Behaviorism is a psychological theory based around understanding observable behavior. The theory posits that adjusting or manipulating the environment of the subject will cause them to react in observable ways. Behaviorists consider the subject to be passive, and learning being something that happens to them, rather than an active participant in learning. Behaviorism has a role in teaching in aiding teachers to understand how the environment affects learners’ behavior as well as a behavior management tool (1).
Key terms and definitions
- Conditioning: The act of learning by environmental influence. Learning is usually measured in observable behavior and has two main motivational drivers; classical and operant. In either type of conditioning, internal processes like thoughts and feelings of the subject are ignored.
- Classical conditioning: Learning through associating environmental stimuli with a particular behavior. This type of conditioning causes behavior to occur when the associated stimulus is present, regardless of if the original stimulus is or not. For example, a child might associate the word test with an unpleasant experience and exhibit avoidance behavior. Or the word chocolate with excited behavior like smiling and bouncing. In these cases, the word is the associated stimulus that produces an observable behavioral response, not the actual stimulus itself. Classical conditioning associates an undesired or desired outcome with a particular stimulus, which is usually neutral.
- Operant conditioning: Learning from the consequences of behavior. The addition or removal of stimuli will result in either a desired or undesired outcome for the subject. The outcome for the subject is called reinforcement or punishment, which can happen through either positive or negative means. The subject adjusts their behavior to either avoid the undesired outcome or bring about the desired outcome. Operant conditioning needs to be repetitive to be effective, as without reminders of the consequences for behavior, the behavior and related associations will go extinct. There are several examples of this in the next few sections.
- Punishment vs Reinforcement: These two terms are part of operant conditioning. They refer to the outcome for the subject of the process of conditioning. Reinforcement is a desired outcome for the subject, while punishment is an undesired outcome. Subsequently, reinforcement will usually encourage behavior by providing the desired outcome, while punishment will usually discourage behavior by providing an undesired outcome. For example, reinforcement can encourage behavior such as sitting nicely, because you will get told “well done” (desired outcome) while punishment might discourage behavior such as playing up because you will get told to sit at the teacher’s feet (undesired outcome).
- Negative vs Positive: In the context of behaviorism, negative means the removal of stimuli, and positive means the addition of stimuli. Because negative is often associated with “bad” and positive is often associated with “good” these terms are frequently misunderstood when used for behaviorist principles. Thinking of the terms as addition (positive) and subtraction (negative) symbols can help.
- Positive Reinforcement: Taking into account the previous discussion of these terms, positive reinforcement is the addition of stimuli to create a desired outcome for the subject. An example of positive reinforcement is praise or stickers. The stimuli of praise or stickers are introduced producing a desired outcome for the subject (they feel good). The result is that the behavior that caused the desired outcome of the introduction of stimulus increases.
- Positive Punishment: This refers to the addition of stimuli to create an undesired outcome for the subject. An example might be to write lines, the introduction of the stimuli of writing lines creates an undesired outcome of boredom and annoyance. The result might be that the learner no longer engages in the behavior that resulted in the undesired outcome.
- Negative reinforcement: The most frequently misunderstood concept in behaviorist theory, negative reinforcement does not refer to undesirable stimuli, but rather the removal of stimuli. Stimuli may be viewed as either good or bad by the subject. Negative reinforcement often comes as a response to undesired behavior in a subject, that inadvertently reinforces the behavior. An example might be the child throws the chair across the room and is sent to the principal’s office. Being removed from the classroom means the student does not have to complete a test. This is a desired outcome for the student, resulting in them repeating the behavior of chair-throwing next time there is work they do not wish to do. In this example, the stimulus is undesired work, and being sent to the principal removed that stimulus, creating negative reinforcement(6).
- Negative Punishment: The term negative, as mentioned, refers to the subtraction or removal of stimuli, while punishment refers to an undesired outcome. Therefore negative punishment refers to the subtraction of stimuli to create an undesired outcome. An example might be being kept in at recess, the removal of the stimuli of playing outside with friends creates an undesired outcome. This should discourage the behavior that caused them to be kept inside such as not completing work or disrupting other class members.
