Behaviorism (or behaviourism) is a systematic approach to
understanding the behavior of humans and other animals. It assumes
that all behaviors are either reflexes produced by a response to
certain stimuli in the environment, or a consequence of that
individual's history, including especially reinforcement and
punishment, together with the individual's current motivational state
and controlling stimuli. Although behaviorists generally accept the
important role of inheritance in determining behavior, they focus
primarily on environmental factors.
Behaviorism combines elements of philosophy, methodology, and
psychological theory. It emerged in the late nineteenth century as a
reaction to depth psychology and other traditional forms of
psychology, which often had difficulty making predictions that could
be tested experimentally. The earliest derivatives of
be traced back to the late 19th century where Edward Thorndike
pioneered the law of effect, a process that involved strengthening
behavior through the use of reinforcement.
During the first half of the twentieth century,
John B. Watson
John B. Watson devised
methodological behaviorism, which rejected introspective methods and
sought to understand behavior by only measuring observable behaviors
and events. It was not until the 1930s that
B. F. Skinner
B. F. Skinner suggested
that private events—including thoughts and feelings—should be
subjected to the same controlling variables as observable behavior,
which became the basis for his philosophy called radical
behaviorism. While Watson and
Ivan Pavlov investigated the
stimulus-response procedures of classical conditioning, Skinner
assessed the controlling nature of consequences and also its'
potential effect on the antecedents (or discriminative stimuli) that
strengthens behavior; the technique became known as operant
Skinner’s radical behaviorism has been highly successful
experimentally, revealing new phenomena with new methods. But
Skinner’s dismissal of theory limited its development. Theoretical
behaviorism recognized that a historical system, an organism, has a
state as well as sensitivity to stimuli and the ability to emit
responses. Indeed, Skinner himself acknowledged the possibility of
what he called “latent” responses in humans, even though he
neglected to extend this idea to rats and pigeons. Latent responses
constitute a repertoire, from which operant reinforcement can select.
The application of radical behaviorism—known as applied behavior
analysis—is used in a variety of settings, including, for example,
organizational behavior management, to the treatment of mental
disorders, such as autism and substance abuse. In addition,
while behaviorism and cognitive schools of psychological thought may
not agree theoretically, they have complemented each other in
cognitive-behavior therapies, which have demonstrated utility in
treating certain pathologies, including simple phobias, PTSD, and mood
1.1 Radical behaviorism
2 Experimental and conceptual innovations
3 Relation to language
5 Operant conditioning
6 Classical conditioning
7 In philosophy
7.1 Molecular versus molar behaviorism
7.2 Psychological Behaviorism
7.3 21st-century behavior analysis
Behavior analysis and culture
Behavior informatics and behavior computing
10 Criticisms and limitations of behaviorism
11 List of notable behaviorists
12 See also
12.1 Related therapies
14 Further reading
15 External links
There is no universally agreed-upon classification, but some titles
given to the various branches of behaviorism include:
Methodological behaviorism: Watson's behaviorism states that only
public events (behaviors of an individual) can be objectively
observed, and that therefore private events (thoughts and feelings)
should be ignored. It also became the basis for the early
approach behavior modification in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Radical behaviorism: Skinner's behaviorism theorizes that processes
within the organism should be acknowledged, particularly the presence
of private events (such as thoughts and feelings), and suggests that
environmental variables also control these internal events just as
they control observable behaviors.
Radical behaviorism forms the core
philosophy behind behavior analysis.
Willard Van Orman Quine
Willard Van Orman Quine used many
of radical behaviorism's ideas in his study of knowledge and
Teleological behaviorism: Post-Skinnerian, purposive, close to
microeconomics. Focuses on objective observation as opposed to
Theoretical behaviorism: Post-Skinnerian, accepts observable internal
states ("within the skin" once meant "unobservable", but with modern
technology we are not so constrained); dynamic, but eclectic in choice
of theoretical structures, emphasizes parsimony.
Biological behaviorism: Post-Skinnerian, centered on perceptual and
motor modules of behavior, theory of behavior systems.
Psychological behaviorism: As proposed by Arthur W. Staats, this
version of behaviorism centers on the practical control of human
behavior. It is noted for its use of time-outs, token-reinforcement
and other methods, which importantly influenced modern approaches to
child development, education, and abnormal psychology.
