What Is Behaviorism and How Does it Work?

Behaviorism focuses on learned behaviors
Behaviorism suggests that all behaviors are learned through conditioning.. Matt Meadows / Getty Images

Behaviorism refers to the school of psychology founded by John B. Watson based on the belief that behaviors can be measured, trained, and changed. Behaviorism was established with the publication of Watson's classic paper "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" (1913).

Behaviorism can perhaps be best summed up by the following quote from the famous psychologist John B. Watson. Watson is often considered the "father" of behaviorism:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select -- doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."
--John Watson, Behaviorism, 1930

What exactly did Watson mean?

Simply put, strict behaviorists believed that all behaviors were the result of conditioning. Any person, regardless of his or her background, could be trained to act in a particular manner given the right conditioning.

From about 1920 through the mid-1950s, behaviors grew to become the dominant force in psychology. Why did behaviorism become such a powerful force in psychology for so much of the early twentieth-century?

"Behaviorism was the soil nourishing early American social science," explained author John A.

Mills in his 1998 book Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. "It is also clear that the research practices and theorizing of American behaviorists until the mid-1950s were driven by the intellectual imperative to create theories that could be used to make socially useful predictions," he also suggested.

The Basics of Behaviorism

So what exactly is behaviorism? What do behavioral theories entail? Behaviorism, also known 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. Behaviorists believe that our responses to environmental stimuli shape our actions.

According to this school of thought, behavior can be studied in a systematic and observable manner with no consideration of internal mental states. It suggests that only observable behaviors should be considered since internal states such as cognitions, emotions, and moods are too subjective.

As Watson's above quote suggests, strict behaviorists believe that any person could potentially be trained to perform any task, regardless of things like genetic background, personality traits, and internal thoughts (within the limits of their physical capabilities). All it takes is the right conditioning.

Types of Behavioral Conditioning

There are two major types of conditioning:

  1. Classical conditioning is a technique used in behavioral training in which a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response. Next, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response without the present naturally occurring stimulus. The two elements are then known as the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.
  2. Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through reinforcements and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior. When a desirable result follows an action, the behavior becomes more likely to occur again in the future. Responses followed by adverse outcomes, on the other hand, become less likely to happen again in the future.

Major Thinkers Who Influenced Behaviorism

There are a number of prominent theorists and psychologists who left an indelible mark on behaviorism, including:

Important Events in Behaviorism

  • 1863 - Ivan Sechenov's Reflexes of the Brain was published. Sechenov introduced the concept of inhibitory responses in the central nervous system.
  • 1900 - Ivan Pavlov began studying the salivary response and other reflexes.
  • 1913 - John Watson's Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It was published. The article outlined many of the main points of behaviorism.
  • 1920 - Watson and assistant Rosalie Rayner conducted the famous "Little Albert" experiment.
  • 1943 - Clark Hull's Principles of Behavior was published.
  • 1948 - B.F. Skinner published Walden II in which he described a utopian society founded upon behaviorist principles.
  • 1959 - Noam Chomsky published his criticism of Skinner's behaviorism, "Review of Verbal Behavior."
  • 1971 - B.F. Skinner published his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in which he argued that free will was an illusion.

Criticisms of Behaviorism

  • Many critics argue that behaviorism is a one-dimensional approach to understanding human behavior. They suggest that behavioral theories do not account for free will and internal influences such as moods, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Behaviorism does not account for other types of learning, especially learning that occurs without the use of reinforcement and punishment.
  • People and animals can adapt their behavior when new information is introduced, even if a previous behavior pattern has been established through reinforcement.

Strengths of Behaviorism

  • Behaviorism is based on observable behaviors, so it is easier to quantify and collect data and information when conducting research.
  • Effective therapeutic techniques such as intensive behavioral intervention, behavior analysis, token economies, and discrete trial training are all rooted in behaviorism. These approaches are often very useful in changing maladaptive or harmful behaviors in both children and adults.

Behaviorism versus Other Schools of Thought

One of the major benefits of behaviorism is that it allowed researchers to investigate observable behavior in a scientific and systematic manner. However, it many thinkers believed that it fell short by neglecting some important influences on behavior. Freud, for example, felt that behaviorism failed by not accounting for the unconscious mind's thoughts, feelings, and desires that exert an influence on people's actions. Other thinkers like Carl Rogers and the other humanistic psychologists believed that behaviorism was too rigid and limited, failing to take into consideration things like free will.

More recently, biological psychology has emphasized the power that the brain and genetics play in determining and influencing human actions. The cognitive school of psychology focuses on mental processes such as thinking, decision-making, language, and problem-solving. In both cases, behaviorism neglects these process and influences in favor of studying just observable behaviors.

Final Thoughts

While behaviorism is not as dominant today as it was during the middle of the 20th-century, it remains an influential force in psychology. Outside of psychology, animal trainers, parents, teachers, and many others make use of basic behavioral principles to help teach new behaviors and discourage unwanted ones.


Skinner, B. F. (1974). About Behaviorism. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Mills, J. A. (1998). Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York: NYU Press.

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Continue Reading