Behavioral Psychology

When students first learn about psychology, they are often discussing behavioral psychology, even if they don’t know it at the time! Some of psychology’s most famous experiments were performed in order to test theories within behavioral psychology. Take Pavlov’s dogs. You might know the phrase, but did you know that this was a pivotal experiment for behavioral psychologists? 

Not every theory within behavioral psychology is accepted or used by today’s therapists to change behavior, but many still influence how we help ourselves pick up or change habits. Learning more about behavioral psychology may be the key to helping yourself understand your current behaviors and what can be done to continue performing healthy and productive behaviors. Use this website as a resource in addition to other educational tools that offer insight into the history of behavioral psychology!

What Is Behavioral Psychology? 

Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is the study of how the mind and physical body play into behaviors. History’s most famous behaviorists performed experiments that showed that our environment can heavily influence our behaviors. It was the leading field of study within psychology throughout most of the 20th century.

When Was Behavioral Psychology Founded? 

Behaviorism came to the forefront of psychology in the 1910s after John B. Watson published Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. At the time, psychologists were focused on what was going on inside the mind. Psychodynamics was the dominant field, asking people to think about their unconscious minds and internal factors that influenced behaviors. Behaviorists critiqued this idea, wondering if we should focus on the outer world instead.

Some important dates to know in the history of behavioral psychology include:

  • 1902: Ivan Pavlov conducts his famous experiments with dogs

  • 1913: John B. Watson publishes Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It

  • 1930: Skinner box was created 

  • 1938: BF Skinner publishes Experimental Analysis of Behavior

Behaviorism was shoved aside for fields of study like cognitive and positive psychology later in the 20th century, although some psychologists continue to build off of what John B. Watson and his fellow behaviorists proposed so many decades ago. 

Most Well-Known Concepts and Theories In Behavioral Psychology

Motivation

Although we consider John B. Watson to be the father of behaviorism, he is far from the earliest psychology to explore the relationship between behavior, the mind, and the body. Before Watson was William James, who is considered the father of psychology as it was studied in the United States. James’ theory on motivation helped lead psychologists like Pavlov and Watson in their work. 

James looked at different “instincts” that may influence a human’s behavior. Think animal instincts. Animals are born with certain instincts that keep them alive. Acting on these instincts often satisfies certain desires. People have these same experiences. Maybe, after a long week of eating fast food, you crave vegetables and water. Once you consume these items, you feel better physically. You are more likely to eat vegetables again because you know how good this makes you feel - your instinct has influenced that behavior. 

Throughout the 20th century, various theories regarding motivation, instincts, and arousal have been developed and added to discourse about behavior: 

They don’t all fit neatly into the behaviorism field, but as you learn more about conditioning, you see how these naturally support some of the main ideas within behaviorism. 

Conditioning

Have you ever heard someone say that they are “conditioning themselves” to do something? They are conditioned to crave a cigarette after a cup of coffee, or they have conditioned themselves to drink a glass of water first thing in the morning. This is a central idea within behavioral psychology. 

Conditioning is a form of learning through the use of pairing stimuli with responses or stimuli with behaviors. It can be used on both humans and animals, although history has shown that it may be more effective with animals than with humans who think freely for themselves. 

You can condition a dog to sit, for example, by offering treats every time after they “sit.” The behavior is sitting, and the stimulus is the treat. The dog learns that if they sit, they get a treat, and are more likely to sit when commanded. 

Behaviorists have identified two different types of conditioning:

A series of reinforcements and punishments, paired with an intentional schedule of reinforcement, can maximize the effectiveness of the conditioning. 

Reinforcements and Punishment

Reinforcements encourage the behavior to continue (like treats given to a dog) while punishments discourage behaviors to continue (like spraying a dog with water every time they jump on the couch.) 

Both reinforcements and punishments can be “positive” or “negative,” but this term might not mean what you think they mean. Positive punishments, for example, are given out when you add a stimulus, like forcing a dog to sniff their poop if they poop in the house. Negative punishments are stimuli taken away from a situation, like when your parents take away video games after bad behavior. 

Learn more examples of reinforcements and punishments here:

These reinforcements or punishments may be delivered every time a behavior is performed, but this isn’t always possible or practical. Psychologists have identified various schedules of reinforcement that can be used to influence behavior. Depending on the situation, however, some of these schedules are more effective than others:

Systematic Desensitization

It’s not hard to see how you can use the principles in behaviorism to overcome certain bad habits or influence positive behavior. If you gave yourself a five-minute break after 25 minutes of work, you may be more motivated to start working than if you didn’t give yourself a break at all. If your parents made you put a quarter in a swear jar, you were likely less motivated to swear (at least, in front of your parents.) 

But how does this work for much bigger obstacles, like phobias? How does behaviorism suggest that a person with a fear of spiders get over their fear? 

In the 1950s, Joseph Wolfe proposed that patients use systematic desensitization. The treatment pairs a small “amount” of the fear with relaxation techniques; for example, a person with a fear of spiders may look at a picture of a spider while practicing calming breathing techniques. Practicing this technique repeatedly is meant to “condition” the patient to feel calmer when exposed to their fear until the fear is not something that causes anxiety. 

Free Will Vs. Determinism and Nature vs. Nurture 

Psychology seeks out to answer some of the biggest questions about humankind. Do we have free will? Are our minds and bodies one, or are they separate entities? Is nature more influential, or is our environment (nurture) more likely to make an impact on who we are and what we do? 

