What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism is a philosophy of psychology that focuses on observable behaviors and requires an objective, observable behavior to demonstrate a state of mind or learning. It stresses that psychological events are confirmed and observed by behavioral measures. It dismisses the inner experiences in learning and it focuses on learning as nothing more than gaining a new and observable behavior.

To lay the fundamental ideas of Behaviorism out in a more concise manor, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophylays out for us that Behaviorism is committed to three sets of claims:
  1. “Psychology is the science of behavior. Psychology is not the science of mind.”
  2. “Behavior can be described and explained without making reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. The sources of behavior are external (in the environment), not internal (in the mind).”
  3. “In the course of theory development in psychology, if, somehow, mental terms or concepts are deployed in describing or explaining behavior, then either (a) these terms or concepts should be eliminated and replaced by behavioral terms or (b) they can and should be translated or paraphrased into behavioral concepts.”
These three statements are again reiterating the fact that behaviorism pays attention to behavioral concepts and dismisses mental concepts.

Behaviorism does not take into consideration Cognitivism that focuses on the mental processing of information but rather emphasizes the behavioral response to a stimulus. The theory focuses on natural reactions to stimulus or positive and negative reinforcements for conditioning a behavior. There are two forms of conditioning in Behaviorism:

Classic Conditioning

Discovered by Pavlov, Classic Conditioning addresses natural/biological responses and reflexes to a stimulus. The stimulus that is inserted does not teach a new behavior, it is used to cause an existing behavior to occur. Pavlov provides an example of Classic conditioning with the example of dogs salivating at the sight of food (link to Pavlav's findings with dogs classic conditioning).
  • The television show The Office recently provided an example of classic conditioning.

Behavioral or Operant Conditioning

This conditioning takes place when reinforcements are used to train a response to a stimulus. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner used such conditioning to teach pigeons to carry out various behaviors by rewarding the actions as they naturally occurred until the pigeons responded to a stimulus with the rewarded action.
  • A Skinner box" was created and used for these experiments and the video below helps us to understand how Skinner researched such conditioning.

Background of Behaviorism

The first studies on Classical Conditioning were published by the Nobel Prize winning Ivan Pavlov in 1906. pavdog.jpgPavlov accidentally discovered classical conditioning while conducting studies on dogs to further understand digestion. But, John B. Watson is credited with being the founder of Behaviorism (All Psych Online: History of Psychology). Watson published his famous article “Psychology as the behaviorist view it” in 1913 and in 1914 published his book titled Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, both of which emphasized the study of actions and behavior rather than feelings or thoughts. With Pavlov as Watson’s inspiration, Classic Conditioning was the earliest studied form of Behaviorism (Tom McIntyre,

In the 1920's behaviorism began to wane in popularity somewhat as other researchers began to produce arguments against the theory. But in 1938 B. F. Skinner, one of the widely recognized Behaviorists published ‘The Behavior of Organisms’ which revived the behavioral idea by producing the Skinner box (Operant Conditioning Chamber) which allowed sequences of behavior to be repeated and studied independently. Skinner followed many of Watson’s practices but his practices included a very different take on Behaviorism. Skinner’s branch of behaviorism became known as Radical Behaviorism named for being one of the most notably different stems of behaviorism. Where Watson dismissed the use of mental states in his studies and focused on behavior, Skinner focused his analysis on the importance of inner thoughts and feelings which allowed him to draw conclusions beyond just observation.
Over the years Behaviorism has been widely researched, advanced and criticized as well. In 1929 Wolfgang Kohler published a piece on Gestalt Psychology which directly disparaged behaviorism.

Others, such as B.F. Skinner supported different variations of Behaviorism and in 1953 a type of behavioral therapy was first developed with experiments founded in Skinner's reach and the technique has been used for managing Autism, Schizophrenia and more.

*Today it is widely believed that behavior is influenced by both internal and external stimuli.

