by Saul McLeod published 2007, updated 2016
Behaviorism (also called learning theory) refers to a psychological approach which emphasises scientific and objective methods of investigation.
The behaviorist movement began in 1913 when John Watson wrote an article entitled 'Psychology as the behaviorist views it', which set out a number of underlying assumptions regarding methodology and behavioral analysis:
All behavior is learnt from the environment:
Behaviorism emphasize the role of environmental factors in influencing behavior, to the near exclusion of innate of inherited factors. This amounts essentially to a focus on learning.
We learn new behavior through classical or operant conditioning (collectively known as 'learning theory').
Therefore, when born our mind is 'tabula rasa' (a blank slate).
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 that:
'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 the use of operational definitions (defining variables in terms of observable, measurable events).
Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion:
While 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.
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 as well as humans (i.e. comparative psychology.
Consequently, rats and pigeons became the primary source of data for behaviorists, as their environments could be easily controlled.
Behavior is the result of stimulus response:
All behavior, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus response association). 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).
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.
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.
The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviorist's total scheme of investigation'.
Radical behaviorism was founded by B.F Skinner and 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 cannot 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 behaviour. Watson's (1913) methodological behaviorism asserts the mind is tabula rasa (a blank slate) at birth. In contrast, radical behaviorism accepts the view that organisms are born with innate behaviours, and thus recognises the role of genes and biological components in behavior.
An obvious advantage of behaviorism is its ability to clearly define behavior and to measure changes in behavior. According to the law of parsimony, the fewer assumptions a theory makes, the better and the more credible it is. Behaviorism, therefore, looks for simple explanations of human behavior from a very scientific standpoint.
However, 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.
Humanism also 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.
The psychodynamic approach (Freud) criticizes behaviorism as it does not take into account 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.
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.
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Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden two. New York: Macmillan.
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Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.
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McLeod, S. A. (2016). Behaviorist Approach. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/behaviorism.html