Behaviorism is an approach to psychology that emerged in the early 20th century as a reaction to the psychoanalytic theory of the time. Psychoanalytic theory often had difficulty making predictions that could be tested using rigorous experimental methods. The behaviorist school of thought maintains that behaviors can be described scientifically without recourse either to internal physiological events or to hypothetical constructs such as thoughts and beliefs. Rather than focusing on underlying conflicts, behaviorism focuses on observable, overt behaviors that are learned from the environment.
Its application to the treatment of mental problems is known as behavior modification. Learning is seen as behavior change molded by experience; it is accomplished largely through either classical or operant conditioning (described below).
The primary developments in behaviorism came from the work of Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, Edward Lee Thorndike, and B. F. Skinner.
Ivan Pavlov and Classical Conditioning
The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was widely known for describing the phenomenon now known as classical conditioning. In his famous 1890s experiment, he trained his dogs to salivate on command by associating the ringing of a bell with the delivery of food. As Pavlov’s work became known in the West, particularly through the writings of John B. Watson, the idea of conditioning as an automatic form of learning became a key concept in the development of behaviorism.
Watson’s “Little Albert” Experiment
John B. Watson was an American psychologist who is best known for his controversial “Little Albert” experiment. In this experiment, he used classical conditioning to teach a nine-month-old boy to be afraid of a white toy rat by associating the rat with a sudden loud noise. This study demonstrated how emotions could become conditioned responses.
Thorndike’s Law of Effect
Edward Lee Thorndike was an American psychologist whose work on animal behavior and the learning process led to the “law of effect.” The law of effect states that responses that create a satisfying effect are more likely to occur again, while responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur.
Skinner’s Operant Conditioning
“Operant conditioning,” a term coined by psychologist B. F. Skinner, describes a form of learning in which a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened depending on its association with either positive or negative consequences. The strengthening of a response occurs through reinforcement. Skinner described two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement, which is the introduction of a positive consequence such as food, pleasurable activities, or attention from others, and negative reinforcement, which is the removal of a negative consequence such as pain or a loud noise. Skinner saw human behavior as shaped by trial and error through reinforcement and punishment, without any reference to inner conflicts or perceptions. In his theory, mental disorders represented maladaptive behaviors that were learned and could be unlearned through behavior modification.
In the second half of the 20th century, behaviorism was expanded through advances in cognitive theories. While behaviorism and cognitive schools of psychological thought may not agree theoretically, they have complemented each other in practical therapeutic applications like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been used widely in the treatment of many different mental disorders, such as phobias, PTSD, and addiction.
Some behavior therapies employ Skinner’s theories of operant conditioning: by not reinforcing certain behaviors, these behaviors can be extinguished. Skinner’s radical behaviorism advanced a “triple contingency” model, which explored the links between the environment, behavior, and the mind. This later gave rise to applied behavior analysis (ABA), in which operant conditioning techniques are used to reinforce positive behaviors and punish unwanted behaviors. This approach to treatment has been an effective tool to help children on the autism spectrum; however, it is considered controversial by many who see it as attempting to change or “normalize” autistic behaviors (Lovaas, 1987, 2003; Sallows & Graupner, 2005; Wolf & Risley, 1967).