What is Behaviorism In Behavioral Science?

What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism, often referred to as behavioral psychology, is a theory of learning based on the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment. Advocates of behaviorism believe that behavior can be studied in a systematic and observable manner without consideration of internal mental states.

Origins and Key Contributors

Behaviorism as a philosophy of psychology was primarily developed in the early 20th century, with its roots attributed to the work of scientists such as Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner. These psychologists placed emphasis on observable behaviors and rejected introspective methods that were prevalent in psychology during their time. Their work led to the establishment and popularization of behavioristic principles in the field of psychology.

  • Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936)

    Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, was one of the pioneers of behaviorism. Though his main field of study was physiology, his practices and discoveries influenced the development of behaviorism. Pavlov is best known for his work on ‘classical conditioning’ demonstrated through his experiments with dogs, which formed the basis for the concept of associative learning.

  • John B. Watson (1878–1958)

    John B. Watson, an American psychologist, is often referred to as the ‘father of behaviorism.’ Watson proposed that psychology should abandon its introspective methods and instead focus on observable behaviors. One of his well-known experiments, the ‘Little Albert’ experiment, demonstrated how specific fears could be conditioned in humans.

  • B.F. Skinner (1904–1990)

    Burrhus Frederic Skinner, better known as B.F. Skinner, was a prominent American psychologist who expanded on the theories of behaviorism. He is best known for developing the concept of ‘operant conditioning,’ which describes how behavior is influenced by the consequences that follow it. Skinner’s work with reinforcement schedules has major contributions in areas such as child upbringing, education, and the treatment of psychological disorders.

Key Principles of Behaviorism

Behaviorism is rooted in a few main principles which are central to its theoretical and practical applications. These principles have been influential in various fields including psychology, education, and marketing.

  • Behavioral Responses to Environmental Stimuli

    Behaviorists believe that an individual’s behavior is a direct response to environmental stimuli. This includes both external environmental factors, such as physical surroundings, and internal cues, such as hunger or anxiety.

  • The Invisible Cannot Be Studied

    Behaviorists argue that psychology, as an empirical science, should only study observable and measurable behavior. They disregard the examination of cognitive processes like thoughts, emotions, and desires, as these are not directly observable and cannot be measured in an objective manner.

  • Behavior is Learnt

    According to behaviorism, behavior is learned, rather than inherent or based on instinct. This learning happens through a process of conditioning, which involves manipulating environmental stimuli and responses to alter behavior.

Types of Behaviorism

There are various types of behaviorism, each with its unique assumptions and methodologies. These types represent evolution and adaptations to the basic principles initially proposed by behaviorism pioneers.

  • Methodological Behaviorism

    This type of behaviorism focuses on the study of observable and measurable behaviors, as well as the influence of environmental stimuli. It does not concern itself with internal mental states or processes as they are not quantifiable or subject to empirical evaluation.

  • Radical Behaviorism

    Radical Behaviorism, proposed by B.F. Skinner, attempts to incorporate internal mental events while maintaining an empiricist and determinist model. It holds that all behavior, whether public or private, is subject to the same contingencies of reinforcement and punishment.

  • Cognitive Behaviorism

    Cognitive behaviorism blends traditional behaviorist principles with cognitive theories, acknowledging that internal thoughts and motivations can influence behavior. It represents a shift from the strict emphasis on observable behavior to acknowledging the role of mental processes.

Impact and Applications of Behaviorism

While behaviorism has been the subject of criticism primarily for ignoring cognitive processes, its theories and principles have contributed significantly to fields such as psychology, education, and even business and marketing.

  • Psychology and Psychotherapy

    Behaviorism has led to the development of effective therapeutic techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). These therapy styles use conditioning techniques to alter or change maladaptive behaviors.

  • Education

    In the field of education, behaviorist principles have been used to design instructional methods and strategies. These include reinforcement and rewards systems to encourage positive behaviors and learning.

  • Business and Marketing

    Businesses and marketers often use behaviorist principles to influence consumer behavior. This includes using rewards and reinforcements to encourage certain consumer actions, like loyalty programs and promotional offers.

Critiques of Behaviorism

Despite its wide influence and applications, behaviorism has received criticism from various quarters. The major criticisms stem from its disregard for cognitive processes in explaining human behavior.

  • Ignores Cognitive Processes

    The most critical argument against behaviorism is that it fails to take into account the internal cognitive processes of an individual. Critics argue that without understanding these processes, a complete understanding of human behavior is unachievable.

  • Overemphasis on Observable Behavior

    Critics argue that behaviorism’s focus on observable and measurable behavior limits its scope. Not all human behaviors can be observed or measured, such as thoughts, emotions, or motivations, and these also play critical roles in determining behavior.

  • Limited Applicability

    Furthermore, critics have pointed out that behaviorism’s principles don’t apply equally to all behaviors and all species. Some behaviors, especially complex social behaviors, don’t fit neatly into the conditioning model proposed by behaviorism.


Behaviorism has played a fundamental role in the development of psychology over the last century, influencing our understanding of learning and behavior. Despite its limitations and criticisms, behaviorism’s principles continue to influence various fields, from psychology and education to business and marketing, and provide valuable insights into human behavior.

Related Articles

Default Nudges: Fake Behavior Change

Default Nudges: Fake Behavior Change

Read Article →
​Here's Why the Loop is Stupid

Here’s Why the Loop is Stupid

Read Article →
How behavioral science can be used to build the perfect brand

How behavioral science can be used to build the perfect brand

Read Article →
The death of behavioral economics

The Death Of Behavioral Economics

Read Article →