Behavioral Perspective

The Basic Idea

Many philosophers, scientists and biologists have long sought to answer a simple question: What motivates human beings? What can explain our decisions, actions and behavior? According to the behavioral perspective, the way we behave and learn can be explained through our interactions with the environment. Our actions are always responses to stimuli, which either occur naturally or because of a learned response.1

The behavioral perspective belongs to a school of thought known as behaviorism or behavioral theory. Behavioral theory is the overarching analysis of human behavior focused on examining a person’s environment and learned associations. Behaviorism suggests that all behavior is acquired through conditioning and can therefore be observed without consideration of thoughts or feelings. Since all behavior is but a response, behaviorism also suggests that anyone can learn to perform any action with the right conditioning. Instead of attributing talents, skills, or behaviors to genetics, personality, or cognition, behaviorists believe them to be simply a product of conditioning.2

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief – regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

– John B. Watson in his paper “Psychologists as the Behaviorists View It”2

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Key Terms

Stimulus: Anything that occurs in the environment which makes an individual react to it.

Response: While we typically think of a response as a physical action, responses can also be verbal or written. As long as the behavior/action is observable and is a reaction to a stimulus, it is known as a response.

Unlearned drive: A natural human tendency toward food, drink, sleep, or sex that influences decisions and behavior.

Learned drive: A particular behavior that an individual is taught to exhibit.

Classical Conditioning: A learning technique that pairs a naturally-occurring stimulus with a chosen stimulus in order to teach an individual to react the same way to the chosen stimulus as they do to the naturally occurring stimulus.2

Operant Conditioning: A learning technique that uses positive and negative reinforcements (rewards or punishments) to teach an individual to either continue or cease particular behaviors.

IncentivizationTrying to coax someone into doing something, or making it more appealing, by promise of reward afterwards.


Behavioral theory was established when behavioral psychologist John B. Watson published his paper “Psychology as the Behaviorists View It” in 1913.2  In this paper, Watson suggested that people begin life as blank slates and can be conditioned or taught into behaving in any way.

While Watson is often referred to as the father of the behavioral perspective, Ivan Pavlov is the founder of classical conditioning.  Pavlov’s famous experiment is colloquially known as “Pavlov’s Dogs” and was accidentally discovered in 1897 while trying to measure how much saliva dogs produced. Pavlov’s lab assistant would give the dogs a bowl of food, which causes them to salivate. He found that after a while, the dogs would salivate when they would see the lab assistant, regardless of whether he was bringing them food. The naturally-occurring response of salivating when food was presented became associated with a different stimulus, the lab assistant. This study, which demonstrated classical conditioning, helped create a foundation for the behavioral perspective, because it showed that behavior can be trained.4

Seven years after publishing his paper, Watson also conducted the infamous Little Albert Experiment. Today, this experiment would be deemed unethical, but there were fewer policies and guidelines for psychological experiments in the 1920s. In the Little Albert Experiment, Watson and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner wanted to see if classical conditioning also worked for humans, since Pavlov had shown that it did for dogs. They tested the theory on a baby, Albert. Watson and Rayner showed Little Albert neutral stimuli, including a white rat, a rabbit, and a monkey. Initially, Albert did not respond to any stimulus in a way that indicated fear. However, Albert would burst into tears if a hammer was struck against a steel bar behind his head. Watson and Rayner decided to strike the steel bar when Albert was being shown the white rat. This was repeated a number of times, over two sessions a week apart. At that point, Albert learned to cry when presented with the white rat because he had learned the fear response by associating the rat with a loud noise.5

Following Watson’s footsteps, from around 1920 to the mid 1950s, the behavioral perspective continued to grow until it became the dominant theory of motivation.This was in part due to the fact that psychology was trying to establish itself as an objective and measurable science. Since the behavioral perspective suggested that internal characteristics have no influence on actions or emotions, it provided the opportunity for objectivity and measurement of external stimuli.2


Edward Thorndike

Thorndike is best known for his work on learning theory, which B.F. Skinner drew on to theorize operant conditioning in humans. Thorndike developed the ‘law of effect’ which states that satisfying responses in one particular  situation become more likely to occur again in the same situation. Thorndike studied learning theory with cats who attempted to get out of a box using different methods. He found that those who noticed  a lever which would enable them to get out of the box would push the lever again when put back in the box. This experiment became a basis for operant conditioning.6

Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner

Skinner was a foundational figure for the behavioral perspective. Skinner thought that classical conditioning was too simplistic as an explanation for all of human behavior and was interested in not only the cause of an action, but also the consequences. He found that behavior that is reinforced through rewards tends to be repeated, whereas behavior which is not reinforced or that which leads to punishment tends to die out. He called this kind of conditioning operant conditioning.7

Clark Hull

Hull believed that human behavior could be explained by conditioning and reinforcement. His theory rested on the concept of homeostasis: he suggested that human motivation arises as a result of biological need. When thirsty, hungry, or tired, Hull claimed that people feel a ‘drive’, defined as tension or arousal, which causes them to behave in ways that will reduce their drive.8 Hull published these theories in Principles of Behavior in 1943.

Kenneth Spence

Spence was Hull’s student and helped him develop his ideas on learning and drive. He took ideas about operant conditioning a step further by suggesting that a response is in fact influenced by the size or value of a reward. For example, if money is being used as an incentive, the amount of money will impact the likelihood of a person exhibiting the desired response. Spence thus suggested that performance depends on reinforcement, as well as motivational incentives.3


With the rise in popularity of the behavioral perspective came a new understanding of psychology. If behavior could be observed and measured, psychology was more similar to science than had previously been understood. Watson wrote in his paper that “psychology as a behaviorist views it [is] a purely objective experimental branch of natural science.9 

As the behavioral perspective was being adopted throughout the early 20th century, it changed not only how behavior was explained, but what kind of behavior was studied. Only what was observable was deemed important by the behaviorism school of thought, which meant that emotions, cognitive biases, or other internal events were ignored.

The fact that the behavioral perspective studies objective, measurable actions means that it is able to formulate clear predictions about behavior. A vast number of studies support the perspective because it is easy to replicate the stimulus-response environment in a lab. Its findings can also have positive implications in a number of fields. For example, in the field of education, understanding operant conditioning and positive reinforcement can help engage students in the material and motivate them to work hard. In the field of psychotherapy, classical conditioning can be used to help phobic clients rid themselves of fear by associating their feared objects with more neutral or positive stimuli. Behaviorism also provides insights into habit formation and suggests that bad habits can be broken and that good habits can be developed since all behavior is learned. The behavioral perspective lends support to the nurture side of the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate as it attributes all complex behavior to our responses to the environment.


Since the behavioral perspective suggests that our behavior (and thus who we are) is all dependent on learning and conditioning, critics argue that the perspective negates free will. Instead of being active agents in our decision-making processes, behaviorists argue that we simply respond to stimuli. This view seems to reduce complex human beings to machinic entities. For this reason, the psychodynamic approach, which Sigmund Freud developed, criticizes the behavioral perspective for not taking into account unconscious influences. Moreover, Freud criticized the behavioral perspective because it views newborns as blank slates who can be conditioned to behave in any way.9

Moreover, one of the biggest criticisms of the behavioral perspective is that it is reductionist. It suggests everything can be explained through the stimulus-response relationship and ignores what cannot be observed, like emotions, internal thoughts, or cognitive biases. To suggest that all behavior can easily be traced back to a response from our environment is to ignore many  facets of our humanity. Individual differences are explained as mere differences in conditioning instead of results of different personalities.9

Belief in the behavioral perspective has also led to some unethical applications. Cognitive behavioral therapy, the branch of psychotherapy associated with behaviorism, tries to change thinking patterns. While it can be useful to help people deal with anxiety, depression, or maladaptive or intrusive thoughts, it is also historically drawn on in conversion therapy, which tries to convert people’s sexuality from gay to straight.

A number of other perspectives contradict the behavioral perspective, namely:

  • The biological perspective, which has gained traction with  scientific advancements, has  allowed us to ‘see’ what happens on the inside. The biological perspective states that all behavior has a physical or organic cause. While our biology can be shaped by the environment, the biological perspective believes that our actions can be explained largely by what happens inside our bodies.9
  • The cognitive perspective rejects the biological perspective because it believes the biological perspective reduces humans to their biological instincts. The cognitive perspective instead suggests that humans are information processors: when we are exposed to stimuli, we access the information that we’ve stored in our minds to form an appropriate response. While the cognitive perspective shares some similarities to the behavioral perspective, it is more concerned with non-observable things like  memory and decision-making.1
  • The cross-cultural perspective, which is relatively new, suggests that behavior is guided by cultural influences. It is often used to describe behavior that seems odd to some people but that is actually a product of norms and customs of a different culture.1

Since there are so many perspectives, it is difficult to suggest that all behavior can be explained by learning and conditioning alone. While some actions are certainly reinforced or diminished  through conditioning, other factors like genetics, cultures, thoughts, feelings, and environments certainly play into human behavior.

