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Psychology: Unit II: What is Behaviorism?
What Is Behaviorism?
John B. Watson is often considered the father of behaviorism.
What Is Behaviorism?
Behaviorism can perhaps be best summed up by the following quote from the famous psychologist
John B. Watson:
"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? The term 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, also known as behavioral psychology, is a theory of learning based upon the idea that
all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the
environment. Behaviorists believe that our responses to environmental stimuli shapes our
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 studied, 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
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 presence of the naturally occurring stimulus. The two
elements are then known as the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.
Psychology: Unit II: What is Behaviorism?
Operant conditioning Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental
conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for
behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a
consequence for that behavior.
Criticisms of Behaviorism
Many critics argue that behaviorism is a one-dimensional approach to understanding
human behavior and 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 are able to 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 upon 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.
Final Thoughts
While behaviorism is not as dominant today as it was during the middle of the 20th-century, it still
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.