What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is a theoretical approach to psychology popularized in the 20th century by John B. Watson and B.F Skinner. This school of thought focuses only on observable behavior and the environmental stimuli that produce it. It is often tied to learning, asserting that behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment through either classical conditioning or operant conditioning.



It is no surprise that when you have a bowl of dog food in your hands, your dog becomes the best show dog on earth, effortlessly performing all the tricks it has learned. Sometimes you may even find your dog running through the list of tricks before you tell them which one to do. When you don’t have dog food in your hands, however, your dog likely seems completely disinterested in performing. This behavior can be explained by behaviorism, sometimes referred to as behavioral psychology.

Behaviorism is a theory of learning; it’s based on the idea that our behavior is learned as a result of interaction with our external environment. Interaction with our external environment can include an interaction with a certain person, a certain object, or with certain surroundings.

Our behavior is learned through a process called conditioning. Conditioning is a learning process that can lead to habits and is the result of training ourselves to react a certain way in different scenarios.1 Behaviorism presents two main types of conditioning:

  • Classical conditioning: when a dog learns to get excited when we walk towards the bag of dog food because the dog has learned that it would mean they get to eat right away.
  • Operant conditioning: when a trainer successfully teaches a dog how to sit on command with the help of incentives, such as a treat every time they do it correctly.

Strong believers of behaviorism argue that with the right conditioning, anyone can be trained to do any task within their capabilities, regardless of one’s personality.1

A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.

– Burrhus Frederic Skinner in his bookBeyond Freedom and Dignity

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Key Terms

Behaviorism: A theory and school of thought in psychology which states that all types of human behavior can be learned through two key types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. The terms behaviorism and behavioral perspective can also be used interchangeably.

Stimulus: Anything that occurs in the environment that elicits a response from an individual.

Classical Conditioning: A learning technique that unconsciously pairs a specific action, or stimulus, with the resulting automatic behavioral response. When the action or stimulus is repeated, the automatic behavioral response is eventually learned to be associated with the action.1

Operant Conditioning: A learning technique that employs positive and negative reinforcements in the form of rewards or punishments to encourage an individual to pick up or stop a specific behavior. It is sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning.1

Positive Reinforcement: A consequence that aims to strengthen or encourage certain behavior, such as providing a reward for doing something well.


Early work on behaviorism can be traced back to 1897, when Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, conducted experiments on the digestion of dogs. Pavlov’s now-famous experiments led him to discover what we call classical conditioning.2  It all started when Pavlov noticed the dogs would start salivating when presented with food. When presented with food, the lab assistant would also ring a bell. Over time, the dogs would associate the bell with food. Eventually, the dogs associated the sight of the lab assistant’s white coat with food, which prompted a salivation response from the dogs even before the food was presented.1,3,4

Behaviorism would not be introduced formally until 1913, when American psychologist John B. Watson presented his publication, Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. In this paper, Watson mentioned that if he provided his own specified environment for a baby to grow up in, he would be able to train them to become a specialist in any profession. Watson claimed this could include law, medicine, art, or even theft.1

Watson’s formal contribution was so influential that in the following forty years, behaviorism became the dominant school of thought in psychology. Its popularity also reflected the desire to cement psychology as a measurable science, which behaviorism’s focus on observable behavior was able to provide.1

Operant conditioning was introduced by American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner in the 1938 book, The Behavior of Organisms. Skinner derived his theory by studying rats. He set up a box with a lever, which when pressed would drop a pellet of food onto a tray. Skinner introduced a rat into the box and observed that initially, it would wander around before accidentally pressing the bar. After the first food pellet was released, Skinner noticed that the rat’s rate of bar pressing increased dramatically. Research on Skinner’s experiment eventually led to the principle of reinforcement,2 a term used in operant conditioning to describe an action that increases the chances of certain behavior.2,5

Towards the end of the 1900s, the cognitive revolution resulted in the diminishing popularity of behaviorism as the mainstream school of thought. Psychologists started turning to cognitive science to study human behavior, due to behaviorism’s failure in considering important mental processes.6 However, many insights from behaviorism were not forgotten and are used to this day.


Ivan Pavlov

A Russian physiologist whose groundbreaking discovery of classical conditioning was influential in shaping behaviorism. Sometimes referred to as Pavlovian conditioning, classical conditioning was discovered accidentally while Pavolv studied salivation in dogs. Upon realizing the significance of his conditioning discovery, Pavlov spent the rest of his career studying this type of learning.7

John B. Watson

An American psychologist who was renowned for formally introducing and popularizing behaviorism. His work in this field was groundbreaking and incredibly influential, establishing behaviorism as the mainstream school of thought in psychology in the mid-1900s. Watson burned a significant amount of his letters and papers, except for some reprints of his academic work, which made it difficult to understand his earlier thoughts on behaviorism.8

Burrhus Frederic Skinner

An American psychologist and behaviorist who is commonly referred to as the father of operant conditioning. B.F. Skinner introduced this theory in his 1938 book,The Behavior of Organisms, which was influential in reinforcing behaviorism as a mainstream school of thought in psychology.9


Behaviorism’s rise as the mainstream school of psychology in the 1950s enabled researchers to formulate clear predictions about human behavior. As a measurable field, behaviorism enabled researchers to study observable behavior in a scientific way. Due to this, behaviorism has made significant contributions by providing insights into language development, human learning, and moral and gender development, all of which can be explained by conditioning.1

In the field of education, behaviorism and conditioning have helped teachers better understand how to encourage learning in students. The school system, which rewards children for studying, doing well in tests, and learning new skills, is essentially based on behaviorism. Teachers use conditioning and repetition of observable behavior, in addition to positive reinforcement, to help a student make the association that certain behavior is desirable.10 For example, a teacher may praise and politely thank students who raise their hands, conditioning students to adopt this behavior.