- Radical Behaviorism: A development of behaviorism created by Skinner to attempt to bring the concept of internal processes to the theory. Early psychologists did not believe that internal processes influenced learning and that all learning occurred because of how the environment around the subject was controlled, which could be measured in observable behavior. However, radical behaviorism suggests that internal processes are important and can also be measured by observable behavior.
- Reinforcement schedules: As part of Skinner’s work on understanding how operant conditioning influenced behavior, he created five schedules to aid understanding of different ways to apply operant conditioning.
- Continuous Reinforcement: Earning the same reinforcement after every same action performed, such as a sticker on every correct answer.
- Fixed Interval Reinforcement: Receiving the reinforcement at the same time, every time. This might be a game every Friday for the learners who have consistently completed a particular task all week.
- Variable Interval Reinforcement: Reinforcement occurs at intermittent times at random. Such as praise and a sticker when a student sits quietly every 3-7 days, and at least once every week.
- Fixed Ratio Reinforcement: Learners get reinforcement when they engage in the behavior a set number of times. Such as when a learner receives a sticker for behaving a particular way during each learning session of the day.
- Variable Ratio Reinforcement: Learners receive reinforcement occurs when the learner engages in behavior a random number of times. For example, a learner may get the answer correct and receive a sticker every 3-7 times.
Skinner’s work can help educators to know the best times to give reinforcement to best avoid extinction. His experiments have revealed which of the reinforcement schedules are most effective. Continuousness is good when setting up habits, then retreating to other schedules is best. Both variable and ratio were revealed to be stronger than fixed or continuous, with variable ratio reinforcement being the least likely to result in the extinction of the desired behavior.
History and key psychologists in the evolution of behaviorism
Behaviorism as a fledgling concept first appeared in 1887, when Ivan Pavlov performed his famous experiment with dogs. The actual term Behaviorism was coined by John Watson in 1913 when he presented a paper that combined his own work with that of other psychologists to create a cohesive theory. There have been four major psychologists who were fundamental in the development of the theory, each building on each other’s work. Behaviorism dominated psychological thinking for several decades. While behaviorism is no longer as widely cited and used, it remains a dominant theory that underpins much of psychological thinking.
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s work was concerned with understanding classical conditioning. He completed a series of experiments to understand how environmental stimuli could be manipulated to adjust behavior. He came to conclusions about how the brain learns in relation to his observations.
In his most famous experiments, he used a bell to let dogs know they were about to receive a treat. His research was originally concerned with the production of saliva to aid digestion, but he noticed the dogs salivating in anticipation of their feeding schedule and became interested in what was happening. He began to measure the volume of saliva the dogs produced when an aural stimulus – a bell – was presented. He then measured the saliva produced with the addition of food. Within a few repetitions, the dogs associated the bell with the expectation of food and would produce saliva whether the food was present or not. Pavlov concluded that you could pair neutral stimuli with desired stimuli to create a particular outcome of observable behavior. Pavlov called this association of stimuli to a particular behavior conditional reflexes. He created the stimulus-response model, concluding that the brain learned in response to stimuli, by creating associations between those stimuli and particular behaviors.
Pavlov went on to see how adjusting the parameters of the study, such as length of time between the bell and the treat, or how randomization of whether the food was offered, affected the response to stimuli.
Pavlov’s work contributed the following influences to the theory of behaviorism:
- Behavior change stems from environmental influence
- Learning will be exhibited in an observable behavior change.
- All behavior comes from the formula stimulus-response.
Edward Lee Thorndike was another important part of the development of this theory. His research formed the basis of understanding operant conditioning. He also created a learning model called the Law of Effect.
Thorndike performed experiments on animals to measure how long it took them to learn to solve a puzzle ie: press a button or pull a lever, to produce the desired outcome – getting to food. Thorndike observed that through practice the animal learned which behavior caused the desired outcome and so performed such behaviors more quickly.
