Behavioral Psychology Basics

Understanding Behavioral Psychology in 10 Easy Steps

Behavioral psychology is one of the major topics taught in every introductory psychology course, yet many concepts that lie at the heart of this subject can be confusing for students. If you've ever found yourself confusing the unconditioned stimulus with the conditioned stimulus, this basic tutorial is for you.

Let's get started by answering some basic questions:

What Is Behavioral Psychology?

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Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a perspective that became dominant during the early half of the 20th century thanks to prominent thinkers such as B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson. The basis of behavioral psychology suggests that all behaviors are learned.

Behavioral psychology suggests that all behaviors are learned, so how exactly does this learning take place? Two of these key processes involve learning by association and learning through reinforcement and punishment. Let's take a closer look at how forming associations can lead to learning in our next section.

Learning Can Occur Through Associations

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Have you ever heard someone compare something to "Pavlov's dogs" and wondered exactly what the reference means? The phrase refers to an accidental discovery by physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who found that dogs could be conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell. This process, known as classical conditioning, became a fundamental part of behavioral psychology.

Let's take a closer look at some of the basic principles of classical conditioning.

Phenomena in Classical Conditioning

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There are a number of different phenomena that impact classical conditioning. These factors can influence how quickly a behavior is acquired and the strength of that association.

The first part of the classical conditioning process is known as acquisition. During this phase, a response is established and strengthened. In other cases, a process known as extinction occurs when an association disappears; this causes the behavior to weaken gradually or vanish.

Learn more about some of the fundamental principles of classical conditioning.

Learning Can Occur Through Rewards and Punishments

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In addition to conditioning natural responses through association, behaviorist B.F. Skinner described a process in which learning could occur through reinforcement and punishment. This process, known as operant conditioning, functions by forming an association between a behavior and the consequences of the behavior.

For example, if a mother rewards her child with praise every time he picks up his toys, she is reinforcing the desired behavior. As a result, the child will become more likely to clean up his messes.

Another example would be training a pigeon to peck at a key to earn a reward. Every time the bird correctly pecks at the key, the animal receives a food pellet as a reward. As a result, the pecking behavior will increase.

Reinforcement Schedules Are Important

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At first glance, the operant conditioning process seems fairly straight forward. Simply observe a behavior and then offer a reward or punishment. However, B.F. Skinner discovered that the timing of these rewards and punishments has an important influence on how quickly a new behavior is acquired and the strength of the response.

Continuous reinforcement involves rewarding every single instance of a behavior. This schedule is often utilized at the beginning of the operant conditioning process. As the behavior is learned, the schedule might be switched to a partial reinforcement schedule. This involves offering a reward after a number of responses or a period of time has elapsed.

Sometimes partial reinforcement occurs on a consistent or fixed schedule, such as after every five responses or after five minutes has elapsed. In other instances, a variable and unpredictable number of responses or time must occur before the reinforcement is delivered.

A Who's Who in Behavioral Psychology

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Behavioral psychology has been influenced by a number of prominent thinkers. Part of understanding the history and background of these behavioral principles involves learning more about the individuals who first discovered and advocated these theories.

  • Ivan Pavlov: The Russian physiologist who discovered classical conditioning.
  • Edward Thorndike: A pioneering psychologist who described the law of effect, which had an important influence on the development of the behaviorist movement.
  • John B. Watson: An American psychologist who believed that psychology should be the science of observable behavior.
  • Clark Hull: A behaviorist who proposed the drive theory of learning.
  • B.F. Skinner: One of the best-known behavioral thinkers; best known for his theory of operant conditioning.


Behavioral Analysis

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While the dominance of behavioral psychology eroded after 1950, behavioral principles remain important today. Today, behavior analysis is often used as a therapeutic technique to help children with autism and developmental delays acquire new skills.

It often involves processes such as shaping (rewarding closer and closer approximations to the desired behavior) and chaining (breaking a task down into smaller parts and then teaching and chaining the subsequent steps together).

Change Isn't Always Easy

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If you have ever tried to drop a bad habit or start a new exercise plan, then you probably realize that changing is rarely easy. Making a lasting change in behavior can be incredibly difficult, whether you're trying to lose weight, stop smoking or improve your study habits. However, by combining your understanding of behavioral psychology with other proven psychological techniques, you can learn how to effectively change a behavior.

Take the Behavioral and Learning Psychology Quiz

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Now that you've reviewed some of the most important elements of behavioral psychology, it's time to put your understanding to the test.

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