Critics of behaviorism argue that its one-dimensional approach to understanding human behavior ignores our internal influences. These internal influences are not necessarily observable and can include our feelings, thoughts, desires, motivations, moods, and expectations.11 Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers were just two notable psychologists who were vocal in voicing the concerns about behaviorism’s limitations and rigid nature arising from the way it rejects the role one’s personality can play in their behavior.12

Some argue that the evidence backing behaviorism in humans is flawed; early evidence supporting behaviorism came from studies involving animals. Applying these findings to humans overlooks the complexity of human behavior, as humans and animals differ physiologically and cognitively. Critics taking this point of view suggest that humans have important social norms and morals which cause us to interact differently with our environment, causing us to behave differently to animals.

Carl Rogers, a believer of humanistic psychology (which proposes humans have free will), rejected the notion that humans and animals can be compared. Rogers believed humans are unique and can make their own decisions, which cannot be compared to those of animals. The principles of behaviorism may be more suited to animals rather than humans.3

Case Study

Behavioral Therapy

Aspects of behaviorism are still applied today in behavioral therapy. Two common types of behavioral therapy include applied behavior analysis (ABA) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).13

ABA takes advantage of operant conditioning, using it to modify problematic behaviors or encourage preferable ones.13 CBT is loosely based on the principles of behaviorism, as it also takes into account an important cognitive element in humans. Therapists using CBT will focus on the thoughts behind an individual’s behavior. CBT is considered by many to be the gold standard in treating disorders such as anxiety, anger issues, and substance abuse and relapse prevention.14

However, behavioral therapy is not always sufficient for complex mental health conditions. Behavioral therapy can help cope with some aspects of complex conditions, such as severe depression, however, it cannot be used alone.15 Just like the shortcomings of behaviorism, behavioral therapy overlooks the bigger picture by failing to address the effects that unique situations, interpersonal relationships, and unobservable behaviors can have on a patient.15

Related TDL Content

Phantom Cellphone Buzzes: A Behavioral PerspectiveHave you ever been sure that you felt your phone vibrate in your pocket, or heard your ringtone? But when you pull your phone out, you realize that no one tried to reach you? No, your phone was not acting up. It could be a sign of just how attached you have become to your device. This article investigates whether the excessive use of technology can be considered an addiction.

Why do we work harder when we are promised a reward?Incentives can be a powerful tool to motivate people to take a certain action, but it can also backfire, resulting in a decrease in one’s motivation instead of increasing it. This article explores the implications of incentivization in our behavior.

Positive Reinforcement: This piece by The Decision Lab explores the consequences and controversies regarding positive reinforcement, a key tool in operant conditioning which has significant effects on human learning.


  1. Cherry, K. (2021, February 20). History and key concepts of behavioral psychology. Verywell Mind.
  2. A short history of behaviorism – Introductory psychology. (n.d.). Open Text WSU – Simple Book Publishing.
  3. Mcleod, S. (2020). Behaviorist approach. Simply Psychology.
  4. VanElzakker, M. B., Kathryn Dahlgren, M., Caroline Davis, F., Dubois, S., & Shin, L. M. (2014). From Pavlov to PTSD: The extinction of conditioned fear in rodents, humans, and anxiety disorders. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory113, 3-18.
  5. Shahan, T. A. (2010). Conditioned reinforcement and response strength. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior93(2), 269-289.
  6. Cognitive science (Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy). (n.d.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  7. Mcleod, S. (2018). Pavlov’s dogs study and pavlovian conditioning explained. Simply Psychology.,classical%20conditioning)%20was%20discovered%20accidentally.&text=During%20the%201890s%2C%20Russian%20physiologist,in%20response%20to%20being%20fed
  8. Burnham, J. C. (1994). John B. Watson: Interviewee, professional figure, symbol. In J. T. Todd & E. K. Morris (Eds.), Modern perspectives on John B. Watson and classical behaviorism (pp. 65–73). Greenwood Press/Greenwood Publishing Group.
  9. Cherry, K. (2020, July 25). What is reinforcement and how is it used in psychology? Verywell Mind.,increases%20or%20strengthens%20the%20response
  10. Beasley, N. (2021, July 21). What is behavioral psychology? Definition and applications. BetterHelp.
  11. Moore, J. (2013). Methodological behaviorism from the standpoint of a radical behaviorist. The Behavior Analyst36(2), 197-208.
  12. Bower, G. H. (2008). The evolution of a cognitive psychologist: A journey from simple behaviors to complex mental acts. Annual Review of Psychology59(1), 1-27.
  13. Cherry, K. (n.d.). How behavioral therapy works. Verywell Mind.
  14. Thoma, N., Pilecki, B., & McKay, D. (2015). Contemporary cognitive behavior therapy: A review of theory, history, and evidence. Psychodynamic Psychiatry43(3), 423-461.
  15. Spiegler, M. D. (2016). Contemporary behavior therapy (6th ed.). Cengage Learning.

About the Author

Joshua Loo

Joshua was a former content creator with a passion for behavioral science. He previously created content for The Decision Lab, and his insights continue to be valuable to our readers.

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