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What is the behaviorism learning theory?

By Michael Feder


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

This article was reviewed by Christina Neider, EdD, Dean, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

At a glance

  • Behaviorist learning theory emphasizes how people interact with their environment. Over time, these interactions (called “stimuli”) form particular behaviors.
  • John Watson is largely seen as the father of behavioral psychology, though he never claimed to have founded the discipline.
  • Operant conditioning relies on positive and negative reinforcement to increase or decrease a certain behavior in a subject.
  • Interested in the human mind? Learn more about psychology degrees from University of Phoenix!

How do we learn?

That question has been asked, answered and debated for thousands of years. Theories about innate knowledge versus learned experience stretch back to the time of Plato and the Greek philosophers. Are human beings born blank slates, upon which life makes its imprint? Or do we have a certain amount of ingrained knowledge independent of any lived experience?

One school of thought, known as behaviorism, sides with the former, emphasizing the lived experience, or nurture, side of this debate. At their most radical, proponents of behaviorism argue that all behavior results from external stimuli, discounting any innate “nature.”

But before we get into all that …


What is a learning theory?

Learning theories attempt to describe how knowledge becomes ingrained in a person’s memory in an observable way, whether that’s the solution to a complicated math problem or directions to the grocery store.

The implications of understanding how we learn to go much further than mere theory, though. Understanding what knowledge is and where it comes from has important applications in the home, the workplace and the classroom.

While older teaching methods may have emphasized rote memorization, today’s methods rely on one or several learning theories.

A few learning theories are:

  • Cognitive learning theory
  • Constructivism learning theory
  • Humanism learning theory
  • Connectivism learning theory
  • And of course, behaviorist learning theory

Learning theories provide teachers and students with an established framework in which to teach and learn successfully.

What is behaviorist learning theory?

In short, behaviorism emphasizes how people interact with their environment. Over time, these interactions (called “stimuli”) form particular behaviors. The process by which this behavior is formed is known as conditioning.

In general, behaviorists are concerned solely or primarily with understanding behavior as the response to environmental stimuli. They’re generally unconcerned with psychological phenomena that cannot be systematically observed.

As we will see, some behaviorists are more extreme in this way of thinking than others. The most extreme of this set, known as the radical behaviorists, entirely discount innate psychological phenomena outside of stimulus and response. For radical behaviorists, in other words, everything that makes up a person’s psychology, personality and knowledge is a result of interaction with their environment since birth.

Behaviorism has a very nuanced history, however, with several competing schools of thought. In the following, we’ll go through some of the underlying concepts and how behaviorist learning theory has developed over time.

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The history of behaviorist learning theory

Behaviorist learning theory represents the culmination of various schools of thought in modern psychology. Here are some of the people and concepts that formed the behaviorist learning theory we know today.

Wilhelm Wundt and experimental psychology

No discussion of modern psychology would be complete without the “father of experimental psychology” himself, Wilhelm Wundt. Born in 1832 in Germany, Wundt founded the first psychology laboratory in the world and carried out experiments that heavily influenced the field.

Wundt’s experimental approach was novel during the 19th century: He proposed that psychology could be treated as natural science. In other words, the human mind could be studied through controlled experiments with reproducible results. In his institute, he emphasized that which could be more objectively measured, like reaction times and attention spans.

This work broke psychology away from an entirely “inside-out” field, and one that studied the human mind from the outside-in. This emphasis can be seen throughout the work of the first behaviorists, who would follow Wundt’s lead at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Ivan Pavlov and classical conditioning

One of the most well-known figures in the history of behaviorism, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov produced a body of work that’s crucial to behaviorist learning theory. While working with dogs in his laboratory, Pavlov observed that his canine subjects began to salivate when certain lab assistants entered the room. It was these lab technicians who normally fed the dogs, but Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate regardless of whether the assistants were coming in to feed them or not.

Pavlov’s conclusion ignited a career-defining inquiry. He surmised the dogs had associated the presence of these assistants with the presence of food, which triggered a physiological response (salivation).

The experience gave Pavlov an idea that grew into the concept of classical conditioning. He conducted an experiment in which he paired the ringing of a bell with the arrival of food and measured the resulting salivary response in dog subjects. Predictably, the dogs began to salivate when they saw the food arrive.

Pavlov repeated this food-bell pairing several times. He then rang the bell again but did not bring in the food. Even without seeing their meal, however, the dogs began to salivate at the ringing of the bell. These dogs had associated the ringing of the bell with the arrival of the food and reacted accordingly.

Pavlov formalized his conclusions from this and other experiments into what’s now known as classical conditioning. According to this theory, a stimulus that’s neutral, or unrelated to a particular response, can be associated with a positive stimulus that’s related to that response. In the example, the ringing of the bell (a neutral stimulus) became associated with the positive stimulus (arrival of food) to produce the same behavior (salivation).