Major Theorists and Proponents of Constructivism

Behaviorism was even more popular among psychologists than among philosophers. Behaviorists’ studies and findings led them to branch off into different clusters based on their different approaches to the experiments and the conditioning.

pavlov.jpgIvan Pavlov

A Russian physiologist psychologist who happened across Classic Conditioning in his studies of digestion which won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904. While researching the digestive system in dogs Pavlov noticed that with the reptition in his research, his dogs began salivating at the sight of of the food (meat powder) and soon at just the sight of the researchers. He paired the sound of a ringing bell with the food and after repitition the dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell even when the meat powder was not present. Thus starting the study of Classic Conditioning.

John B. Watson

(1878-1958) Watson.jpg
Pavolv’s work inspired the “father” of Behaviorism, John B. Watson, an American Psychologist. Watson’s studies emphasized the actions and behavior of its subjects and dismissed introspection and any inner feelings or mental states. Watson believed that only by observing and analyzing behaviors and reactions could someone get obtain objective insight into the root of the behavior.
Pavlov is known for his controvertial "Little Albert" experiment and his claim:

"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 beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." (1930)

B. F. Skinner

B_F_Skinner.jpgWatson's research served as influence for B.F. Skinner, who studied operant conditioning. At the same time when Sigmund Freud’s studies were increasing in popularity, Skinner was in direct opposition and rejected studies of the unconscious to study behaviors through use of rewards and punishments to change the rate and mode of behavior. Skinner’s studies suppored the foundation and framework of behavioral therapy.

Pavlov, Watson and Skinner are some of the most well known and influential researchers that have contributed to Behaviorism, but others have also aided in advances of the theory including:
Albert Bandura
Edwin Ray Guthrie
Richard J. Herrnstein
Clark L. Hull
Edward Lee Thorndike
Edward Tolman

Other Learning Theories Related to Behaviorism

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What Behaviorist Teachers Do

One of the concepts fundamental to learning according to the behaviorist theory is operant conditioning. Unlike classical conditioning, where a neutral stimulus is paired with a natural response to achieve the response from the neutral stimulus, operant conditioning uses a positive or negative stimuli as a way of altering the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Behaviors that the teacher wishes to encourage will be reinforced with a positive stimulus or the removal of a negative stimulus. Those that are discouraged will result in a negative stimulus or the removal of a positive stimulus. When the link between an action and its consequence becomes clear, the nature of the consequence will impact the probability of repeating an action. If a behavior is followed by a positive stimulus, it is more likely that it will be repeated in the hope of eliciting the same positive stimulus.

This manner of learning is easy to see in the earliest and most fundamental student-teacher relationship: that between a child and a parent. A parent who wishes to foster good behavior will respond to desired actions with a reward. The promise of the pleasure from reward provides incentive to act in the encouraged manner. Similarly, the threat of punishment discourages undesired activity. Parents who buy a toy for a child who behaved well during a shopping trip are reinforcing good behavior through operant conditioning.

It is important for teachers in this system to be consistent, otherwise learners will be unsure what to do. The method is to alter probability of repeated action by the consequence provided. If a person learns to link the positive reaction to an action, he will likely repeat this action more. But if the consequence is uncertain, there will be confusion. If punishment is inconsistent, then behavior control will likely break down.

Skinner used this general framework as a way of looking at the development of language in babies. He explained lessons of language development in the terms of operant conditioning. Initially, simple sound making is met with approval. Parents reward the attempts at communication with praise and affection. As phonetic control develops, children are encouraged to speak specific words, learning the sound patterns of language. Parents also correct, demonstrating the desired sound. This will continue as more words are learned, and words begin to take on association with different objects and ideas.

This same concept is also applicable in the classroom. The basic system of education has a teacher who reinforces the accurate demonstration of knowledge. In early learning, reinforcements are very concrete. Teachers reward students for their work with treats or play privileges. As education progresses, however, the dynamics change. The fundamental reinforcer becomes the grade. Good grades reward the hard worker, and bad grades come from poor work. The response to learning becomes an abstract representation of the future possibilities of the student.

