Home Perspectives Behaviorism

Behaviorist Approach

by email icon published, updated 2013

Behaviorism (also called the behaviorist approach) was the primary paradigm in psychology between 1920s to 1950 and is based on a number of underlying assumptions regarding methodology and behavioral analysis:

* 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).

* Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion.  Observable (i.e. external) behavior can be objectively and scientifically measured. Internal events, such as thinking should be explained through behavioral terms (or eliminated altogether).

* People have no free will – a person’s environment determines their behavior

* When born our mind is 'tabula rasa' (a blank slate).

* 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.

* Behavior is the result of stimulus – response (i.e. 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).

* All behavior is learnt from the environment.  We learn new behavior through classical or operant conditioning. 

Varieties of Behaviorism

Historically, the most significant distinction among versions of behaviorism is that between Watson's original classical behaviorism, and forms of behaviorism later inspired by his work, known collectively as neobehaviorism.

In his book, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It 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.

The History of Behaviorism

* Pavlov (1897) published the results of an experiment on conditioning after originally studying digestion in dogs.

* Watson (1913) launches the behavioral school of psychology (classical conditioning), 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 (1936) 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 in which he described a utopian society founded upon behaviorist principles.

* Bandura (1963) publishes a book called the "Social Leaning Theory and Personality development" which combines both cognitive and behavioral frameworks.

* Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (begun in 1958)

* B.F. Skinner (1971) published his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, where he argues that free will is an illusion.

Behaviorism Summary

Key FeaturesMethodology
Basic AssumptionsAreas of Application
  • Psychology should be seen as a science, to be studied in a scientific manner.
  • Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking.
  • Behavior is the result of stimulus – response (i.e. all behavior, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus – response features).
  • Behavior is determined by the environment (e.g. conditioning).
  • Scientific
  • Highly applicable (e.g. therapy)
  • Emphasizes objective measurement
  • Many experiments to support theories
  • Identified comparisons between animals (Pavlov) and humans (Watson & Rayner - Little Albert)
  • Ignores mediational processes
  • Ignores biology (e.g. testosterone)
  • Too deterministic (little free-will)
  • Experiments – low ecological validity
  • Humanism – can’t compare animals to humans
  • Reductionist

Critical Evaluation

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.

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.

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 external observable behavior. Freud as rejects that 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 emphasise the role of nature over nurture. For example, chromosomes and hormones (testosterone) influence our behavior too, in addition to the environment.

Cognitive psychology states that mediation 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.

Further Information

Learning: The Power of Association. Audio Broadcasts behaviourist approach to psychology

Classical Conditioning

Operant Conditioning


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

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 DigestiveGlands. London: Griffin

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.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Behaviorist Approach. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/behaviorism.html

Like The Site? Follow Us!

Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly