What is Behavioral Psychology?

What is Behavioral Psychology?


Behavioral Psychology, also known as Behavioral Psychology, is a learning theory based on the idea that all behaviors are acquired through the interaction of the individual with the environment. Behaviorists believe that our responses to environmental stimuli shape our actions.

According to this school of thought, behavior can be studied systematically and observably, regardless of internal mental states.

Strict behaviorists believe that every person can be trained to perform any task, regardless of genetic background, personality traits and internal thoughts (within the limits of their physical abilities). Only the correct conditioning is required.


  • 1 Brief history of Behaviorism
  • 2 Classic Conditioning
  • 3 Operative Conditioning (Instrumental Conditioning)
  • 4 Thinkers influenced by behavioral psychology
  • 5 Strengths of Behaviorism
  • 6 Behaviorism's Weaknesses
  • 7 Behavioral Psychology in relation to other perspectives

Brief history of Behaviorism

Behaviorism first emerged in 1913 from the hand of John Broadus Watson, considered the "father" of behaviorism, thanks to his article "How psychology sees a behaviorist". One of his most famous quotes is:

"Give me a dozen healthy, well-trained children to educate them, and I promise to choose one of them at random and train them to become a specialist of any kind that I can choose - doctor, lawyer, artist, businessman and, yes, even beggar or thief - regardless of his talent, inclinations, tendencies, aptitudes, vocations and race of his ancestors. "

In a nutshell, the most radical behaviorists believe that all behaviors are the result of experience.

According to this theory, anyone, regardless of background, can be trained to act in a certain way, with the help of behavior conditioning.

From approximately 1920 to the mid-1950s, behaviorism became the dominant school of thought in psychology. Some suggest that the popularity of behavioral psychology is due to the desire to establish psychology as an objective and measurable science. The researchers were interested in creating theories that could be clearly described and measured empirically, but also with the intention of establishing the basis for how to influence human behavior.

exist two main types of conditioning:

Classic Conditioning

The classic conditioning consists in the pairing of a previously neutral stimulus (like the sound of a bell) with an unconditional response (salivating when feeling the smell of food).

In the famous experiment of Ivan Pavlov, an unconditional stimulus such as the noise of a bell, automatically activated salivation in dogs' mouths in response to food after associating this neutral stimulus with the arrival of food (unconditional response). After making this association, the sound of the bell becomes a conditioned stimulus, and salivating in response to the bell is known as a conditioned response.

I. Pavlov: Classic Conditioning

Characteristics that differentiate it from the Operating Conditioning

  • It was first described by Ivan PavlovRussian physiologist
  • It consists of placing a neutral signal before a reflection
  • It focuses on involuntary reflexes and automatic behaviors

Operative Conditioning (Instrumental Conditioning)

The operant conditioning focuses on the use of reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease behavior. Through this process, an association is formed between the behavior and the consequences of that behavior.

For example, let's imagine that a coach is trying to teach a dog to look for a ball. When the dog manages to catch the ball, the dog receives praise as a reward. When the animal cannot retrieve the ball, the coach does not tell him anything. Over time, the dog forms an association between his behavior of going to get the ball and receiving the desired reward.

Characteristics that differentiate it from Classic Conditioning

  • It was first described by BF Skinner, an American psychologist
  • It consists of the application of reinforcement or punishment after a behavior
  • It focuses on strengthening or weakening voluntary behaviors

Thinkers influenced by behavioral psychology

In addition to those already mentioned, there are a number of leading theorists and psychologists on whom Behavioral Psychology left an indelible mark. Among them are Edward Thorndike, pioneer psychologist in the development of psychological tests, Y Clark Hull, who proposed the theory of the unit of learning and demonstrated that his theories could predict and control behavior.

Strengths of Behaviorism

Behaviorism is based on observable behaviors, which is sometimes easier to quantify and collect data when an investigation is conducted.

This approach is often very useful for change maladaptive or harmful behaviors, both in children and adults.

There are numerous effective therapeutic techniques, such as intensive behavioral intervention, behavioral analysis or token economics, among others.

Weaknesses of Behaviorism

Many critics claim that behaviorism is a one-dimensional approach to the understanding of human behavior. They suggest that behavioral theories do not take into account free will or internal influences, such as moods, thoughts and feelings. In addition, it does not explain how other types of learning that occur without the use of reinforcement and punishment are generated. On the other hand, people and animals can adapt their behavior when new information is introduced, even if that behavior was established through reinforcement.

Behavioral Psychology in relation to other perspectives

One of the main benefits of behaviorism is that it allowed researchers to study observable behavior in a scientific and systematic way. However, many thinkers claim that he fell short of missing some important behavioral influences. For FreudFor example, behaviorism failed to disregard the thoughts of the unconscious mind, as well as the feelings and desires that influence people's actions. Other thinkers, like Carl Rogers and other psychologists humanistsThey believed that behaviorism was too rigid and limited, not considering the importance of personal actions.