Behaviorism in Psychology: Definition, Principles, and Examples

Steven Aiken, Natalie Boyd
  • Author
    Steven Aiken

    Steven has recently received his Bachelor's degree in English from University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He has also taught Fine Art at a shelter for youths for six months at Shannon West Youth Center.

  • Instructor
    Natalie Boyd

    Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Read what Behaviorism is and see its examples. Learn the history of behaviorism in 20th-century psychology along with major principles of the discipline. Updated: 11/16/2021

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Behaviorism is the theory that all behaviors are learned by interacting with the environment. This differs from other theories, which state that behaviors are an innate part of biology. As a branch of psychology, it seeks to predict and control behavior. It assumes that there is no difference between humans and other biological organisms and their ability to learn in response to the environment. It wants to find the simplest explanation possible rather than get conflated with many variables and complexities.

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  • 0:01 Behaviorism
  • 0:57 Rewards & Punishments
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Despite its contributions to psychology, behaviorism has many criticisms. Because it assumes that nearly everything an organism learns comes from how it interacts with its environment, many holes can arise due to the complex nature of human psychology. Many other fields point out these conflicts. For example, in humanism, humanity's ability to make decisions with free will plays a key role in understanding psychology, and behaviorism ignores the idea entirely because of its core principles. Biological psychology theorizes that every behavior comes from an organic source, which lies on the other end of the spectrum from behaviorism that states that everything comes from external stimuli. Behaviorism also does not take into account memory, problem-solving, critical thinking, etc., all of which play a key role in how humans make decisions and interact with the environment.

Pros and Cons of Behaviorism

While it might not paint a complete picture of psychology, it is still possible to learn more about an individual's mind based on their principles. For example, if someone lives next to a railroad and always eats exactly when the train is roaring by, they will find that if the train goes by and they don't eat, they will get hungry. People can learn how they respond to particular stimuli and how it affects them, rather than living by them and never knowing why they're always suddenly hungry right when the train goes by. The main advantages of this theory are that it can generate predictable outcomes, which can be measured and tested. It can be used in therapy to help shift behaviors away from negative ones to positive ones. One of the biggest shortcomings of this theory, though, is that it doesn't take into account critical thinking and decision-making skills. Once the person notices they get hungry when the train goes by, they aren't stuck living that way forever. They can make a change if they desire, eating at a different time of the day instead. This is the concept of free will, which happens when a person does whatever they wish. Rather, behaviorism seeks to explain every choice that is made through responses to external stimuli.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner began his career as a writer, though returned to college to receive a Ph. D. in psychology, and then went on to become a professor at several institutions, but became the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1958 and held the position until his retirement in 1974. He founded the theory of Radical Behaviorism following the establishment of behaviorism by John Watson in 1913. Because things within the mind like beliefs and memories could not be empirically defined, he dismissed them entirely. Thus, adopting the theory that every observable response comes from an external stimulus, completely outside of what is felt within the mind. In his novels Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he argued that humanity should seek to craft their environment to optimize behaviors and forget concepts of free will. Additionally, he continued to refine the theory of operant conditioning, based on Thorndike's Law of Effect, furthering his theory of behaviorism by developing explanations for more intricate things like superstitions and complex chains of behavior.

Behaviorism in the Classroom

Question and answer strategies are common in the classroom.

Student volunteering to answer a question in the class.

Behaviorism has led to the development of many learning techniques for classroom use. A common technique is a regular review of the material. Going over material and giving students positive reinforcement during the process can help retention. Question-answer techniques are also extremely common, where a teacher will ask a question, and a student will have to raise their hand and answer. When a student answers, they receive positive reinforcement, and the teacher slowly integrates more difficult questions. This lets students recite the information that they are learning, reinforcing it in their minds. Nearly any form of learning that hinges on positive reinforcement of desired behaviors stem from behaviorism. Additionally, the grading system serves as both a means of positive reinforcement and positive punishment. When the student answers all the questions correctly on a test, they receive something they want, which is a high grade. This is positive reinforcement. When a student performs poorly on a test, they receive something they don't want, which is a low grade. This is positive punishment. Negative punishment is also a common way to eliminate unwanted behaviors in the classroom, and the best example of this is by taking away recess time. If a student is unruly in class, they can get their recess time taken away from them and have to stay in the classroom away from their friends. The teacher is taking away something the student wants, which is called negative punishment.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the theory of behaviorism?

Behaviorism is the theory that all behaviors are determined entirely by external stimuli in the environment. This means that every choice that is made, every action that is taken, by any given person, is because of how they have been conditioned to respond to environmental stimuli.

How is behaviorism used in today's society?

Positive reinforcement drives social media, for example. Apps want people to keep scrolling and viewing content which often includes ads, and each new piece of information from the people they follow is interesting to them, which makes it a reward for scrolling. The app generates ad revenue when someone sees the ads and shows the content that they want to see.

What are some examples of behaviorism?

B.F. Skinner performed a variety of experiments on rats to test if they could be conditioned to perform a particular action in response to different kinds of stimuli, through real-world examples.

For instance, treating one with their favorite dessert after finishing the laundry, and giving a reward for doing something that they want to do are examples of positive reinforcement.

Similarly, waking up to an alarm in the morning and turning it off, and rewarding yourself by removing an uncomfortable stimulus are examples of negative reinforcement.

How is behaviorism used in the classroom?

The best example is the grading system. When a student completes all of their work and answer questions correctly, they receive something they want: a good grade. This is positive reinforcement. When they don't do work, miss school, and answer questions incorrectly, they receive something they don't want: a bad grade. This is positive punishment.

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