Behaviorism is a psychological school of thought that seeks to identify observable, measurable laws that explain human (and animal) behavior. Rather than looking inward to incorporate the subject’s thoughts and feelings, classical behaviorism focused on observable behavioral outputs, presuming that each behavior was carried out in response to environmental stimuli or a result of the individual’s past conditioning—which may have included consequences, such as rewards or punishments. What’s more, proponents argued that any task or behavior could be modified with the right conditioning, regardless of individual traits and thinking patterns.
Behaviorism was most dominant in the first half of the twentieth century. Though the field did evolve beyond its early hyperfocus on external behavior, it is no longer widely cited amongst clinicians or academics because modern psychology tends to privilege the inner landscape of emotions and thought. Still, behavioral therapy techniques are used to help with developing new skills, connecting the steps required to complete a task, and rewarding desired behavior, particularly in the areas of developmental delays and the modification of problematic behaviors. The theory of behaviorism laid the groundwork for understanding how we learn, and has had a durable influence on everything from animal training to parenting techniques to teaching standards.
Behaviorism emerged in the early 1900s, largely in response to other popular schools of thought at the time—including Freudian psychology, which emphasized the importance of unconscious thoughts and urges. Early behaviorists aimed to transform psychology into a more objective scientific discipline that, like biology or chemistry, focused on measurable, observable phenomenon, rather than the unobservable internal phenomena that Freud and his contemporaries prioritized. Classical behaviorists did not deny that humans have thoughts and emotions; rather, they argued that because such internal cognitions could not be measured or documented, they were not relevant for the study of human behavior. Though such theories have been largely discounted, some elements of behaviorism—particularly those related to radical behaviorism, a theory promoted by noted psychologist B.F. Skinner—remain in use today
An American psychologist named John B. Watson, born in 1898, is considered the “father” of behaviorism. Watson primarily studied animal behavior and child development and was (in)famous for conducting the “Little Albert” experiment, now widely seen as unethical. Though his work is still taught to psychology students, some argue that his legacy should be rethought.
Classical conditioning is a form of learning in which the repeated pairing of two stimuli will cause an organism to respond to one stimulus as if the other was present, even when it isn’t. A famous example of classical conditioning is an experiment conducted by Ivan Pavlov, who observed that dogs could be made to salivate in response to unrelated auditory or visual stimuli. In one version of the experiment, food—which itself caused the dogs to salivate—was repeatedly paired with a whistling sound. After being conditioned, the dogs would salivate at the mere sound of the whistle—even if food never arrived.
Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which an organism modifies its behavior in response to repeated rewards or punishments. A child who touches a hot stove, for example, will be burned; that negative consequence will likely lead them to avoid touching hot stoves in the future.
“Methodological behaviorism,” credited to John Watson, argues that because only external behaviors can be observed, they are all that should be measured and studied. “Radical behaviorism,” devised by B.F. Skinner, argues that thoughts and feelings represent “inner behavior” and can be studied and modified, just like external behaviors.
Behaviorism does not suggest that negative consequences necessarily promote desired behavior—rather, they teach the organism to avoid undesired behavior. Spanking, for example, is a common example of negative consequences being used to manage behavior—a child who misbehaves is punished, and (in theory) avoids the bad behavior in the future. However, the child has not learned a positive replacement behavior, and the punished behavior may reappear once the punitive consequences (i.e. spanking) are stopped.
The “Little Albert” experiment was an early-20th-century behaviorist study in which an infant (dubbed “Albert”) was conditioned to fear certain animals and objects—such as a rat, a white rabbit, and a Santa Claus mask—because each was paired with a loud, frightening sound. The experiment is now considered unethical because the researchers did not attempt to “decondition” the infant afterward, potentially leaving him with lasting fears of harmless objects; some experts also speculate that “Albert’s” mother was coerced into participating. Though several historians have claimed to have discovered the identity of “Albert,” the child’s true identity—and the aftereffects of the study—remain debated.
Behaviorist principles are sometimes used today to treat mental health challenges, such as phobias or PTSD; exposure therapy, for example, aims to weaken conditioned responses to certain feared stimuli. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), a therapy used to treat autism, is based on behaviorist principles. Behaviorism also shows up in organizational psychology, particularly in the use of rewards and punishments to modify employee behavior.
One reason behaviorism rose to prominence in the 1920s is that it implies human behavior is predictable. People often expect, or hope, that others will behave in a predictable fashion, even if that isn’t always the case. On a social level, behavioral predictability builds confidence and trust—and behaviors and attitudes that deviate too far from the established norm or that are erratic and unpredictable are often considered unacceptable. Thus, the idea that one can predict how another person will behave or elicit a standard response using operant conditioning was enticing to generations of psychologists. And though behaviorism is no longer a dominant school of thought in psychology, it hasn’t been entirely discounted—many modern approaches incorporate behaviorist elements with some success.
Many modern therapies, such as behavior therapy or exposure therapy, rely in part on behaviorist techniques. Behavior therapy, for example, makes use of positive and negative consequences (such as praise or the loss of privileges) to modify a child’s behavior; such therapy has been shown to be effective for developmental disorders such as ADHD.
Because behaviorism suggests that learning happens primarily via conditioning, behavioral approaches to teaching make use of rewards and punishments in order to reinforce desired concepts and behaviors. Such techniques may prove useful for simple behaviors or learning rooted in repetition; however, it is not thought to be effective in helping students master more complex concepts or engage in critical thinking.
The principles of reinforcement can be used in interpersonal relationships; indeed, parents very often use the promise of a reward or the threat of a punishment to change their child’s behavior. Romantic partners can also make use of reinforcement to modify each other’s behavior—for example, “rewarding” a partner with affection when they complete a needed chore. Evidence suggests, however, that such “conditional regard” can backfire in romantic relationships.
Behaviorism is no longer as dominant as it once was, and many psychologists today discount most aspects of both classical behaviorism and radical behaviorism. While most modern therapeutic approaches aim to change behavior to some extent, they typically do so by targeting thoughts and emotions, rather than focusing primarily on rewards and punishment. There are exceptions to this—such as in the treatment of autism or other developmental disorders—but even these are not without their critics. Indeed, some psychologists argue that using behaviorist approaches to treat developmental disorders is both ineffective and potentially harmful.
Behaviorism began to decline in popularity when cognitive psychology, which prioritizes the study of internal mental processes such as attention and memory, started to gain steam in the 1960s. Psychologists of the time were frustrated by the limits of behaviorism and felt that it was unable to truly explain the complex realities of human behavior. An influential critique by linguist Noam Chomsky is credited with dismantling much of behaviorism’s influence.
Among the most common criticisms of behaviorism are that it is reductionist and that it ignores the complexity of human thought and emotion, as well as the possibility of free will. Some modern applications of behaviorism—most notably applied behavior analysis—have been criticized for modifying behavior at the expense of personal agency; some have suggested that the use of behaviorist techniques to treat autism, in particular, can be harmful.
ABA remains a popular approach to treating autism. Some autism advocates, however, argue that ABA uses punishment and/or negative reinforcement to force autistic individuals to behave in neurotypical ways, even when it does not benefit them. They also argue that it does not address the underlying reasons for autistic behaviors—using reinforcement to get an autistic person to stop hand-flapping, for example, does not target his motivation for doing so in the first place, and thus leaves him with an unmet internal need.