What Is Behaviorism in Psychology?

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Behaviorism is the theory that human or animal psychology can be objectively studied through observable actions (behaviors). This field of study came about as a reaction to nineteenth-century psychology, which used self-examination of one’s thoughts and feelings to examine human and animal psychology.

History and Origins

Behaviorism emerged as a reaction to mentalism, a subjective approach to research used by psychologists in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

In mentalism, the mind is studied by analogy and by examining one’s own thoughts and feelings—a process called introspection. Mentalist observations were considered too subjective by the behaviorists, as they differed significantly among individual researchers, often leading to contradictory and irreproducible findings.

There are two main types of behaviorism: methodological behaviorism, which was heavily influenced by John B. Watson’s work, and radical behaviorism, which was pioneered by psychologist BF Skinner.

Methodological Behaviorism

In 1913, psychologist John B. Watson published the paper that would be considered the manifesto of early behaviorism: In this paper, Watson rejected mentalist methods and detailed his philosophy on what psychology should be: the science of behavior, which he called “behaviorism.”

It should be noted that although Watson is often labeled the “founder” of behaviorism, he was by no means the first person to criticize introspection, nor was he the first to champion objective methods for studying psychology.

After Watson's paper, however, behaviorism gradually took hold. By the 1920s, a number of intellectuals, including well-regarded figures such as the philosopher and later Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell, recognized the significance of Watson’s philosophy.

Radical Behaviorism

Of the behaviorists after Watson, perhaps the most well-known is BF Skinner.

Contrasting many other behaviorists of the time, Skinner’s ideas focused on scientific explanations rather than methods.

Skinner believed that observable behaviors were outward manifestations of unseen mental processes, but that it was more convenient to study those observable behaviors. His approach to behaviorism was to understand the relationship between an animal’s behaviors and its environment.

Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning

Behaviorists believe that humans learn behaviors through conditioning, which associates a stimulus in the environment, such as a sound, to a response, such as what a human does when they hear that sound. Key studies in behaviorism demonstrate the difference between two types of conditioning: classical conditioning, which is associated with psychologists like Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, and operant conditioning, associated with BF Skinner.

Classical Conditioning: Pavlov’s Dogs

The Pavlov’s dogs experiment is a widely known experiment involving dogs, meat, and the sound of a bell. At the start of the experiment, dogs would be presented meat, which would cause them to salivate. When they heard a bell, however, they did not.

For the next step in the experiment, the dogs heard a bell before they were brought food.

Over time, the dogs learned that a ringing bell meant food, so they would begin to salivate when they heard the bell —even though they didn’t react to the bells before. Through this experiment, the dogs gradually learned to associate the sounds of a bell with food, even though they didn’t react to the bells before.

The  demonstrates classical conditioning: the process by which an animal or human learns to associate two previously unrelated stimuli with each other. Pavlov's dogs learned to associate the response to one stimulus (salivating at the smell of food) with a “neutral” stimulus that previously did not evoke a response (the ringing of a bell). This type of conditioning involves involuntary responses.

Classical Conditioning: Little Albert

In  that showed the classical conditioning of emotions in humans, the psychologist JB Watson and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner exposed a 9-month-old child, whom they called “Little Albert,” to a white rat and other furry animals, like a rabbit and a dog, as well as to cotton, wool, burning newspapers, and other stimuli—all of which did not frighten Albert.

Later, however, Albert was allowed to play with a white lab rat. Watson and Rayner then made a loud sound with a hammer, which frightened Albert and made him cry. After repeating this several times, Albert became very distressed when he was presented with only the white rat. This showed that he had learned to associate his response (becoming afraid and crying) to another stimulus that had not frightened him before.

Operant Conditioning: Skinner Boxes

Psychologist BF Skinner placed a hungry rat in a box containing a lever. As the rat moved around the box, it would occasionally press the lever, consequently discovering that food would drop when the lever was pressed. After some time, the rat began running straight towards the lever when it was placed inside the box, suggesting that the rat had figured out that the lever meant food.

In a similar experiment, a rat was placed inside a Skinner box with an electrified floor, causing the rat discomfort. The rat found out that pressing the lever stopped the electric current. After some time, the rat figured out that the lever would mean that it would no longer be subject to an electric current, and the rat began running straight towards the lever when it was placed inside the box.

The Skinner box experiment demonstrates operant conditioning, in which an animal or human learns a behavior (e.g. pressing a lever) by associating it with consequences (e.g. dropping a food pellet or stopping an electric current). The three types of reinforcement are as follows:

  • Positive reinforcement: When something good is added (e.g. a food pellet drops into the box) to teach a new behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement: When something bad is removed (e.g. an electric current stops) to teach a new behavior.
  • Punishment: When something bad is added to teach the subject to stop​ a behavior.

Influence on Contemporary Culture

Behaviorism can still be seen in the modern-day classroom, where operant conditioning is used to reinforce behaviors. For example, a teacher may give a prize to students who perform well on a test, or punish a student who misbehaves by giving him or her a detention.

Though behaviorism was once the dominant trend in psychology in the mid-twentieth century, it has since lost traction to cognitive psychology, which compares the mind to an information processing system, like a computer.

Behaviorism Key Takeaways

  • Behaviorism is the theory that human or animal psychology can be objectively studied through observable actions (behaviors), rather than thoughts and feelings that cannot be observed.
  • Behaviorism’s influential figures include the psychologists John B. Watson and BF Skinner, who are associated with classical conditioning and operant conditioning, respectively.
  • In classical conditioning, an animal or human learns to associate two stimuli with each other. This type of conditioning involves involuntary responses, such as biological responses or emotional ones.
  • In operant conditioning, an animal or human learns a behavior by associating it with consequences. This can be done through positive or negative reinforcement, or punishment.
  • Operant conditioning is still seen in classrooms today, though behaviorism is no longer the dominant way of thinking in psychology.

Sources

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