12 minute read

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were dominated by introspective psychology, relying heavily on first-person reports of feelings, sensations and experiences. These approaches were rejected by behaviorists as being subjective and unquantifiable. They believed that psychology would only become a true science if “it became a process of detailed objective observation and scientific measurement” (Pritchard, 2014. p6).

“The mentalistic problem can be avoided by going directly to the prior physical causes while bypassing intermediate feelings or states of mind. The quickest way to do this is to […] consider only those facts which can be objectively observed in the behavior of one person in its relation to his prior environmental history.”

– Skinner (1976, p23)

The focus of behaviorists was objectively observable, quantifiable events and behavior. They did not believe that it was possible to objectively observe what happens in the mind, therefore scientific theories should focus instead on observable indicators such as stimulus-response sequences.

Early behaviorists


Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) is regarded as the first behavioural psychologist, although the term was not adopted until long after he completed his research. He conducted a study into how cats were able to escape from a locked box through the process of trial and error – something he called connectionism.

His research showed that by trying different approaches to escape, the cats would either experience a rewarding outcome (escape) or a profitless outcome (being trapped).

Through these outcomes, the number of different attempts the cat would make would decrease as the cat learned which actions lead to reward and which were profitless. Thorndike suggested that reward responses are stamped in and profitless responses are stamped out.


John Watson (1878-1958) is generally seen as the founding father of behaviorism. His work was widely cited, and considered by many to be controversial.

His experiments were conducted on a 9-month-old baby, Albert. In them, he introduced Albert to a range of different animals (a neutral stimulus). The baby showed no fear of any of the animals. Watson then made a series of loud noises (an unconditional stimulus) which distressed Albert.

By pairing the two tests (the introduction of the animal and the loud noise) the child’s natural response to the noise (to cry) became associated with the animal, and when the noise was then removed the baby had been conditioned to show fear and distress at the animal.


Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was a physiologist whose research won him a Nobel prize in 1904. His research developed earlier work further, indicating that presenting a dog with an unconditioned stimulus (food) would provoke an unconditioned response (reflex action) in the form of the dog salivating.

When the stimulus is accompanied by, for example, ringing a bell several times, removing the original stimulus (food) will cause the dog to salivate at just the sound of the bell. The dog had been conditioned to associate food with the sound of a bell ringing.

Pavlov called this classical conditioning, and identified four stages in the process:

acquisitionthe initial learning of the conditioned responsePavlov's dog salivating at the sound of a bell being rung after being conditioned.
extinctionthe disappearance of the conditioned response over timerepeatedly pressing the bell without presenting food will weaken the conditioning to the point where the dog no longer salivates
generalisationafter a conditioned response has been learned, it may also respond to similar stimuli without the need for further conditioninga girl who has been bitten by a dog may fear all dogs, not just the one that bit her
discriminationthe opposite of generalisation - producing a conditioned response to one stimulus, but not another, similar stimulusthe girl bitten by a dog may fear freely roaming dogs, but not ones kept on a leash


B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) developed the ideas of his predecessors by subjecting animals and humans to a series of experiments to develop the concept he termed radical behaviorism. To do this, he devised a number of devices, the most famous of which were his Skinner boxes.

These boxes were fitted with a lever which if pressed would produce either water or a food pellet. Rats were then placed inside. At first by accident, the rats would discover that water or a food pellet would appear when they pressed the lever. They would begin to press the lever again and again to receive more rewards. Skinner referred to this as positive reinforcement.

In later experiments, he added grids that produced electric shocks when activated. Through this he studied what he called negative reinforcement.

Skinner’s experiments showed that not only did positive reinforcement have a longer-lasting effect than negative reinforcement, but that negative reinforcement can actually be counter-productive.

This may seem as if Skinner is only confirming Pavlov’s idea of a conditioned response, but Skinner argued that while the response of Pavlov’s dogs was a reflex action (a reaction to the environment), Skinner’s rats operated not out of reflex but acted on the environment (rather than reacting to it). This became known as operant conditioning.


