Behaviorist Approach to Psychology: Definition, History, Concepts, and Impact

What is the behavioral theory of learning?

Behaviorism, also known as behavioral psychology, is a theory of learning that states all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment through a process called conditioning. Thus, behavior is simply a response to environmental stimuli.

Behaviorism is only concerned with observable stimulus-response behaviors, as they can be studied in a systematic and observable manner.

Key Features
• Stimulus-Response
• Classical Conditioning
• Reinforcement & Punishment
• Objective Measurement
• Reductionism
• Nomothetic
• Law of Effect
• Behaviour should be studied scientifically using experiments.
• Behaviourism is primarily concerned with observable behavior
• The major influence on human behavior is learning from the environment (e.g., conditioning)
• There is little difference between the learning that takes place in humans and that in other animals. Therefore research can be carried out on animals as well as humans.
• Behaviour is the result of stimulus–response (i.e., all behavior, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus–response association).
Methodology / Studies
• Controlled Experiment
• Little Albert
• Thorndike
• Skinner box
• Pavlov’s Dogs
• Bandura Bobo Doll Study
• Objective measurement, which can be replicated and peer-reviewed
• Real-life applications (e.g., behavior therapies)
• Clear predictions that can be can be scientifically tested
• Increased our understanding of the causes of phobias and attachment
• Ignores mediational processes
• Reductionist – ignores biology
• Deterministic (little free will)
• Experiments – low ecological validity
• Humanism – can’t compare animals to humans
• Freud – people not born a blank slate

Theoretical Assumptions

The behaviorist movement began in 1913 when John Watson wrote an article entitled Psychology as the behaviorist views it, which set out several underlying assumptions regarding methodology and behavioral analysis:

All behavior is learned from the environment:

One assumption of the learning approach is that all behaviors are learned from the environment. They can be learned through classical conditioning, learning by association, or through operant conditioning, learning by consequences.

Behaviorism emphasizes the role of environmental factors in influencing behavior to the near exclusion of innate or inherited factors. This amounts essentially to a focus on learning. Therefore, when born, our mind is “tabula rasa” (a blank slate).

Classical conditioning refers to learning by association, and involves the conditioning of innate bodily reflexes with new stimuli.

Pavlov’s Experiment

Ivan Pavlov showed that dogs could be classically conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell if that sound was repeatedly presented while they were given food.

He first presented the dogs with the sound of a bell; they did not salivate so this was a neutral stimulus. Then he presented them with food, they salivated. The food was an unconditioned stimulus and salivation was an unconditioned (innate) response.

Pavlov then repeatedly presented the dogs with the sound of the bell first and then the food (pairing) after a few repetitions, the dogs salivated when they heard the sound of the bell.

The bell had become the conditioned stimulus and salivation had become the conditioned response.

Examples of classical conditioning applied to real life include:

  • taste aversion – using derivations of classical conditioning, it is possible to explain how people develop aversions to particular foods
  • learned emotions – such as love for parents, were explained as paired associations with the stimulation they provide
  • advertising – we readily associate attractive images with the products they are selling
  • phobias – classical conditioning is seen as the mechanism by which – we acquire many of these irrational fears.

Skinner argued that learning is an active process and occurs through operant conditioning. When humans and animals act on and in their environmental consequences, follow these behaviors. 

If the consequences are pleasant, they repeat the behavior, but if the consequences are unpleasant, they do not.

Behavior is the result of stimulus-response:

Reductionism is the belief that human behavior can be explained by breaking it down into smaller component parts.

Reductionists say that the best way to understand why we behave as we do is to look closely at the very simplest parts that make up our systems, and use the simplest explanations to understand how they work.

Watson described the purpose of psychology as: “To predict, given the stimulus, what reaction will take place; or, given the reaction, state what the situation or stimulus is that has caused the reaction.” (1930, p. 11).
All behavior, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus-response association).
Stimulus refers to any feature of the environment that affects behavior. For example, in Pavlov’s experiment, food was a stimulus.
A response is the behavior elicited by the stimulus. For example, in Pavlov’s experiment, the dog’s salivation was a response.

Psychology should be seen as a science:

Theories need to be supported by empirical data obtained through careful and controlled observation and measurement of behavior. Watson (1913) stated:

“Psychology as a behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is … prediction and control.” (p. 158).

The components of a theory should be as simple as possible. Behaviorists propose using operational definitions (defining variables in terms of observable, measurable events).

Behaviorism introduced the scientific methods to psychology. Laboratory experiments were used with high control of extraneous variables.