Two subtypes are:
Hullian and post-Hullian: theoretical, group data, not dynamic,
Purposive: Tolman's behavioristic anticipation of cognitive psychology
Main article: Radical behaviorism
B. F. Skinner
B. F. Skinner proposed radical behaviorism as the conceptual
underpinning of the experimental analysis of behavior. This view
differs from other approaches to behavioral research in various ways
but, most notably here, it contrasts with methodological behaviorism
in accepting feelings, states of mind and introspection as behaviors
subject to scientific investigation. Like methodological behaviorism
it rejects the reflex as a model of all behavior, and it defends the
science of behavior as complementary to but independent of physiology.
Radical behaviorism overlaps considerably with other western
philosophical positions such as American pragmatism.
Experimental and conceptual innovations
This essentially philosophical position gained strength from the
success of Skinner's early experimental work with rats and pigeons,
summarized in his books The Behavior of Organisms and Schedules of
Reinforcement. Of particular importance was his concept of the
operant response, of which the canonical example was the rat's
lever-press. In contrast with the idea of a physiological or reflex
response, an operant is a class of structurally distinct but
functionally equivalent responses. For example, while a rat might
press a lever with its left paw or its right paw or its tail, all of
these responses operate on the world in the same way and have a common
consequence. Operants are often thought of as species of responses,
where the individuals differ but the class coheres in its
function-shared consequences with operants and reproductive success
with species. This is a clear distinction between Skinner's theory and
Skinner's empirical work expanded on earlier research on
trial-and-error learning by researchers such as Thorndike and Guthrie
with both conceptual reformulations—Thorndike's notion of a
stimulus–response "association" or "connection" was abandoned; and
methodological ones—the use of the "free operant", so called because
the animal was now permitted to respond at its own rate rather than in
a series of trials determined by the experimenter procedures. With
this method, Skinner carried out substantial experimental work on the
effects of different schedules and rates of reinforcement on the rates
of operant responses made by rats and pigeons. He achieved remarkable
success in training animals to perform unexpected responses, to emit
large numbers of responses, and to demonstrate many empirical
regularities at the purely behavioral level. This lent some
credibility to his conceptual analysis. It is largely his conceptual
analysis that made his work much more rigorous than his peers', a
point which can be seen clearly in his seminal work Are Theories of
Learning Necessary? in which he criticizes what he viewed to be
theoretical weaknesses then common in the study of psychology. An
important descendant of the experimental analysis of behavior is the
Society for Quantitative Analysis of Behavior.
Relation to language
As Skinner turned from experimental work to concentrate on the
philosophical underpinnings of a science of behavior, his attention
turned to human language with his 1957 book Verbal Behavior and
other language-related publications;
Verbal Behavior laid out a
vocabulary and theory for functional analysis of verbal behavior, and
was strongly criticized in a review by Noam Chomsky.
Skinner did not respond in detail but claimed that Chomsky failed to
understand his ideas, and the disagreements between the two and
the theories involved have been further discussed. Innateness
theory is opposed to behaviorist theory which claims that language is
a set of habits that can be acquired by means of conditioning.
According to some, the behaviorist account is a process which would be
too slow to explain a phenomenon as complicated as language learning.
What was important for a behaviorist's analysis of human behavior was
not language acquisition so much as the interaction between language
and overt behavior. In an essay republished in his 1969 book
Contingencies of Reinforcement, Skinner took the view that humans
could construct linguistic stimuli that would then acquire control
over their behavior in the same way that external stimuli could. The
possibility of such "instructional control" over behavior meant that
contingencies of reinforcement would not always produce the same
effects on human behavior as they reliably do in other animals. The
focus of a radical behaviorist analysis of human behavior therefore
shifted to an attempt to understand the interaction between
instructional control and contingency control, and also to understand
the behavioral processes that determine what instructions are
constructed and what control they acquire over behavior. Recently, a
new line of behavioral research on language was started under the name
of relational frame theory.
Behaviourism focuses on one particular view of learning: a change in
external behaviour achieved through using reinforcement and repetition
(Rote learning) to shape behavior of learners. Skinner found that
behaviors could be shaped when the use of reinforcement was
implemented. Desired behavior is rewarded, while the undesired
behavior is punished. Incorporating behaviorism into the classroom
allowed educators to assist their students in excelling both
academically and personally. In the field of language learning, this
type of teaching was called the audio-lingual method, characterised by
the whole class using choral chanting of key phrases, dialogues and
Within the behaviourist view of learning, the "teacher" is the
dominant person in the classroom and takes complete control,
evaluation of learning comes from the teacher who decides what is
right or wrong. The learner does not have any opportunity for
evaluation or reflection within the learning process, they are simply
told what is right or wrong. The conceptualization of learning using
this approach could be considered "superficial" as the focus is on
external changes in behaviour i.e. not interested in the internal
processes of learning leading to behaviour change and has no place for
the emotions involved the process.
