results of this study supported Thorndike's "Theory of Effect" in that the positive outcome (e.g. the cat escaping and eating the fish) strengthened the cat's behavior (e.g. finding the lever that opened the door). Thorndike also found that this outcome supported the theory that animals can learn through trial and error and believed the same could be said for humans.

Behaviorists following Thorndike, such as Skinner, were greatly influenced by his findings. His work also laid an important foundation for operant conditioning.

BF Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born March 20 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Skinner is one of the most important players in the development of behaviorism theory. He believed that the concept of free will was an illusion and that all human behavior was a consequence of conditioning. Skinner's most important contribution to behaviorism was his coining of the term operant conditioning.

Operant Conditioning is a type of conditioning in which reward and punishment are used to create associations between a behavior and a consequence.

Skinner took this concept one step further, stating that the presence of reinforcement (or a reward following a certain behavior) can strengthen behavior, while the lack of reinforcement (absence of a reward following a certain behavior) can weaken behavior over time. The two different types of reinforcement are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement presents a positive stimulus or consequence. Here are some examples of positive reinforcement:

  • Jack receives $15 from his parents for cleaning his room.

  • Lexie studies hard for her AP Psychology Exam and receives a score of 5.

  • Sammi graduates with a 4.0 GPA and receives a dog at graduation.

Behaviorism, Good grade, StudySmarterGood grade, Pixabay.com

Negative reinforcement removes a negative stimulus or consequence. Here are some examples of negative reinforcement:

  • Frank apologizes to his wife and no longer has to sleep on the couch.

  • Hailey finishes her peas and gets to get up from the dinner table.

  • Erin bangs on her ceiling and her neighbors turn down their loud music.

Skinner Box

Inspired by Thorndike's "Puzzle box", Skinner created a similar apparatus called the Skinner box. He used this to test his theories of operant conditioning and reinforcement. In these experiments, Skinner would place either rats or pigeons in an enclosed box that contained a lever or button that would dispense food or some other type of reinforcement. The box might also contain lights, sounds, or an electric grid. For example, when placed in the box, the rat would eventually stumble upon the lever that would dispense a food pellet. The food pellet is the positive reinforcement of that behavior.

Skinner took Thorndike's experiment one step further by using reinforcements or punishments to control the rat's behavior. In one instance, food might be dispensed as the rat begins to move towards the lever, strengthening that behavior with positive reinforcement. Or, a small electric shock might be emitted when the rat would move away from the lever and stop as it would move closer, strengthening that behavior through negative reinforcement (the removal of the negative stimulus of an electric shock).

Impact of Behaviorism on the Study of Psychology

Behaviorism has made an important impact on the study of psychology in education, as well as mental health treatments.

Behavioral Psychology Examples in Education

Many teachers use positive/negative reinforcement and operant conditioning to strengthen learning in their classrooms. For example, students may receive a gold star for listening in class, or extra recess time for receiving an A on a test.

Teachers may also employ classical conditioning in their classrooms by creating an environment conducive to learning. This may look like a teacher clapping their hands three times and asking their students to be quiet. Over time, students will learn to be quiet just after hearing three claps. Education and classroom learning would not be what it is today without the contributions of psychology behavior analysis and behaviorism theory.

Behavioral Psychology Examples in Mental Health

Behaviorism has also made an important impact on mental health treatments today. Classical and operant conditioning have been used to manage behaviors in a person with autism and schizophrenia. For example, behaviorism theory has helped children with autism and developmental delays manage their behaviors through treatments such as:

  • Aversion Therapy

  • Systematic Desensitization

  • Token Economies

Behaviorism also set the foundation for behavioral therapy. Examples of behavioral therapy include:

  • Applied behavior analysis

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

  • Exposure therapy

  • Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for example, is an extension of behaviorism theory that uses thoughts to control a person's behavior.

Major Criticisms of Behaviorism Theory

While Behaviorism made major contributions to the study of psychology, there are some major criticisms of this school of thought. The behaviorism definition does not account for free will or introspection, and modes such as moods, thoughts, or feelings. Some find that behaviorism is too one-dimensional to really understanding behavior. For example, conditioning only accounts for the impact of external stimuli on behavior, and does not account for any internal processes. Additionally, Freud and other psychoanalysts believed that behaviorists failed to consider the unconscious mind in their studies.

Behaviorism - Key takeaways

  • Behaviorism is the theory that psychology should focus on the objective study of behavior in terms of conditioning, rather than the arbitrary study of mental states such as thoughts or feelings

    • Behaviorists believe that psychology is a science and should only focus on that which is measurable and observable

  • John B. Watson was the founder of behaviorism, writing what was considered the "behaviorist manifesto"

  • Classical Conditioning is a type of conditioning in which the subject begins to form an association between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus Operant Conditioning is a type of conditioning in which reward and punishment are used to create associations between a behavior and a consequence

  • BF Skinner expanded on the work of Edward Thorndike. He was the first to discover operant conditioning, and study the effect of reinforcement on behavior

  • Pavlov's dog experiment and the Little Albert experiment were important studies that investigated classical conditioning in behaviorism theory

Frequently Asked Questions about Behaviorism

Behaviorism is the theory that psychology should focus on the objective study of behavior.

