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Historical Perspectives of Psychology: The Behavioral Movement

Updated on May 6, 2017
Natalie Frank profile image

Natalie Frank (Taye Carrol), a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, publishes on multiple topics in health, behavioral science, and other fields.

The behavioral movement began much as the psychodynamic movement had before it, largely by taking issue with the previous models and establishing an entirely new set of criteria and theories with what in mental health deserved attention. The psychoanalytic model had taken issues with the model that had held sway before it, the biological model. The biological model held that all mental phenomenon were biologically based and if there was no cause that had as yet been discovered for a condition it would eventually.

Supporters of the Psychodynamic Model stated that while there were certainly physiological contributions to mental functioning, that none of those biological factors could be fully determined and thus it was not usefulness for developing treatment for mental problems. Additionally, psychodynamic practitioners stated that they could use techniques such as hypnosis and free association and with no medical treatment what-so-ever, could bring about improvements in patients mental state. Thus, the Psychodynamic Model focused on psychological determinants of mental difficulties.

History of Behaviorism and the Behavioral Model

A group of theorists, researchers and mental health professionals reacted against the previous models that were then prominent in the field of psychology, in particular, the psychodynamic and biological models. The behaviorists agreed with the psychodynamic model insofar as the assertion that while there were likely biological contributions to mental difficulties, physiological factors could not explain 100 percent of mental health and disease. These theorists were not comfortable with the belief that every aspect of physical, mental and emotional health was biological in nature despite the actual physical causes to many areas of health being unknown. Behaviorists accepted that many things were biological in nature, including certain aspects of mental functioning. Yet at the same time they asserted that not everything was determined by biology opposed the practice of blindly believing this to be the case despite the fact that most physiological determinants and associated factors related to health were unknown.

Behaviorists took issue with the psychodynamic model, however, regarding their general methodology and approach to assessment and treatment. Those who advocated for the behavioral model asserted that the psychodynamic model was characterized by loose treatment guidelines and a lack of empiricism. These deficiencies, it was argued, were demonstrated by the failure to keep detailed records documenting specific treatment techniques that lead to decreased symptoms and improved adjustment. These behaviorists believed that the processes that the psychodynamic model emphasized, in particular the heavy emphasis on the unconscious, could not be observed and relied exclusively on patient report and therapist interpretation. Behaviorists argued that both of these methods were inherently biased. Furthermore, there was no way of proving or disproving whether the therapist was accurately interpreting what they obtained from the patient since it was all based on the patient’s unconscious. Behaviorists also made the case that it was possible that patient’s reported feeling better and being less distressed due to demand characteristics or wanting to please the therapist.

So the Behavioral Model agreed that the manifestations of mental functioning might have certain physiological contributions, and that there were likely contributions to mental functioning that were not fully conscious. However, at the same time they rejected the Biological and Psychodynamic models due to the fact that the targets of treatment and treatment outcomes could not be observed and measured. Additionally, behaviorists believed that neither model posited any useful explanation of how psychological difficulties developed in individual patients.

Behaviorists stated that the only valid and useful framework for addressing psychological functioning was learning theory. They dismissed the two models that predated the Behavioral Model for lack of empirical rigor and the inability to objectively evaluate target problems and to reveal the actual mechanisms that determined treatment success in a demonstrable manner. The inability of biological proponents to demonstrated actual, not theoretical, causal factors, and a perceivable process or a standardize approach were addressed by behaviorists through a focus on only what was observable; behavior.

The Behavioral Model concluded that if the target problem could be observed and measured they could not come up with a well- grounded method of changing or eliminating it. Furthermore, the model held that the efficacy of treatment could be detailed at each step and measurement would allow the therapist to determine if the treatment was having the desired effect. If it wasn’t effectively addressing the problem, the treatment could be altered or replaced as was deemed appropriate based on the empirical account of progress or lack thereof. Objectively observable and measurable phenomena, these theorists contended, was the only reliable means of establishing that the desired change had occurred. Relying solely on what the patient reported lacked scientific vigor, the behaviorists stressed, since it was commonly known that patient report was notoriously undependable. The behaviorists stressed the belief that only that which could be observed, quantified and measured was an acceptable target of assessment and intervention. They banished private mental events, memories, meaning, thoughts and any other internal unseen process from inclusion in the behavioral theory (Benjamin, 2007).

Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov

Underpinnings of the Behavioral Psychology Model

The behavioral model is based on theories of learning and conditioning as applied to the comprehension of human behavior and interventions for behavioral and psychological difficulties. The movement was established through the conditioning research of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, and research into the learning theories of American psychologists John Watson, Edward Thorndike, Clark Hull, John Dollard, Neal Miller and B.F. Skinner.

