Behaviorism: Definition, History, and Concepts

The golden age of behaviorism seems to have passed. However, its most important ideas remain, and, in many cases, are the pillars of the most effective intervention plans.
Behaviorism: Definition, History, and Concepts

Last update: 03 June, 2022

Psychology draws from different schools and approaches. They each have particular ways of understanding the human mind and behavior. The plurality of perspectives that converge enriches the vision of the object of study, both in its individual and social parts. One of these approaches is behaviorism.

For behaviorism, each human life unfolds in environments that reinforce certain patterns of responses and conduct, and specific ways of behaving in a different variety of situations.

Behaviorism was the leading approach in psychology from 1920 to about 1950. In fact, during these three decades, this approach developed into one of the strongest and most dominant schools in psychology.

Behaviorism

Behaviorism focuses on learning. Its basis is that we acquire our behavior through conditioning. In other words, we learn through the associations we make in our interaction with the environment. Therefore, all behavior is determined by its history of reinforcements and associations.

Behaviorism claims that we can systematically analyze and study behavior independently of our mental processes. This theory holds that observable behavior is the only object of study in psychology. In other words, it claims that thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and moods can’t be observed or measured.

Behaviorism sees the human being as a ‘clean slate’ to be written on. It claims that we come to the world ‘blank’ and ’empty’ and we learn due to our interactions with our environment. In fact, this approach states that we create and maintain certain patterns of behavior. These help us adapt to the different situations we face in our daily lives.

mind with mechanisms
Behaviorism claims that all behavior is acquired through conditioning.

Key Features

The main characteristics of behaviorism are as follows:

  • We learn behavior in relation to our environment. Behaviorism emphasizes the environmental factors that shape our behavior. We learn new behaviors through conditioning. This can be classical or operant.
  • Psychology is the science of behavior, not of the mind. Behaviorism claims that theories must be supported by empirical data collected through observation and measurement.
  • Behaviorism focuses on observable and measurable behavior, not internal processes. It forcefully rejects all introspection as an object of study for the understanding of our actions.
  • Behavior can be explained without reference to cognitive processes. The causes of our behaviors are external, not mental. In fact, they can be reduced to the simple association of a stimulus and a response.
  • This approach is deterministic since behavior is predetermined by conditioning. We’re what we are due to our conditioning.
  • The behavior we learn is mediated by breeding practices and not by genetics. We’re not born with an accumulation of learning. We acquire it in interaction with our environment.
  • Behaviorism is characterized by being reductionist. It isolates behavior into parts to be studied. It claims that all behavior can be broken down into simpler parts.
  • Behaviorism is nomothetic. This means that it conceives behavior as being governed by the same laws, those of conditioning.

Types of behaviorism

There are different types of behaviorism. Among the most prominent are the following:

  • Watson’s classical behaviorism. It’s focused on the study of the association between stimulus and response. Watson was influenced by the conditioning work of Ivan Pavlov.
  • Skinner’s radical behaviorism. It proposes that our behavior is associated with the consequences, positive (reinforcements) or negative (punishments), that it has for us. Therefore, we adjust or alter the frequency of a particular behavior due to its consequences (Reynold, 1973).
  • Kantor’s interbehaviorism. Behavior is interpreted as an interaction, and not as a simple response to the environment. Behavior and the environment are interdependent. Therefore, the object of study in psychology must be interaction and interbehavior (the result of a stimulus and a response).
  • Tolman’s intentional behaviorism. Behavior is understood as intentional. In other words, an action directs us toward a goal. To achieve these objectives, we establish mental maps. Consequently, our behavior doesn’t only depend on our interaction with the environment. It’s also subject to our internal processes, beliefs, feelings, and attitudes.
  • Clark’s deductive behaviorism. Behavior is a survival mechanism. We learn as a means of adapting to the environment in order to survive. It takes into account mediating processes such as cognition, will, and thought, among others.

Conditioning in behaviorism

Conditioning is the product of the association of stimuli and responses. Basically, it’s a type of learning in which events or occurrences are associated. In behaviorism, there are two types of conditioning. These are classical and operant.

Classical conditioning

In this kind of conditioning, the response that an organism emits to a certain stimulus is transferred to a new stimulus through an association between the two (Sarason and Sarason, 2006). The fundamental concepts of classical conditioning are:

  • Unconditioned stimulus (US). Any stimulus with sufficient intensity to produce a response.
  • Unconditioned response (UR). The response that’s triggered by the unconditioned stimulus.
  • Neutral stimulus (NS). A stimulus that doesn’t produce any effect or response on behavior.
  • Conditioned stimulus (CS). Arises from the repeated association between the US and the NS. It takes on properties of the US to produce a response similar to the UR. It’s known as a conditioned response.
  • Conditioned response (CR). The aspect of the UR that’s triggered by the CS when they’ve been associated.
Dog with bell and bowl
Classical conditioning is a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a natural stimulus.

Operant conditioning

Operant or instrumental conditioning was proposed by Skinner. It refers to a process by which the appearance of a behavior is modified or altered according to the consequences it’s produced. These are its fundamental concepts:

  • Reinforcement: An event that increases the probability of occurrence of a behavior.
  • Punishment: A procedure used to eliminate a behavior. It can be positive or negative.
  • Extinction: The reduction in the frequency of the response when it ceases to be reinforced.
  • Acquisition: The increase in the frequency with which a response occurs.

The behaviorist approach is a theoretical and practical commitment that led to a revolution, both for its ideas and for the way in which it allowed scientists to study them. Today, weight is still given to the cognitive part. Furthermore, the presence or absence of reinforcements continues to be a really important point when planning any intervention.

It might interest you...
A Clockwork Orange: Behaviorism and Freedom
Exploring your mind
Read it in Exploring your mind
A Clockwork Orange: Behaviorism and Freedom

You could spend hours and hours talking about A Clockwork Orange, its ending, and its philosophical analysis. Read more here!



  • Reynolds, G. S. (1973). Compendio de condicionamiento operante. Editorial Ciencia de la Conducta.
  • Sarason, I. G. y Sarason, B. R. (2006). Psicopatología: psicología anormal: el problema de la conducta inadaptada (10ª Ed.). Pearson Educación.
  •