Behavior: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:03 Definition of Behavior
  • 0:50 The Skinner Box
  • 1:38 Human Social Norms
  • 2:09 Meaning of Behavior
  • 3:34 What Is Behavior Today?
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tiffany Frye
Learn about the psychological concept of behavior. Learn how the understanding of behavior has changed with new developments in psychology and how behavioral experiments have led to breakthroughs in new psychological therapies.

Definition of Behavior

If you keep your winter coat on at your friend's house, he or she may ask you if you're cold and offer to turn up the thermostat. Your friend probably would not have noticed that you were cold without your unusual behavior. Our behavior communicates valuable information that otherwise may go unknown.

In psychology, behavior consists of an organism's external reactions to its environment. Other aspects of psychology, such as emotions, thoughts, and other internal mental processes, don't usually fall under the category of behavior. Behavior may be modified according to positive or negative reinforcements from the organism's environment or according to self-directed intentions.

The Skinner Box

Do you remember receiving gold stars for good behavior as a child? Receiving praise and treats may have encouraged you to adjust or maintain your behavior to increase your chances of earning more rewards. This type of behavior modification was famously studied in B.F. Skinner's Skinner Box experiments. In these experiments, the behavior of a rodent, usually a lab rat, is modified by controlling the consequences elicited by each behavior. For example, a rat may be rewarded with food every time it presses a lever. This will result in the rat pressing the lever more frequently. Alternatively, a behavior could be punished by administering a shock or loud noise to the rat. This punishment would result in the rat's behavior being reduced.

Human Social Norms

In human psychology, the reward or punishment of behavior is often based on social norms. Someone may be ostracized from a group or included in the group based on his or her behavior. A smile from one individual to another could indicate that he or she approves of what the other is doing or saying. In this way, human behavior is regulated, and norms are established that let us know what's normal or abnormal behavior and what's acceptable or unacceptable.

Meaning of Behavior

The meaning a psychologist derives from behavior is largely determined by his or her theoretical framework. Behaviorists, such as John B. Watson, are famous for seeing behavior as the 'be all and end all' of psychology. Behaviorism considers behavior to be the only objective phenomenon of psychology and thus the only reliable information on which to base predictions of future behaviors. Behaviorism developed in the late 19th century as a response to the theories of introspection and psychoanalysis, which relied on the observation of internal states of mind and emotions to understand one's conscious experience.

Can you imagine basing your entire understanding of your friends and family on their behaviors alone? Most people tend to take into consideration a person's motivations, thoughts, and feelings when interacting with each other. Cognitive psychologists also thought that these internal mental processes were important, and so they challenged the authority of behaviorism in the mid-20th century. However, cognitive psychologists still criticized introspection for not being an objective way to study psychology and instead developed scientific methods for studying thoughts, feelings, and awareness. Cognitive psychologists generally believe that internal processes interact with behavior, rather than one being controlled by the other.

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