Main article: Operant conditioning
Operant conditioning was developed by
B.F. Skinner in 1937 and deals
with the modification of "voluntary behaviour" or operant behaviour.
Operant behavior operates on the environment and is maintained by its
Reinforcement and punishment, the core tools of operant
conditioning, are either positive (delivered following a response), or
negative (withdrawn following a response). Skinner created the
Skinner Box or operant conditioning chamber to test the effects of
operant conditioning principles on rats. From this study, he
discovered that the rats learned very effectively if they were
rewarded frequently. Skinner also found that he could shape the rats'
behavior through the use of rewards, which could, in turn, be applied
to human learning as well.
Main article: Classical conditioning
Although operant conditioning plays the largest role in discussions of
behavioral mechanisms, classical conditioning (or Pavlovian
conditioning or respondent conditioning) is also an important
behavior-analytic process that need not refer to mental or other
internal processes. Pavlov's experiments with dogs provide the most
familiar example of the classical conditioning procedure. In simple
conditioning, the dog was presented with a stimulus such as a light or
a sound, and then food was placed in the dog's mouth. After a few
repetitions of this sequence, the light or sound by itself caused the
dog to salivate. Although Pavlov proposed some tentative
physiological processes that might be involved in classical
conditioning, these have not been confirmed. The idea
of classical conditioning helped behaviorist John Watson discover the
key mechanism behind how humans acquire the behaviors that they do,
which was to find a natural reflex that produces the response being
Watson's "Behaviourist Manifesto" has three aspects that deserve
special recognition: one is that psychology should be purely
objective, with any interpretation of conscious experience being
removed, thus leading to psychology as the "science of behaviour"; the
second one is that the goals of psychology should be to predict and
control behaviour (as opposed to describe and explain conscious mental
states; the third one is that there is no notable distinction between
human and non-human behaviour. Following Darwin's theory of evolution,
this would simply mean that human behaviour is just a more complex
version in respect to behaviour displayed by other species.
Behaviorism is a psychological movement that can be contrasted with
philosophy of mind. The basic premise of radical behaviorism is that
the study of behavior should be a natural science, such as chemistry
or physics, without any reference to hypothetical inner states of
organisms as causes for their behavior. Less radical varieties are
unconcerned with philosophical positions on internal, mental and
Behaviorism takes a functional view of
behavior. According to
Edmund Fantino and colleagues: "Behavior
analysis has much to offer the study of phenomena normally dominated
by cognitive and social psychologists. We hope that successful
application of behavioral theory and methodology will not only shed
light on central problems in judgment and choice but will also
generate greater appreciation of the behavioral approach."
Behaviorist sentiments are not uncommon within philosophy of language
and analytic philosophy. It is sometimes argued that Ludwig
Wittgenstein defended a behaviorist position (e.g., the beetle in a
box argument)—but while there are important relations between his
thought and behaviorism, the claim that he was a behaviorist is quite
Alan Turing is also sometimes considered
a behaviorist, but he himself did not make this
identification. In logical and empirical positivism (as held, e.g., by
Rudolf Carnap and Carl Hempel), the meaning of psychological
statements are their verification conditions, which consist of
performed overt behavior.
W.V. Quine made use of a type of
behaviorism, influenced by some of Skinner's ideas, in his own work on
Gilbert Ryle defended a distinct strain of philosophical
behaviorism, sketched in his book The
Concept of Mind. Ryle's central
claim was that instances of dualism frequently represented "category
mistakes", and hence that they were really misunderstandings of the
use of ordinary language.
Daniel Dennett likewise acknowledges himself
to be a type of behaviorist, though he offers extensive criticism
of radical behaviorism and refutes Skinner's rejection of the value of
intentional idioms and the possibility of free will.