These experiments were replicable and the data obtained was objective (not influenced by an individual’s judgment or opinion) and measurable. This gave psychology more credibility.

Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion:

The starting point for many behaviorists is a rejection of the introspection (the attempts to “get inside people’s heads”) of the majority of mainstream psychology.

While modern behaviorists often accept the existence of cognitions and emotions, they prefer not to study them as only observable (i.e., external) behavior can be objectively and scientifically measured.

Although theorists of this perspective accept that people have “minds”, they argue that it is never possible to objectively observe people’s thoughts, motives and meanings – let alone their unconscious yearnings and desires.

Therefore, internal events, such as thinking should be explained through behavioral terms (or eliminated altogether).

There is little difference between the learning that takes place in humans and that in other animals:

There’s no fundamental (qualitative) distinction between human and animal behavior. Therefore, research can be carried out on animals and humans.

The underlying assumption is that to some degree the laws of behavior are the same for all species and that therefore knowledge gained by studying rats, dogs, cats and other animals can be generalized to humans.

Consequently, rats and pigeons became the primary data source for behaviorists, as their environments could be easily controlled.

Types of Behaviorism

Historically, the most significant distinction between versions of behaviorism is that between Watson’s original “methodological behaviorism,” and forms of behaviorism later inspired by his work, known collectively as neobehaviorism (e.g., radical behaviorism).

Methodological Behaviorism

Watson’s article “Psychology as the behaviorist views it” is often referred to as the “behaviorist manifesto,” in which
Watson (1913, p. 158) outlines the principles of all behaviorists:

“Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness.

In his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, the behaviorist recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. Man’s behavior, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist’s total scheme of investigation.

Radical Behaviorism

Radical behaviorism was founded by B.F Skinner who agreed with the assumption of methodological behaviorism that the goal of psychology should be to predict and control behavior.

Skinner, like Watson, also recognized the role of internal mental events, and while he agreed such private events could not be used to explain behavior, he proposed they should be explained in the analysis of behavior.

Another important distinction between methodological and radical behaviorism concerns the extent to which environmental factors influence behavior. Watson’s (1913) methodological behaviorism asserts the mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) at birth.

In contrast, radical behaviorism accepts the view that organisms are born with innate behaviors and thus recognizes the role of genes and biological components in behavior.

Social Learning

Behaviorism has gone through many transformations in the years since it was developed by John Watson in the early part of the twentieth century.

One more recent extension of this approach has been the development of social learning theory, which emphasises the role of plans and expectations in people’s behavior.

Under social learning theory, people were no longer seen as passive victims of the environment, but rather they were seen as self- reflecting and thoughtful.

The theory has often been called a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories because it encompasses attention, memory, and motivation.

Historical Timeline

  • Pavlov (1897) published the results of an experiment on conditioning after originally studying digestion in dogs.
  • Watson (1913) launches the behavioral school of psychology, publishing an article, Psychology as the behaviorist views it.
  • Watson and Rayner (1920) conditioned an orphan called Albert B (aka Little Albert) to fear a white rat.
  • Thorndike (1905) formalized the Law of Effect.
  • Skinner (1938) wrote The Behavior of Organisms and introduced the concepts of operant conditioning and shaping.
  • Clark Hull’s (1943) Principles of Behavior was published.
  • B.F. Skinner (1948) published Walden Two, describing a utopian society founded upon behaviorist principles.
  • Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior began in 1958.
  • Chomsky (1959) published his criticism of Skinner’s behaviorism, “ Review of Verbal Behavior .”
  • Bandura (1963) published a book called the Social Leaning Theory and Personality development
    which combines both cognitive and behavioral frameworks.
  • B.F. Skinner (1971) published his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, where he argues that free will is an illusion.

Issues and Debates

Free will vs. Determinism

Strong determinism of the behavioral approach as all behavior is learned from our environment through classical and operant conditioning. We are the total sum of our previous conditioning.

Softer determinism of the social learning approach theory as it recognizes an element of choice as to whether we imitate a behavior or not.

Nature vs. Nurture

Behaviorism is very much on the nurture side of the debate as it argues that our behavior is learned from the environment.

The social learning theory is also on the nurture side because it argues that we learn behavior from role models in our environment.

The behaviorist approach proposes that apart from a few innate reflexes and the capacity for learning, all complex behavior is learned from the environment.

Holism vs. Reductionism

The behaviorist approach and social learning are reductionist; they isolate parts of complex behaviors to study.