From his experiments, he concluded that behavior that produces desired outcomes is likely to be repeated, while behavior that produces undesired outcomes will decrease over time and even go extinct. Thorndike called this the Law of Effect. His work is still influential in understanding behavior and learning today.
Thorndike also founded the field of Educational Psychology, publishing a book on it in 1903. He worked to apply his research to the field of teaching and was influential in reexamining the way that learning and punishment were viewed in the classroom setting.
Thorndike’s work contributed the following influences to the theory of behaviorism:
- Specific behavior will form as a result of consistent reinforcement.
- Both negative and positive outcomes can be influenced by changes in the environment.
- Behavior that consistently results in an undesired outcome for the subject will go extinct, while behavior that consistently results in the desired outcome will increase.
John B. Watson
John Broadus Watson is credited with collecting the work of other psychologists and creating the term behaviorism. Watson was focused on applying scientific foundations to the field of psychology, stating that behavior had to be both observable and measurable. The internal world of humans cannot be observed or measured, and therefore must not be used to understand behavior. He believed that psychology should focus on controllable and observable behavior to be taken seriously as a scientific field. While Watson’s conclusions about internal processes being irrelevant are now widely disregarded, his efforts are considered to be instrumental in the movement towards psychology being taken seriously within scientific academia.
Watson was the first psychologist to use a human subject to test ideas of classical conditioning. Little Albert, a 9 month old infant, was subjected to loud noises in association with animal stimuli until he produced a fear response to the animal whether the loud noise was present or not. His work with Little Albert is ethically questionable by today’s standards. The work would also not be considered scientifically viable as the conditions of the experiment did not meet modern expectations of a laboratory setting.
Watson contributed the following to the theory of behaviorism:
- Brought the work of other important psychologists together under an umbrella theory of Behaviorism.
- Further understanding on how the theory would bring psychology closer to being a scientific field.
- Learning must be observable and measurable, internal processes were irrelevant as they are impossible to measure or observe.
B. F. Skinner
Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s work continued to develop the field of behaviorism and attempted to broaden the definition of the theory. He created the concept of radical behaviorism and defined reinforcement principles, creating the model reinforcement schedules.
B.F. Skinner is considered the father of Radical Behaviorism. According to Skinner radical behaviorism is “the philosophy of a science of behavior treated as a subject matter in its own right apart from internal explanations, mental or physiological” (1989, p. 122 2).
Skinner rejected the notion that internal processes were irrelevant to learning, and examined how thoughts and feelings might be analyzed scientifically. His conclusions were that behavior was a reflection of internal processes and therefore could be analyzed. The effort to consider internal thoughts and feelings became known as radical behaviorism, and the application of these ideas is widely used today in applied behavior analysis.
Skinner worked to understand better the underlying reinforcement patterns that influenced behavior. He identified different kinds of reinforcement as mentioned in the definitions section of this essay.
Skinner was also passionate about education and believed that teachers needed to have a good understanding of how learning works. He believed learners needed to be viewed as active participants in learning instead of passive.
Skinner’s contributions to behaviorism continue to be the most widely used today:
- A better understanding of how internal processes contributed to the theory.
- Greater understanding of operant conditioning, including reinforcement schedules.
- Practical application of behaviorist theory to classroom and education settings.
Criticisms of behaviorism
There are several criticisms and observed limitations of behaviorism theory. While these concepts and principles predict observable behavioral responses in humans, internal cognitive processes are largely discounted. Further, behaviorism defines learning as observable behavior and only values learning resulting in modified behavior, which is only one aspect of learning. Learning takes place within a complex set of criteria and behaviorism reduces these processes to observable cause and effect.
Behaviorists theorize that learners are passive and that the teacher is in total control of the learning that occurs based on the environment they create, however, this removes the agency of the learner to engage meaningfully in their own learning. The expectation is that the learner will behave in an expected way in response to particular stimuli created by the teacher, and they are simply vessels into which learning is poured (4).