This is Dennett's main point in "Skinner Skinned." Dennett argues that
there is a crucial difference between explaining and explaining
away… If our explanation of apparently rational behavior turns out
to be extremely simple, we may want to say that the behavior was not
really rational after all. But if the explanation is very complex and
intricate, we may want to say not that the behavior is not rational,
but that we now have a better understanding of what rationality
consists in. (Compare: if we find out how a computer program solves
problems in linear algebra, we don't say it's not really solving them,
we just say we know how it does it. On the other hand, in cases like
ELIZA program, the explanation of how the computer
carries on a conversation is so simple that the right thing to say
seems to be that the machine isn't really carrying on a conversation,
it's just a trick.)
— Curtis Brown, Philosophy of Mind, "Behaviorism: Skinner and
Molecular versus molar behaviorism
Skinner's view of behavior is most often characterized as a
"molecular" view of behavior; that is, behavior can be decomposed into
atomistic parts or molecules. This view is inconsistent with Skinner's
complete description of behavior as delineated in other works,
including his 1981 article "Selection by Consequences". Skinner
proposed that a complete account of behavior requires understanding of
selection history at three levels: biology (the natural selection or
phylogeny of the animal); behavior (the reinforcement history or
ontogeny of the behavioral repertoire of the animal); and for some
species, culture (the cultural practices of the social group to which
the animal belongs). This whole organism then interacts with its
environment. Molecular behaviorists use notions from melioration
theory, negative power function discounting or additive versions of
negative power function discounting.
Molar behaviorists, such as Howard Rachlin, Richard Herrnstein, and
William Baum, argue that behavior cannot be understood by focusing on
events in the moment. That is, they argue that behavior is best
understood as the ultimate product of an organism's history and that
molecular behaviorists are committing a fallacy by inventing
fictitious proximal causes for behavior. Molar behaviorists argue that
standard molecular constructs, such as "associative strength", are
better replaced by molar variables such as rate of reinforcement.
Thus, a molar behaviorist would describe "loving someone" as a pattern
of loving behavior over time; there is no isolated, proximal cause of
loving behavior, only a history of behaviors (of which the current
behavior might be an example) that can be summarized as "love".
Radical Behaviorism, is essentially, an animal behaviorism.
Skinner’s work was in animal research. He did not do research on
humans. The responses that were studied with animals were simple
immediate responses. They did not require learning. He did not study
learning. He believed that the way to study human behavior was through
using the methodology he developed with animals. His students who
began to work with humans – very valuable research – was with
simple responses, pulling a plunger, tapping a key. As valuable as it
was, it did not study human learning. Psychological behaviorism
differed fundamentally from radical behaviorism in being a human
behaviorism, directed toward the study of complex human learning, from
the study of basic principles, to applications in dealing with
problems of human behavior.
This makes radical behaviorism and psychological behaviorism
Psychological behaviorism is based upon a
more than 60 year program of studying different kinds of complex human
21st-century behavior analysis
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The early term behavior modification has been obsolete since the 1990s
as it currently refers to the brief revival of methodological
behaviorism in the 1970s and early 1980s. Applied behavior
analysis—the term that replaced behavior modification—has emerged
into a thriving field.
The independent development of behaviour analysis outside the US also
continues to develop, In terms of motivation, there remains strong
interest in the variety of human motivational behaviour factors,
e.g.,. Some, may go as far as suggesting that the
current rapid change in organisational behaviour could partly be
attributed to some of these theories and the theories that are related
The interests among behavior analysts today are wide-ranging, as a
review of the 30
Special Interest Groups (SIGs) within ABAI indicates.
Such interests include everything from developmental disabilities and
autism, to cultural psychology, clinical psychology, verbal behavior,
Organizational Behavior Management (OBM; behavior analytic I–O
psychology). OBM has developed a particularly strong following within
behavior analysis, as evidenced by the formation of the OBM Network
and the influential Journal of Organizational Behavior Management
(JOBM; recently rated the 3rd highest impact journal in applied
psychology by ISI JOBM rating).
Applications of behavioral technology, also known as applied behavior
analysis or ABA, have been particularly well established in the area
of developmental disabilities since the 1960s. Treatment of
individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has grown
especially rapidly since the mid-1990s. This demand for services
encouraged the formation of a professional credentialing program
administered by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board, Inc. (BACB)
and accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. As
of early 2012, there are over 300 BACB approved course sequences
offered by about 200 colleges and universities worldwide preparing
students for this credential and approximately 11,000 BACB
certificants, most working in the United States. The Association of
Professional Behavior Analysts was formed in 2008 to meet the needs of
these ABA professionals.