Teachers in this system provide assessment of work, so children may know by their grades where they can improve. It becomes necessary then for the teacher to provide this assessment in a way that will show students what they can do to improve. This aspect of assessment can often disappear in the daily grind, as teachers mechanically provide grades, but do little to push the student in the correct direction. Looking at behaviorism can help to remind teachers of this purpose. If we look back to teaching babies, we remember that we showed them the correct way to perform, rather than simply punishing undesired activity. A teacher who simply hands out failing grades is not fully providing proper assessment, even if this follows patterns of operant conditioning.

What Behaviorist Learners Do

Students learn in this system primarily by predictable response to the consequences of their actions. Students will seek to maximize positive responses and minimize negative. If they come to understand that certain actions tend to be associated with reward, then they will continue these actions. Since much of what is occurring is outside the control of the student, students will only be operating on those aspects which they believe they can control.

I am reminded here of the development in psychology of learned helplessness. In experiments, two enclosed groups of dogs were subjected to an unpleasant stimulus, an electrified floor. The enclosure for one group had a wall which was low enough for the dogs to jump over, and thereby escape. In initial testing, both groups of dogs quickly tried to escape the unpleasant sensation, even though there was no way for the second group to avoid it. In subsequent tests, the dogs who had no escape route ceased to try anything, convinced that they could not change the circumstances. This behavior persisted even when these dogs were placed in an enclosure which they could escape, and when they saw others escaping in this way.

This is relevant to operant conditioning. If students are to learn from experiences, they must perceive that their actions influence the consequences; if they do not see such a link, then they will cease to try. Thus, for students to learn, they must encounter situations in which the results are contingent upon their own actions. Once the consequences are understandable, then decision making can occur.

One of the greatest difficulties associated with learning in this way is the internalization of consequence. While it might be effective to give a child candy to get him to perform a chore, such rewards obviously aren't going to be viable for most situations as life progresses. Anyone trying to learn is ultimately going to have to find motivation from within, rather than from an external source.

While an immediate goal might be a grade, this perspective undermines the real purpose of education. Grades are supposed to serve as feedback for the student's work, telling which actions are desirable and which are undesirable by the corresponding grade. However, there is a growing gap between understanding the information and knowing enough to get a grade. Students who hope to understand a subject must be able to internalize the reward of right knowledge rather than just doing what is necessary to be assessed in a certain way.

Some Examples of Behaviorist Learning and Instruction

Positive_Reinforcement.jpgAny occasion in which a teacher rewards or punishes a students behavior, they are excercising Behaviorism.

Behaviorism is present even outside of a controlled setting and occurs even when we are unaware that any pairing has taken place. For example, as points out:
"Many of our behaviors today are shaped by the pairing of stimuli. Have you ever noticed that certain stimuli, such as the smell of a cologne or perfume, a certain song, a specific day of the year, results in fairly intense emotions? It's not that the smell or the song are the cause of the emotion, but rather what that smell or song has been paired with...perhaps an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, the death of a loved one, or maybe the day you met you current husband or wife. We make these associations all the time and often don’t realize the power that these connections or pairings have on us. But, in fact, we have been classically conditioned."

Some Examples of Technology-based Behaviorist Learning and Instruction

As an instructor assigns students to carry out assignments online, over time if the online resources are repeatedly asked to be used in completing the assignment, a student may find that in future assignments they may use that same technical resource as a information bank even when the instructor has not requested that they do so.

Computer based learning is perhaps more directly linked with Constructivism and Cognitivism as learning theories in which computers produce settings for learners to play with systems, discover new and dynamic solutions and limits.

But, Paul Saettler points out that in the 1960s behaviorism did begin to have an influence on educational technology, which was ironically around the same time that it was fading out of the spotlight in American psychology. He was able to identify six areas in which behaviorism had an impact on American’s use of Educational Technology:
the behavioral objectives movement; the teaching machine phase; the programmed instruction movement; individualized instructional approaches, Computer-Assisted Instruction learning and the Systems Approach to instruction.” (these areas are further defined in Instructional Design and Learning Theory). Teaching machines and programmed instruction are associated with the widely recognized work of B.F. Skinner. Early work on computer-assisted instruction (CAI) was done in the 1950s by names such as IBM and it focused on programs controlled by the program developer instead of the learner.