Behaviorists believe that all behavior, no matter how complex, can be broken down into the fundamental processes of conditioning.

Idiographic vs. Nomothetic

It is a nomothetic approach as it views all behavior governed by the same laws of conditioning.

However, it does account for individual differences and explains them in terms of differences in the history of conditioning.

Critical Evaluation

Behaviorism has experimental support: Pavlov showed that classical conditioning leads to learning by association. Watson and Rayner showed that phobias could be learned through classical conditioning in the “little Albert” experiment.

An obvious advantage of behaviorism is its ability to define behavior clearly and measure behavior changes. According to the law of parsimony, the fewer assumptions a theory makes, the better and the more credible it is. Therefore, behaviorism looks for simple explanations of human behavior from a scientific standpoint.

Many of the experiments carried out were done on animals; we are different cognitively and physiologically. Humans have different social norms and moral values that mediate the effects of the environment. Therefore people might behave differently from animals, so the laws and principles derived from these experiments, might apply more to animals than to humans.

Humanism rejects the nomothetic approach of behaviorism as they view humans as being unique and believe humans cannot be compared with animals (who aren’t susceptible to demand characteristics). This is known as an idiographic approach.

In addition, humanism (e.g., Carl Rogers) rejects the scientific method of using experiments to measure and control variables because it creates an artificial environment and has low ecological validity.

Humanistic psychology also assumes that humans have free will (personal agency) to make their own decisions in life and do not follow the deterministic laws of science

The behaviorist approach emphasis on single influences on behavior is a simplification of circumstances where behavior is influenced by many factors. When this is acknowledged, it becomes almost impossible to judge the action of any single one.

This over-simplified view of the world has led to the development of ‘pop behaviorism, the view that rewards and punishments can change almost anything. 

Therefore, behaviorism only provides a partial account of human behavior, that which can be objectively viewed. Essential factors like emotions, expectations, and higher-level motivation are not considered or explained. Accepting a behaviorist explanation could prevent further research from other perspectives that could uncover important factors.

For example, the psychodynamic approach (Freud) criticizes behaviorism as it does not consider the unconscious mind’s influence on behavior and instead focuses on externally observable behavior. Freud also rejects the idea that people are born a blank slate (tabula rasa) and states that people are born with instincts (e.g., eros and Thanatos).

Biological psychology states that all behavior has a physical/organic cause. They emphasize the role of nature over nurture. For example, chromosomes and hormones (testosterone) influence our behavior, too, in addition to the environment.

Behaviorism might be seen as underestimating the importance of inborn tendencies. It is clear from research on biological preparedness that the ease with which something is learned is partly due to its links with an organism’s potential survival.

Cognitive psychology states that mediational processes occur between stimulus and response, such as memory, thinking, problem-solving, etc.

Despite these criticisms, behaviorism has made significant contributions to psychology. These include insights into learning, language development, and moral and gender development, which have all been explained in terms of conditioning.

The contribution of behaviorism can be seen in some of its practical applications. Behavior therapy and behavior modification represent one of the major approaches to the treatment of abnormal behavior and are readily used in clinical psychology.

The behaviorist approach has been used in the treatment of phobias, and systematic desensitization.


Bandura, A., & Walters, R. H. (1963). Social learning and personality development . New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Language, 35(1), 26-58.

Holland, J. G. (1978). BEHAVIORISM: PART OF THE PROBLEM OR PART OF THE SOLUTION?  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis11(1), 163-174.

Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of behavior: An introduction to behavior theory. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Pavlov, I. P. (1897). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden two. New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology . New York: A. G. Seiler.

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

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1, pp. 1–14.


What is the theory of behaviorism?

One assumption of the learning approach is that all behaviors are learned from the environment. They can be learned through classical conditioning, learning by association, or through operant conditioning, learning by consequences.

What is behaviorism with an example?

An example of behaviorism is using systematic desensitization in the treatment of phobias. The individual with the phobia is taught relaxation techniques and then makes a hierarchy of fear from the least frightening to the most frightening features of the phobic object.

He then is presented with the stimuli in that order and learns to associate (classical conditioning) the stimuli with a relaxation response. This is counter-conditioning.

How behaviorism is used in the classroom?

In the conventional learning situation, behaviorist pedagogy applies largely to issues of class and student management, rather than to learning content.

It is very relevant to shaping skill performance. For example, unwanted behaviors, such as tardiness and dominating class discussions can be extinguished by being ignored by the teacher (rather than being reinforced by having attention drawn to them).

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.