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What is Behaviorism?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that focuses on the study of observable behavior, with the accompanying belief that all human activities, from feeling an emotion to performing a physical task, are forms of behavior. Behaviorists are interested in what they can observe, quantify, and manipulate, looking at the impacts of environmental stimuli on the organisms they study. These researchers work with a wide variety of animals, including humans, to learn more about why they do what they do.

The father of this field is John B. Watson, who coined the term in 1913, claiming that he wanted to turn the focus of psychology to the study of behavior rather than nebulous exploration of the mind. Many other scientists and researchers took up the discipline and expanded it, with a notable behaviorist being B. F. Skinner, a researcher who worked in the mid to late 20th century.

According to behaviorists, everything is a form of behavior that occurs in response to stimuli in the environment. This includes things like critical thinking and problem solving, completion of physical tasks, and the experience of emotions. While behaviorists acknowledge that cognitive processes are occurring and can be involved in behavior, they stress that these processes occur in response to stimuli, making the outcome of such processes a form of behavior.

Behaviorism focuses heavily on the use of conditioning, the idea that stimuli can be used to teach organisms to repeat or avoid behavior. In fact, conditioning can be used to manipulate the behavior of an organism to create a desired outcome. For example, people use conditioning in animal training to teach animals to do things like canter on a command from a rider, sit when signaled to do so, or attack when ordered to do so by a handler.

Under this system, many things can be quantified, manipulated, and explored to learn more about the behavior of organisms from ants to elephants. Some other fields have integrated some of the concepts from the discipline, such as the idea of operant conditioning to promote a desired behavior, and some behaviorists pursue more or less radical forms of behaviorism in their work.

Some opposition has been lodged against this field. For example, some theologians argue that it would seem to reject the existence of a God or higher power by eliminating free will and treating humans essentially like machines. Other people within the field of psychology have also argued that behaviorism incompletely explains maladaptive behavior or problems that appear to be of a psychological, rather than behavioral, origin.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By discographer — On May 15, 2012

@simrin, @feruze, @EdRick-- Don't forget guys that the behavioral approach doesn't only apply to psychology but also to philosophy. And even within psychology, there is more than one type of behaviorism.

Like what the article described is exactly what psychological behaviorism is about, it's how humans and animals respond to environmental stimuli.

What @simrin talked about with internal processes not mattering is methodological behaviorism. This is still a part of psychology but it's more about the science behind it.

There is also logical behaviorism, which I think is how the internal processes tie in with behavior from stimuli. Logical behaviorism makes sense of thoughts and feelings and defines them as the behaviors that they may lead to.

So if I had to sum this up, I would say that behaviorism isn't compatible with other psychological theories. And to understand behaviorist theory, you have to understand the different theories within.

By EdRick — On May 14, 2012

@simrin - What you are talking about seems like cognitive behavioral therapy, which combines the idea that you can change behavior through conditioning with the idea that you can change your feelings by changing your thoughts.

Traditional behaviorists saw the mind as a "black box" that could not be understood, just influenced through the environment, while cognitive psychologists saw the mind as a computer that could be reprogrammed. Cognitive behavioral therapy draws from both schools of thought.

The idea is that short-term therapy can make real improvements in a person's functioning, as opposed to traditional psychotherapy. There, you might go three times a week for three years and you would understand what caused, for instance, abnormal behavior, but you wouldn't necessarily know how to change it!

By bear78 — On May 13, 2012
@simrin-- I see where you're coming from, but I don't agree with you.

I've been studying the behaviorism approach in my psychology courses and from what I understand, to a behaviorist, psychology is the study of behavior. The entire theory is based on the notion that behaviors are based on external factors, not internal. So technically, it is not acceptable to think that thoughts trigger behavior in behaviorism.

In behaviorism, thoughts and any other process that goes on internally doesn't matter. Only behavior matters. So if someone's psychology changes or thoughts change, it's meaningless unless there is a change in behavior.

By SteamLouis — On May 13, 2012

I don't think that behaviorism rejects the notion of God, but I do agree that behaviorism isn't the whole picture. It's just one piece of the puzzle and we need to study other aspects of psychology to understand everything more clearly.

I do believe that our behaviors are often triggered by environmental stimuli but I think it's also triggered by thoughts. Even though we can't change stimuli or know when to expect it, we could change our thoughts and eventually how we react to thoughts and stimuli.

To say that we can't do this and that we're programmed to do what we've learned to do would mean that there is no potential for treating behavioral disorders like panic attack and anxiety disorders or the many psychotic illness. And there would be no need of behaviorism therapy which is clearly not the case.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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