While Pavlov largely kept his experiments to animals, it would not be long before experimental psychologists began testing his theories on human subjects.

John Watson and methodological behaviorism

Though Pavlov and Wundt were primary precursors, later psychologists would formalize their work into the behaviorist learning theory we know today.

A pioneer in this regard is the American psychologist John Watson. Though he never actually claimed to be the founder of behavioral psychology, his work sits at the center of the discipline. In 1913, he published the seminal “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It,” an article that drew a connection between the conclusions of classical conditioning to human psychology.

Watson believed that behavior and its origins could be studied in experimental settings, and that belief led to one of his most infamous tests: the Little Albert experiment.

In his research, Watson conditioned a young child to fear a small rat by timing the arrival of the rat with a loud noise. Though ethically inexcusable by today’s standards, Watson’s experiment concluded that many of Pavlov’s findings also applied to human behavior.

This connection between external stimuli and developed behaviors is the bedrock upon which future innovators would build.

B.F. Skinner and radical behaviorism

Many of the behaviorism concepts that are commonplace today, such as positive and negative reinforcement and operant conditioning, grew out of the work performed by our next behaviorist: the American psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Skinner’s landmark experiment involved placing a lab rat in an operant conditioning chamber, or “Skinner box,” outfitted with a lever or button. The animal could then press the lever or button to receive food.

The animal was free to press the lever whenever it desired. When it did so, it would be rewarded with food. In other versions of the experiment, the animal would receive a small shock if it pressed the lever outside of conditions set by the experimenter (such as a light being on or off).

The two responses (food and shock) are dubbed reinforcements and punishments, respectively. They’re important concepts in Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Skinner found that animals were more likely to press the lever when they received rewards, and less likely to do so when they did not.

He termed this operant conditioning. He defined a sharp contrast between operant conditioning and classical conditioning developed by Pavlov. In classical conditioning, a behavior (salivation) depends on the stimulus that precedes it (bell ring.) In operant conditioning, Skinner proposed that the subject’s behavior depends on the stimulus that follows the behavior.


Operant conditioning

In operant conditioning, the operant is any behavior that a subject performs on their environment. The subject has control over these behaviors. Respondents, on the other hand, are automatic reflexes, like jumping away from a hot stovetop.

As stated earlier, the concepts of reinforcement and punishment are central to Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Reinforcement is any event that promotes the preceding behavior. Punishment is meant to discourage the preceding behavior.

You might have heard of terms like positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. These phrases are commonly used, and just as commonly misused. For example, when students behave well in class, they may receive a prize or a gold star. This has the goal of reinforcing their good behavior and is known as positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be unpleasant to the student. Let’s say a teacher removes a reinforcement in response to good behavior. This could mean exempting the student from clean-up duties or letting them skip an assignment. This type of reinforcement is meant to increase positive behavior by taking something away instead of giving something to the student. It’s subtractive and therefore called negative reinforcement.

It follows then that there are also positive and negative punishments in operant conditioning.

Positive punishment is additive, in that it punishes bad behavior with a new, unpleasant stimulus. To take our classroom example. This might include assigning extra homework to a poorly behaved student. A negative punishment, on the other hand, is subtractive, like taking recess time away from an unruly pupil.

Skinner would go on to propose radical behaviorism, in which all psychological processes were deemed responses to environmental stimuli and reinforcement. Though many contemporary behaviorists aren’t as extreme in their views, Skinner’s work contributes heavily to modern behaviorist learning theory.

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Applications of behaviorism in the classroom

Though teachers are often familiar with several learning theories and may use a combination of them in class, some concepts can find their roots in behaviorism, such as:

Student feedback

If a teacher returns students’ papers within a week of submission, students may be more likely to learn from that feedback, compared to a teacher who waits several weeks. This is because a quick turnaround creates a stronger relationship between the behavior (writing the paper) and the reinforcement (receiving feedback).

Reward systems

Many teachers implement reward systems for students to reinforce good behavior. When students receive extra credit for optional quizzes leading up to a big test, for instance, they might be more likely to pace their study with the quizzes, instead of cramming the night before the exam. Of course, reward systems have to be assessed and reassessed to make sure they’re reinforcing the right behaviors and not opening the door to cheating or manipulation.

Start of class

Instead of jumping into lessons immediately, many teachers opt to start their class with routine activities. This can be as simple as leaving a problem up on the board for students to complete as the class begins. Such behaviors create consistency, which can help students remain focused while easing into a learning environment.

Behaviorist learning theory has a long and rich history, one that affects how students learn in classrooms every day. From Wundt to Skinner, innovators have shaped our understanding of how knowledge is acquired. And innovators, psychologists and educators will likely use these ideas well into the future.


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