While Skinner attempted to remedy some of the issues above with his radical behaviorism theory, his attempts to place concepts like emotion, thoughts and conscious state into measurable criteria falls woefully short. The lack of account for internal processes means that reasons behind particular behavior are at best oversimplified and at worst overlooked. Unfortunately, trying to measure behavior without accounting for underlying reasons will not adequately aid the understanding of human behavior.
However, while behaviorism is now considered to be largely outdated, many aspects of the theory are still in active use or underpin current psychological concepts and beliefs.
Motivation, learning, and other implications for teaching
Behaviorism believes providing the correct environment, coupled with repetition of skills and knowledge tasks will cause learning to happen, and this is how education was managed for decades. While this is now less prevalent in the classroom setting, applying behaviorism in the classroom is still relevant from several perspectives. The teacher has the role of filling the learner with knowledge, behaviorism helps with this in different ways.
Creating an environment that has the correct stimuli to condition a state of learning is the behaviorist’s goal. Positive reinforcement is useful to modify behavior, and becoming familiar with Skinner’s reinforcement schedules so you can utilize the best methods in any given scenario is useful. Teachers can use this understanding to create an environment in which reinforcement works to the teacher’s and learner’s best advantage (7).
Educators can use behaviorist theory to improve student motivation. All learners want to feel good, and so using reinforcement schedules to provide those experiences will motivate students to adjust their behavior. As a behavioral management tool, behaviorism is still very relevant. Using positive reinforcement and reinforcement schedules to motivate children to try hard and do their best is one of the most useful concepts from the theory.
Using the methods outlined by behaviorists tends to be more useful for learning that can be easily assessed or monitored through observing learner behavior. Route learning or “skill and drill” memorisation style learning is a common learning style best suited to this theory. The emphasis on prizes, good grades and praise are useful for these units of learning. Using behaviorism in the classroom as a learning tool is good for scientific or formulaic learning such as times tables and languages that rely on being able to memorize a lot of information (3).
Useful tools and systems outlined by skinner include:
- Provide opportunities for students to understand the task expected of them
- Start at the bottom of the ladder – break the learning into easily achievable stages that learners can achieve more easily.
- Use repetition to help the learner build on previous learning and scaffold them to the next level.
- Use reinforcement schedules to help learners know they are on the right path.
- Start with continuous reinforcement, then as learner mastery improves, move towards other schedules to help the learner maintain the learning.
It is worth noting that the lessons that need more comprehension and deeper learning are less suited to these methods. For this kind of learning, behaviorism theory is best for use in motivating students to engage with their learning, rather than as a learning method, for which other learning theories such as social cognitive theory and constructionism are worth exploring (5).
Teaching Strategies that support Behaviorist Learning Theory:
- Gang-based learning.
- Question and answer.
- Positive reinforcement.
- Competency-based instruction.
- Direct instruction.
While many aspects of behaviorism are now widely discredited, the underlying principles and observations of learning are still in wide use today. The concept of reinforcement schedules are used in many learning and teaching models, and understanding how students react and respond to environmental stimuli and how that might impact future learning and behavior is still valuable. Understanding the development of the theory and how thinking around these ideas evolved is useful to understanding the theory’s usefulness in a classroom setting, but it must be remembered that as a learning system, the theory is best suited to learning that requires memorization of facts rather than deep comprehension learning. As a behavior management technique, much of the theory is still useful to educators in the modern classroom.
- Watson, J. B., & Kimble, G. A. (2017). Behaviorism. Routledge.
- Skinner, B. F. (1989). Recent issues in the analysis of behavior. Columbus, OH: Merrill.
- Moore, J. (2011). Behaviorism. The Psychological Record, 61(3), 449-463.
- Staddon, J. (2014). The new behaviorism. Psychology Press.
- Bargh, J. A., & Ferguson, M. J. (2000). Beyond behaviorism: on the automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychological bulletin, 126(6), 925.
- Baum, W. M. (2017). Understanding behaviorism: Behavior, culture, and evolution. John Wiley & Sons.
- Holland, J. G. (1978). BEHAVIORISM: PART OF THE PROBLEM OR PART OF THE SOLUTION? 1. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 11(1), 163-174.