The two main types of behaviorism theory are Methodological Behaviorism and Radical Behaviorism. 

Behaviorism theory has made an important impact on learning theories used in education today. Many teachers use positive/negative reinforcement and operant conditioning to strengthen learning in their classrooms. Behaviorism has also made an important impact on mental health treatments today.  Classical and operant conditioning has been used as a means of managing behaviors displayed in a person with autism and schizophrenia.

Examples of behavioral psychology are aversion therapy, or systematic desensitization.

Key behavioral principles in psychology are operant conditioning, positive/negative reinforcement, classical conditioning, and the law of effect.

Final Behaviorism Quiz

Question

Reinforcement that removes an unwanted stimulus or consequence is called

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Answer

Negative Reinforcement

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Question

 Who coined the term "operational conditioning"?

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Answer

B.F. Skinner

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Question

True or False? The Law of Effect is a principle originated by Edward Thorndike.

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Answer

True

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Question

Type of conditioning in which the subject begins to form an association between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

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Answer

Classical Conditioning

Show question

Question

Type of conditioning in which reward and punishment are used to create associations between a behavior and a consequence.

Show answer

Answer

Operant Conditioning

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Question

True or False? John B. Watson believed that we are already born with innate behaviors. 

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Frank apologizes to his wife and no longer has to sleep on the couch. This is an example of what type of reinforcement?

Show answer

Answer

Negative Reinforcement

Show question

Question

 What was the conditioned response in Pavlov's Dog experiment?

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Answer

The dog's salivation at the sound of the bell.

Show question

Question

This principle states that behavior that is followed by a satisfying or pleasant consequence is likely to be repeated in the same situation and behavior that is followed by a dissatisfying or unpleasant consequence is less likely to occur in the same situation.

Show answer

Answer

Law of Effect

Show question

Question

Jack receives $15 from his parents for cleaning his room. This is an example of what type of reinforcement?

Show answer

Answer

Positive Reinforcement

Show question

Question

What experiment used a specially designed box to study operant conditioning and reinforcement in rat and pigeon behavior?

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Answer

Skinner box

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Question

True or False? Behaviorism theory states that psychology should include the study of thoughts and emotions.  

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

What are the two main types of behaviorism theory? 


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Answer

Methodological Behaviorism and Radical Behaviorism. 

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Question

Why was the "Little Albert" Experiment considered so controversial? 


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Answer

Watson did not decondition the subject. 

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Question

The results of the "Little Albert" Experiment supported what type of conditioning? 



Show answer

Answer

Classical Conditioning

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Question

True or False: Behaviorists believe psychology should be studied as a science, and should only focus on behavior that can be observed and measured.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: John Watson theorized that the mind from birth is a “tabula rasa”, or a _________ _________.  (2 Blanks)

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Answer

blank slate 

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Question

Which type of behaviorism views that psychology should only study behavior scientifically, and should be purely objective? 

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Answer

Methodological Behaviorism

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Question

Which type of behaviorism says that other factors such as mental state, environment, or genes should be taken into account when studying an organism’s behavior? 

Show answer

Answer

Methodological Behaviorism 

Show question

Question

Which type of behaviorism states that environmental and biological factors can be at play and can influence an organism's behavior? 

Show answer

Answer

Radical Behaviorism 

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Question

Which type of behaviorism does B.F. Skinner fall under? 


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Answer

Radical Behaviorism 

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Question

Which psychologist was the first to discover classical conditioning, while studying the digestive system of dogs? 

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Answer

Ivan Pavlov 

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Question

In the case of Pavlov's dog, what was the environmental stimulus (or conditioned stimulus)? 

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Answer

The sound of the bell 

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In the case of Pavlov's dog, what was the unconditioned stimulus?  

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Answer

The presentation of the food 

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In the case of Pavlov's dog, what was the unconditioned response?  

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Answer

The dog's salivation at the presentation of the food 

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Which psychologist is considered the founder of the school of behaviorism? 

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Answer

John B. Watson 

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Question

Which psychologist advocated for the use of conditioned responses as an important experimental tool, and believed the use of animal subjects was imperative to psychological research? 

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Answer

John B. Watson 

Show question

Question

Which psychologist believed that the concept of free will was an illusion and that all human behavior was a consequence of conditioning? 

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Answer

B.F. Skinner 

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Question

Which of the following is NOT an example of behavioral therapy? 

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Answer

Client-centered therapy 

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Question

Whose experiment/study supported the theory that animals can learn through trial and error and believed the same could be said for humans? 

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Answer

Edward Thorndike 

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