These questions are not answered easily, and psychologist may even disagree with each other! Where one psychologist says “nature,” another says “nurture.” Pavlov, for example, made the case for our environment’s impact on behavior and personality. Dogs did not drool at the sound of bell because it was in their genetics to do so - their environment was altered so that the experimenters could get these results. 

Another big debate that behaviorism attempts to answer is free will vs. determinism. Do human beings have the free will to act and behave as they please? Or are their actions determined by something (or someone) else?

Psychologists like BF Skinner believed that free will was an illusion. When you think about some of the subjects of famous behaviorism experiments, or even how you might train a dog, this makes sense. Your dog is sitting, not because they want to sit, but because they believe they will get a treat for doing so. You do not have to give them the treat. Pavlov’s dogs didn’t drool because they wanted to, but because they were conditioned to drool. 

Does this mean that humans have absolutely no free will? Well, many people would argue that the answer isn’t that simple. The debate rages on!

Famous Behavioral Psychologists And Their Experiments

John B. Watson

We already know that John B. Watson is the father of behaviorism. His views can be summed up with his most famous quote:

“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 beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”

The Little Albert Experiment 

John B. Watson is ultimately viewed as a positive figure within psychology, but he also created some controversial methods to develop his ideas. His “Little Albert Experiment” was an attempt to understand how phobias were created. It worked similar to sensitive desensitization, but in reverse. (This is called “stimulus generalization.”) Every time “Little Albert,” who was just a baby at the time, was exposed to a white rat, experimenters would hit a steel bar loudly with a hammer. Albert would become afraid, and eventually, this fear was paired with the white rat. This was classical conditioning at work.

Today, this experiment would not likely make it as far as it did in the early 1900s. Psychologists weren’t as concerned about the long-term effects that an experiment could have on a subject. Experiments like this are also conducted with multiple subjects to ensure its results are not an anomaly, but doing so would only mean traumatizing more babies!

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist whose work with animals influenced many, both in the worlds of medicine and psychology. Before performing his famous “Pavlov’s dog” experiments, Pavlov worked as a surgeon. He was able to insert a catheter into a dog without administering any sort of anesthesia before. In addition, he also studied the digestive systems of animals. This work is actually what led him to create his now-famous experiments in behavioral psychology. 

Pavlov’s Dog Experiment 

In an attempt to understand how dogs drooled, Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment. He knew that the dogs in his experiment would drool at the sight of food. Every time he put out food, he would ring a bell. Eventually, the dogs would drool at the sound of the bell. Again, this is classical conditioning at work (and no babies were traumatized in the process!) 

Not only is this experiment iconic in the world of psychology, but it is one of the most well-known experiments outside of psychology. Do you remember the episode of The Office when Jim conditioned Dwight to extend his hand for a mint at the sound of his computer restarting? Dwight’s hand extending is what’s known as a Pavlovian response. 

BF Skinner 

Pavlov and Watson’s experiments validated the existence of classical conditioning, but what about operant conditioning? That’s where BF Skinner comes into play. This American psychologist not only illuminated the existence of operant conditioning but used it to speak to a much larger debate in psychology: that of free will vs. determinism.

Skinner’s Box 

BF Skinner conducted his most famous experiments in what psychologists now call a “Skinner box.” Think of a classic psychology experiment: rats in a maze. This is just one type of experiment that was conducted in the Skinner box: Skinner used food to reinforce a rat’s behavior as it made its way through the maze.

In other experiments, Skinner arranged the box so that food would be disepnsed at the pull of a lever. Animals were more motivated to pull the lever, again and again, especially if there was always food dispensed when the lever was pulled. In other cases, animals would pull similar levers (if the original lever was green, they would also be motivated to pull a red lever) in the hopes that pulling any lever would result in food. 

Is Behavioral Psychology Used Today?

Although classical conditioning was able to work on Dwight Schrute, and maybe it has helped you teach your pet a trick or two, but we know that it’s not the only way that people or animals learn behaviors. Take Albert Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment, which was conducted in 1961. This experiment suggested that simply observing behaviors teaches them. A child who watched an adult be violent toward a Bobo doll was more likely to display that violence, whether or not a reinforcement or punishment was involved.

Does this mean that we should throw out behaviorism entirely? No! Ideas from behaviorism, psychodynamics, and various fields of study are all still considered as psychologists conduct more experiments. The human mind is complex. Our motivations, desires, and reasoning can vary. And there are many psychologists still looking to fine-tune the theories that were developed so long ago. 

The Association for Behavior Analysis is currently the center of behavioral psychology. It publishes six journals that continue the work of Skinner, Pavlov, and other behavioral psychologists. Although this work is not as popular now as other fields of psychology, it is still being done. 

How To Study Behavioral Psychology

Interested in learning more about behavioral psychology, or becoming a behavioral psychologist? There are plenty of programs across the country for you to do this work! Your first step might be to earn your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in this field of study. The following colleges offer “Behavioral Science,” “Behavioral Neuroscience,” or “Applied Behavior Analysis” degrees: 

  • Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)

  • Tulane University (New Orleans, LA)

  • The University of Texas - Austin (Austin, TX)

  • The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH)

  • The University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS) 

…and many more! 

Get a headstart by taking a look at all of the pages we have on this website, in the behavioral psychology section and others!

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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