View of knowledge

Behaviorists’ view of knowledge is that it is a repertoire of behaviours. Skinner says “knowledge is action, or at least rules for action” (Skinner 1976, p152). It is a set of passive, largely mechanical responses to stimuli.

“I know the difference between a turtle and a tortoise” is to a behaviorist equivalent to “I have the capacity to identify a turtle although I am not doing so now”. Someone can be said to understand something when they have the appropriate set of behaviours.

View of learning

Learning is the change in behaviour due to experience. For behaviorists, learning is the transmission of the response appropriate to stimuli. The point of education is therefore:

“to present the student with the appropriate repertoire of behavioral responses to specific stimuli and to reinforce those responses through an effective reinforcement schedule. An effective reinforcement schedule requires constant repetition of the material; small progressive sequences of tasks; and continuous positive reinforcement. Without positive reinforcement, learned responses will quickly become extinct.”

– UC Berkeley, 2016. p3.

View of motivation

Behaviorists view motivation in terms of positive and negative reinforcement. Pleasant experiences (rewards) cause learners to make the desired connections between stimulus and response. Verbal praise, good grades, house points and certificates are all commonly-used tools for positive reinforcement. Unpleasant experiences (punishments) deter learners from undesirable responses.


  • Everything we do is related to behaviour, not the mind.
  • Learners take an active role in their environment – learning by doing, trial & error.
  • Responses are not innate – they are the result of our experiences.


  • In focusing only on observable behaviours, no attempt is made to understand the underlying mental processes that drive them, and is therefore a one-dimensional approach to understanding learning
  • It does not explain some learning, such as the recognition of new language patterns by young children, for which there is no mechanism for reinforcement
  • There is evidence that extrinsic motivators like rewards reinforce short-term progress to the detriment of long-term gains
  • A ‘correct’ response to does not necessarily imply understanding. A child answering the question “What are six eights?” with “48” need not understand the reply to have been deemed successfully conditioned
  • The idea of learning without understanding can be deeply frustrating for some learners

And yet!

A great deal of behaviorist learning theory has been discounted in recent years, but there are situations where a behaviorist approach is likely to work well. Encouraging a child to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ appropriately at meal times is almost always best achieved by withholding food until the desired response is given.

“The importance of responsive practice has been underlined in more recent years, and explained in terms of the reinforcement of particular neural pathways in the brain, which has the effect of faster and smoother implementation of certain actions and responses. The adage ‘practice makes perfect’ seems to hold good for behaviourists, and also may have resonances for neuropsychologists.”

– Pritchard (2014), p7.

A great many ‘drill and practice’-style computer programs or ‘educational games’ operate on a behaviorist approach, with correct answers rewarded by the earning of points or badges. “These types of programs allow children of varying abilities to work on exercises in their own time and at their own pace” (Pritchard, 2014. p12).

Applications in e-learning

Lots of computer-based learning tools in various forms have been constructed using a behaviorist approach, and this has been a cause of concern for many. The lack of understanding engendered by assessments that focus purely on outcomes has been worrisome for many teachers and parents, even in the face of evidence of improvements in standardised test performance.

“The microcomputer is a tool of awesome potency which is making it possible for educational practice to take a giant step backwards.”

– Daniel Chandler, 1984 (quoted in Pritchard, 2014. p14)

Self-paced, computer-based study activities can be designed to make use of behaviorist principles. A learning task that gives frequent feedback while the learner covers the material in small, bite-sized pieces is more likely to be successful than an eperience consisting of extensive reading and an end of term test.

Content can be further developed to ‘steer’ learners towards correct answers, increasing the learner’s confidence and encouraging them to carry on. While some may criticise such tools for giving too much help, the end result is that the learner accomplishes their goal.

Behaviorism has a place in the modern classroom, but it should not be relied upon as the only perspective from which to design instruction.


Bates, B. (2016). Learning Theories Simplified. Los Angeles: Sage.

Pritchard (2014). Ways of Learning: Learning Theories and Learning Styles in the Classroom. 3rd edition. Oxford: Routledge.

UC Berkeley (2016). Learning: Theory and Research, a teaching guide for Graduate Student Instructors. [Online], available from:

Skinner, B. F. (1976). About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.