Modern behavior analysis has also witnessed a massive resurgence in
research and applications related to language and cognition, with the
development of relational frame theory (RFT; described as a
"Post-Skinnerian account of language and cognition"). RFT also
forms the empirical basis for the highly successful and data-driven
acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). In fact, researchers and
practitioners in RFT/ACT have become sufficiently prominent that they
have formed their own specialized organization that is highly
behaviorally oriented, known as the Association for Contextual
Behavioral Science (ACBS).
Some of the current prominent behavior analytic journals include the
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA), the Journal of the
Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB) JEAB website, the Journal of
Organizational Behavior Management (JOBM), Behavior and Social Issues
(BSI), as well as the Psychological Record. Currently, the US has 14
ABAI accredited MA and PhD programs for comprehensive study in
Behavior analysis and culture
Cultural analysis has always been at the philosophical core of radical
behaviorism from the early days (as seen in Skinner's Walden Two,
Science & Human Behavior, Beyond Freedom & Dignity, and About
During the 1980s, behavior analysts, most notably Sigrid Glenn, had a
productive interchange with cultural anthropologist
Marvin Harris (the
most notable proponent of "cultural materialism") regarding
interdisciplinary work. Very recently, behavior analysts have produced
a set of basic exploratory experiments in an effort toward this
Behaviorism is also frequently used in game development,
although this application is controversial.
Behavior informatics and behavior computing
With the fast growth of big behavioral data and applications, behavior
analysis is ubiquitous.
Understanding behavior from the informatics
and computing perspective becomes increasingly critical for in-depth
understanding of what, why and how behaviors are formed, interact,
evolve, change and affect business and decision. Behavior
informatics and behavior computing deeply explore
behavior intelligence and behavior insights from the informatics and
Criticisms and limitations of behaviorism
Cognitive psychology and Cognitive neuroscience
This section includes a list of references, related reading or
external links, but its sources remain unclear because it lacks inline
citations. Please help to improve this section by introducing more
precise citations. (June 2016) (Learn how and when to remove this
In the second half of the 20th century, behaviorism was largely
eclipsed as a result of the cognitive revolution. This shift
was due to methodological behaviorism being highly criticized for not
examining mental processes, and this led to the development of the
cognitive therapy movement. In the mid-20th century, three main
influences arose that would inspire and shape cognitive psychology as
a formal school of thought:
Noam Chomsky's 1959 critique of behaviorism, and empiricism more
generally, initiated what would come to be known as the "cognitive
Developments in computer science would lead to parallels being drawn
between human thought and the computational functionality of
computers, opening entirely new areas of psychological thought. Allen
Newell and Herbert Simon spent years developing the concept of
artificial intelligence (AI) and later worked with cognitive
psychologists regarding the implications of AI. The effective result
was more of a framework conceptualization of mental functions with
their counterparts in computers (memory, storage, retrieval, etc.)
Formal recognition of the field involved the establishment of research
institutions such as George Mandler's Center for Human Information
Processing in 1964. Mandler described the origins of cognitive
psychology in a 2002 article in the Journal of the History of the
Behavioral Sciences 
In the early years of cognitive psychology, behaviorist critics held
that the empiricism it pursued was incompatible with the concept of
internal mental states. Cognitive neuroscience, however, continues to
gather evidence of direct correlations between physiological brain
activity and putative mental states, endorsing the basis for cognitive
List of notable behaviorists
Sidney W. Bijou
Edwin Ray Guthrie
Steven C. Hayes
Richard J. Herrnstein
Clark L. Hull
Alan E. Kazdin
Fred S. Keller
Marsha M. Linehan
Ole Ivar Lovaas
Neal E. Miller
O. Hobart Mowrer
Charles E. Osgood
B. F. Skinner
Kenneth W. Spence
J. E. R. Staddon
Arthur W. Staats
Edward C. Tolman
John B. Watson
Behavior analysis of child development
Behavioral change theories
Functional analysis (psychology)
List of publications in psychology § Behaviorism
The Logic of Modern Physics
Law of effect
Models of abnormality § Behavioural model
Pharmacology § Behavioral pharmacology
Perceptual control theory
Professional practice of behavior analysis
Relational frame theory
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Applied animal behavior
Clinical behavior analysis
Cognitive behavior therapy
Dialectical behavior therapy
Discrete trial training
Exposure and response prevention
Functional analytic psychotherapy
Habit reversal training
Organizational behavior management
Pivotal response treatment
Positive behavior support
Rational emotive behavior therapy
Social skills training
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