Case Studies

The Behavioral Perspective and Autism

The behavioral perspective has helped shape therapy and treatment techniques such as  applied behavioral analysis (ABA). ABA helps children learn new behaviors or reduce problematic behaviors and can be especially useful when applied to children who are autistic or who have developmental delays.10

Children with autism have a range of diverse needs; a common one is help with social skills. They find it difficult to develop stimulus control, so they can benefit from conditioning to learn appropriate responses to stimuli. Through a technique called “discrete child training,” which breaks down tasks into individual components, ABA therapists may provoke a desired behavior, such as asking a polite question, and then reinforce it by use of reward. In this way, ABA therapists condition their clients into behaving in socially acceptable ways. While ABA has been around for a while, it has received extreme criticism from the autistic community, who often call its methods harsh and reductive. Read more here.

Attachment Styles and Relationships

You might have heard of the four child attachment styles: secure, avoidant, anxious and disorganized.13 According to the behavioral perspective, experiences during our childhood inform our attachment styles, which influence how we seek out and manage relationships in our adulthood.

When a child develops  a secure attachment style as a kid, she is more likely to grow into an  autonomous adult. Children who exhibit avoidant attachment styles are likely to be dismissive with emotions and expectations from a partner. Those who demonstrate an anxious attachment style as a child are likely to be needy and insecure in adult romantic relationships. Lastly, those with disorganized attachment styles  might find it difficult to tolerate emotional closeness and intimacy with a partner as adults.13

The belief that there is a chronic pattern of relational behaviors that result from childhood experiences of attachment owes itself to the behavioral perspective. because it suggests that prior experiences condition people to respond to others in particular ways.14

Related TDL Content

Phantom Cellphone Buzzes: A Behavioral Perspective

Since cellphones are part of the modern day social fabric, this article explores whether excessive use of technology can be considered an addiction. Addictions cause people to become hypersensitive to cues related to rewards they crave. This article provides a behavioral perspective which might help explain why we think our phone has buzzed or pinged even when it hasn’t.

The Science of Reward

Reinforcement learning is one of the biggest takeaways from the behavioral perspective. In this article, we take a deep dive into understanding what kind of incentives motivate behavior and why. In particular, we answer the question: is money an effective incentive for employees?


  1. Finkelstein, M. (2019, July 1). What is the behavioral perspective? Understanding the relationship between stimulus, response, and behavior. BetterHelp.
  2. Cherry, K. (2019, September 24). History and Key Concepts of Behavioral Psychology. Verywell Mind.
  3. Behavioral Perspective: AP® Psychology Crash Course. (2020, July 23). Albert Resources.
  4. Husson University. (2018, June 1). Consumer behavior theories: Pavlovian theory
  5. McLeod, S. (2020). The Little Albert Experiment. Simply Psychology.
  6. McLeod, S. (2018). Edward Thorndike: The Law of Effect. Simply Psychology.
  7. McLeod, S. (2007, February 5). B.F. Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Simply Psychology.
  8. Cherry, K. (2020, September 17). Drive-Reduction Theory and Human Behavior. Verywell Mind.
  9. McLeod, S. (2007, February 5). Behaviorist Approach. Simply Psychology.
  10. Cherry, K. (2020, February 3). Behavior Analysis in Psychology. Verywell Mind.
  11. Hixson, M. D., Wilson, J. L., Doty, S. J., & Vladescu, J. C. (2008). A review of the behavioral theories of autism and evidence for an environmental etiology. The Journal of Speech and Language Pathology – Applied Behavior Analysis3(1), 46-59.
  12. Welch, C. D., & Polatajko, H. J. (2016). Applied behavior analysis, autism, and occupational therapy: A search for understanding. American Journal of Occupational Therapy70(4), 7004360020p1.
  13. Levy, T. (2017, May 25). Four styles of adult attachment. Evergreen Psychotherapy Center.
  14. Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2006). A Behavioral Systems Approach to Romantic Love Relationships: Attachment, Caregiving, and Sex. In R. J. Sternberg & K. Weis (Eds.), The New Psychology of Love (pp. 259-279). Yale University Press.

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