What is Behavioral Psychology? Definition, History, Types, Theories, and Pros/Cons

What is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a branch of psychology that focuses on understanding the connection between our minds and our behavior. It involves studying and analyzing observable behavior to uncover patterns and predict human actions. Rather than delving into internal mental states, behavioral psychology emphasizes the influence of the environment on shaping behavior.

The fundamental assumption of behavioral psychology is that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning, which occurs through interactions with the surrounding environment. This approach disregards subjective elements such as thoughts, emotions, and mood, and instead emphasizes the systematic study of observable behavior.

Behaviorists believe that anyone, regardless of their genetic background, personality traits, or internal thoughts, can be trained to perform any task within the limits of their physical capabilities. They contend that behavior is shaped by external stimuli such as laws, education, and socioeconomic forces.

Behavioral psychology has influenced various fields including psychotherapy, education, and marketing. By understanding why individuals behave the way they do, it becomes possible to develop better habits, create improved products, and foster more favorable living environments.

It explores the link between the mind and behavior through the study of observable actions, focusing on the impact of the environment on shaping behavior.

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History of Behavioral Psychology

Behaviorism also known as behavioral psychology, traces its roots back to the work of Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, who laid the foundations for the study of human behavior and learning. Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs in the late 19th century demonstrated the concept of classical conditioning, where a stimulus could elicit a conditioned response. This notion of conditioning provided a framework for understanding how people learn, act, and think.

John B. Watson, often considered the father of behaviorism, expanded on Pavlov’s work and published a paper in 1913 titled “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” which marked the formal establishment of behaviorism as a psychological perspective. Watson believed that all behaviors are learned through conditioning and that human behavior can be shaped and modified through the manipulation of environmental factors.

Other influential figures in the history of behavioral psychology include Edward Thorndike, who introduced the law of effect, emphasizing that satisfying responses are more likely to be repeated in the future. Clark Hull pioneered drive theory, highlighting the impact of physiological needs on behavior. B.F. Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning, which focused on the consequences of behavior in shaping future actions.

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During the early to mid-20th century, behaviorism dominated the field of psychology, aiming to establish psychology as an objective and measurable science. Behaviorists sought to create theories that could be clearly described, empirically measured and applied to improve various aspects of human life.

While strict behaviorism, which disregards subjective influences, has waned in popularity, its basic principles and concepts remain influential in areas such as psychotherapy, education, and applied behavior analysis.

Overall the history of behavioral psychology is rooted in the work of Pavlov and Watson, who explored conditioning and the relationship between stimuli and responses. Their contributions, along with those of other behaviorists, shaped the field and established behaviorism as a dominant psychological perspective in the early to mid-20th century.

Types of Behaviorism

There are two primary types of behaviorism that explain how behavior is formed:

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Methodological Behaviorism

Methodological behaviorism asserts that the scientific study of behavior should focus solely on observable actions. It suggests that mental states and cognitive processes should not be considered when understanding behavior.

This approach aligns with the ideas and methods introduced by John B. Watson, who emphasized the importance of studying behavior in a scientific and objective manner.

Radical Behaviorism

Radical behaviorism, developed by B.F. Skinner takes a broader perspective on behavior. It states that behavior can be understood by examining an individual’s past and present environment, as well as the reinforcements present within that environment.

Radical behaviorism recognizes that behavior is influenced by both external factors and internal factors such as innate tendencies. It shares the goal of predicting and controlling behavior, as advocated by methodological behaviorism.

Theories of Behavioral Psychology

Although you can find various theories that are explaining behaviorism, the following five are the main ones that helped us to understand our behaviors.

  1. Classical Conditioning
    • Author: Ivan Pavlov
    • Description: Classical conditioning is a theory that explains how behaviors are learned through associations between stimuli. It involves pairing a neutral stimulus with a meaningful stimulus to elicit a conditioned response.
  2. Operant Conditioning
    • Author: B.F. Skinner
    • Description: Operant conditioning focuses on how behavior is influenced by its consequences. It suggests that behaviors can be strengthened or weakened through reinforcement or punishment, shaping future actions.
  3. Social Learning Theory
    • Author: Albert Bandura
    • Description: Social learning theory emphasizes the role of observation, modeling, and social interactions in learning and behavior. It suggests that individuals acquire new behaviors by observing others and imitating their actions.
  4. Cognitive-Behavioral Theory
    • Authors/Contributors: Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis
    • Description: Cognitive-behavioral theory combines elements of behaviorism and cognitive psychology. It recognizes that thoughts, beliefs, and interpretations play a crucial role in shaping behavior. By identifying and modifying negative or irrational thoughts, individuals can change their behaviors and emotional responses.
  5. Behavioral Modification
    • Authors/Contributors: B.F. Skinner, Albert Bandura, Joseph Wolpe
    • Description: Behavioral modification is an applied approach that utilizes principles of behaviorism to modify specific behaviors. It involves techniques such as positive reinforcement, shaping, and token economies to encourage desired behaviors and discourage undesired ones.

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Uses of Behavioral Psychology

These practical uses of behavioral psychology extend to areas like habit formation, education, research, and mental health treatment. By understanding how behavior is influenced and modified, we can make positive changes in individuals’ lives and enhance overall well-being.

Habit Formation and Change

Behavioral psychology provides insights into how to build and break habits. It offers strategies for creating healthy habits through classical conditioning and breaking harmful habits through operant conditioning.

Education and Teaching

Behavioral psychology has influenced educational practices, particularly in terms of teaching children. Rewards and associations are used to facilitate learning, while operant conditioning helps shape behavior and teach societal expectations.


Behaviorism’s emphasis on observable behaviors makes it well-suited for research. It enables researchers to quantitatively measure behaviors, leading to more objective and data-driven studies.

Mental Health Treatment

Behavioral therapy, derived from behaviorism, has proven effective in treating various mental health conditions. Techniques such as behavior analysis, token economies, and intensive behavioral intervention help individuals change problematic behaviors and improve their mental well-being.

Criticisms of Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychology has faced criticism for being a narrow and one-dimensional approach to understanding human behavior. Critics argue that it fails to account for important aspects such as free will, internal influences like thoughts and feelings, and unconscious motivations.

Psychologists like Freud and humanistic thinkers like Carl Rogers have expressed concerns that behaviorism overlooks the complexity of human experience and the role of personal agency. Additionally, biological psychology and cognitive psychology highlight the significance of brain processes, genetics, and mental processes in shaping behavior, which behaviorism tends to neglect.

Furthermore, behaviorism doesn’t consider other forms of learning that don’t rely on reinforcement and punishment. These criticisms highlight the limitations of behaviorism in fully explaining the complexities of human behavior.


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