History and Key Concepts of Behavioral Psychology

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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 regardless of internal mental states. According to this perspective, only observable behavior should be considered—cognitions, emotions, and moods are far too subjective.

Strict behaviorists believed that any person can potentially be trained to perform any task, regardless of genetic background, personality traits, and internal thoughts (within the limits of their physical capabilities). It only requires the right conditioning.

Illustration with people and behavioral psychology topics

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

A Brief History of Behaviorism

Behaviorism was formally established with the 1913 publication of John B. Watson's classic paper, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." It is best summed up by the following quote from Watson, who 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."

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

From about 1920 through the mid-1950s, behaviorism grew to become the dominant school of thought in psychology. Some suggest that the popularity of behavioral psychology grew out of the desire to establish psychology as an objective and measurable science.

At this time, researchers were interested in creating theories that could be clearly described and empirically measured but also used to make contributions that might have an influence on the fabric of everyday human lives.

Key Concepts

There are several principles that distinguish behavioral psychology from other psychological approaches.

Two Types of Conditioning

According to behavioral psychology, there are two major types of conditioning, classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a technique frequently used in behavioral training in which a neutral stimulus is paired with a naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the neutral stimulus comes to evoke the same response as the naturally occurring stimulus, even without the naturally occurring stimulus presenting itself.

Throughout the course of three distinct phases, the associated stimulus becomes known as the conditioned stimulus and the learned behavior is known as the conditioned response.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through reinforcements and punishments. 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.

Learning Through Association

The classical conditioning process works by developing an association between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

In physiologist Ivan Pavlov's classic experiments, dogs associated the presentation of food (something that naturally and automatically triggers a salivation response) with the sound of a bell, at first, and then the sight of a lab assistant's white coat. Eventually, the lab coat alone elicited a salivation response from the dogs.

Conditioning Can Be Influenced

During the first part of the classical conditioning process, known as acquisition, a response is established and strengthened. Factors such as the prominence of the stimuli and the timing of presentation can play an important role in how quickly an association is formed.

When an association disappears, this is known as extinction, causing the behavior to weaken gradually or vanish. Factors such as the strength of the original response can play a role in how quickly extinction occurs. The longer a response has been conditioned, for example, the longer it may take for it to become extinct.

Consequences Affect Learning

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner described operant conditioning as the process in which learning can occur through reinforcement and punishment. More specifically, by forming an association between a certain behavior and the consequences of that behavior, you learn.

For example, if a parent rewards their child with praise every time they pick up their toys, the desired behavior is consistently reinforced. As a result, the child will become more likely to clean up messes.

Timing Plays a Role

Reinforcement schedules are important in operant conditioning. This process seems fairly straight forward—simply observe a behavior and then offer a reward or punishment.

However, 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 corresponding response.

  • Continuous reinforcement involves rewarding every single instance of a behavior. It is often utilized at the beginning of the operant conditioning process. But as the behavior is learned, the schedule might switch to one of partial reinforcement.
  • Partial reinforcement involves offering a reward after a number of responses or after a period of time has elapsed. Sometimes, partial reinforcement occurs on a consistent or fixed schedule. In other instances, a variable and an unpredictable number of responses or time must occur before the reinforcement is delivered.

Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the major benefits of behaviorism is that it allowed researchers to investigate observable behavior in a scientific and systematic manner. However, many thinkers believed it fell short by neglecting some important influences on behavior.

  • Focuses on observable, measurable behaviors

  • Scientific and replicable

  • Useful for modifying behaviors in the real-world

  • Useful applications in therapy, education, parenting, child care

  • Does not account for biological influences

  • Does not consider moods, thoughts, or feelings

  • Does not explain all learning


One of the greatest strengths of behavioral psychology is the ability to clearly observe and measure behaviors. Behaviorism is based on observable behaviors, so it is sometimes easier to quantify and collect data 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.


Many critics argue that behaviorism is a one-dimensional approach to understanding human behavior. Critics of behaviorism suggest that behavioral theories do not account for free will and internal influences such as moods, thoughts, and feelings.

Freud, for example, felt that behaviorism failed by not accounting for the unconscious mind's thoughts, feelings, and desires that influence people's actions. Other thinkers, such as Carl Rogers and the other humanistic psychologists, believed that behaviorism was too rigid and limited, failing to take into consideration personal agency.

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

Also, behavioral psychology does not account for other types of learning that occur without the use of reinforcement and punishment. Moreover, people and animals can adapt their behavior when new information is introduced even if that behavior was established through reinforcement.

Influencers and Impact

Several thinkers influenced behavioral psychology. In addition to those already mentioned, there are a number of prominent theorists and psychologists who left an indelible mark on behavioral psychology. Among these are Edward Thorndike, a pioneering psychologist who described the law of effect, and Clark Hull, who proposed the drive theory of learning.

There are a number of therapeutic techniques rooted in behavioral psychology. Though behavioral psychology assumed more of a background position after 1950, its principles still remain important.

Even today, behavior analysis is often used as a therapeutic technique to help children with autism and developmental delays acquire new skills. It frequently involves processes such as shaping (rewarding closer approximations to the desired behavior) and chaining (breaking a task down into smaller parts and then teaching and chaining the subsequent steps together).

Other behavioral therapy techniques include aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, token economies, modeling, and contingency management.

A Word From Verywell

While the behavioral approach might not be the dominant force that it once was, it has still had a major impact on our understanding of human psychology. The conditioning process alone has been used to understand many different types of behaviors, ranging from how people learn to how language develops.

But perhaps the greatest contributions of behavioral psychology lie in its practical applications. Its techniques can play a powerful role in modifying problematic behavior and encouraging more positive, helpful responses. Outside of psychology, parents, teachers, animal trainers, and many others make use of basic behavioral principles to help teach new behaviors and discourage unwanted ones.

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Additional Reading
  • Mills, J. A. Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York: NYU Press; 2000.
  • Skinner, B. F. About Behaviorism. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc; 1974.
  • Watson, J. B. Behaviorism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers; 1930.