The theory involved, focused on how people learn to engage in different behaviors that are not reflexive, or how automatic reflexive behaviors can be conditioned to be elicited by stimuli that have no original connection to them. The model includes antecedents that elicit behavior or trigger from the temporal period before the behavior as well as consequences that increase or decrease the likelihood a behavior will occur again in the future, as well as how consequences can serve to establish a behavior that wasn’t in the person’s repertoire to begin with. The model is more effective in treating certain disorders such children’s behavior problems and anxiety disorders and less effective treating other types of conditions such as Personality Disorders.

Pavlov and Classical Conditioning

Pavlov established what came to be known as classical conditioning, in which he demonstrated how a previously neutral stimulus could come to elicit a conditioned response when the stimulus was paired with an unconditioned stimulus. Essentially, he realized that putting food in front of dogs will make them salivate. The food is an unconditioned stimulus and drooling is an unconditioned response. If you pair the presentation of food with a stimulus like a bell that is neutral or does not elicit salivation the food is still the stimuli leading to the unconditioned response. However, with enough pairings, the bell comes to be associated with the food and it alone will now elicit salivation. The bell has become a conditioned stimuli and the food is a conditioned response (Lavond, & Steinmetz, 2012).

J.B. Wztson
J.B. Wztson

J.B. Watson and Conditioning Emotions

In his earlier research Watson used animal subjects and later shifted to the study of human behaviors and emotions at Johns Hopkins University. He wanted to develop techniques to allow him to `condition and control the emotions of human subjects. He theorized that children have three basic emotional reactions: fear, rage, and love. He left academia to pursue an interest in advertising.

Watson, expanded on Pavlov’s animal studies by applying the idea of temporal pairings to humans, specifically children. He believed that behavior is observable and can be correlated with other observable events. Thus, there are events that precede and follow behavior. Behaviorism's goal is to explain relationships between antecedent conditions (stimuli), behavior (responses), and consequences (reward, punishment, or neutral effect). Watch classical conditioning explained in this clip from the television show Frasier. Another amusing example of Classical Conditioning can be found in this clip of a teacher conditioning his High School Class to respond to a bizarre phrase, "There's a [watermelon, giraffe,in the sky. Emery can fly."

Watson believed that all human emotions are conditioned in much the same way that Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate to the sounding of the bell. His most famous experiments were carried out to demonstrate a conditioned emotional responses in “Little Albert,” a nine month old infant by exposing him to a variety of small animals which at first he seemed to enjoy playing with. Watson then made loud noises that were known to make Little Albert cry, whenever Albert played with any of the animals. After repeated pairings, even the sight of one of the animals Albert had previously enjoyed playing with elicited loud crying, indications of fear and attempts to escape. Though not considered ethical today, Watson conducted several other experiments with children which established that classical conditioned responses occur in people as well as in animals (Watson, & Rayner, 1920).

Watson's most famous experiment was with a 9 month old infant referred to as “Little Albert.” He conditioned Little Albert to fear animals and stuffed toys that he displayed no fear towards prior to the conditioning. He also showed that the baby generalized his fear of one furry animal to other animals and even to the stuffed toys. Watch the Little Albert experiment here along with a discussion of Watson and where his theory came from.

B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner Skinner believed that classical conditioning was far too simplistic to be a complete explanation of complex human behavior. He felt that the best way to understand behavior is to examine the causes and consequences of people’s actions. His approach was named operant conditioning as it focused the ways in which behavior operated on the environment to elicit responses. Using positive and negative reinforcement and punishment Skinner was able to show that behavior could be conditioned through the use of relatively few strategies. Reinforcement refers to a consequence that increases behavior while punishment decreases a behavior. The term positive refers to presenting a reinforcer while negative refers to removing a reinforcer.

In other words with positive reinforcement, a desirable consequence is provided to the individual following a behavior in order to increase the behavior, Negative reinforcement refers to removing a something undesirable to increase a behavior. Positive punishment means presenting a consequence that will decrease an undesirable behavior while negative punishment, usually called response cost refers to removing something desirable to decrease a behavior. An example of the latter is time out whereby a child is removed from an environment with desirable aspects such as friends, toys, television and attention to decrease the behavior. The basic idea behind operant conditioning is that behavior which is followed by desirable results is more likely to be repeated while behavior that is followed by undesirable results is less likely to be repeated.

Watch this link from the television show The Big Bang Theory to see an amusing example of operant conditioning. Watch this short video to see an example of Skinner conditioning a pigeon to peck a key and turn in a circle through the use of positive reinforcement or for a longer video of Skinner discussing his theory click here.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

Criticisms of the Behavioral Model

Critics of the Behavioral Model claim that behaviorism is a one-dimensional approach to understanding human behavior. By focusing exclusively on observable behavior, the fail to take into account the multifaceted determination of the person’s subjective experience of the world. Behaviorists do not acknowledge the existence of free will. They don’t necessarily deny free will exists, they simply ignore its importance in influencing human behavior. The Behavioral Model also fails to consider internal influences such as moods, thoughts, feelings and what an individual finds meaningful. One main aspect that the Behavioral Model does not address is the manner in which people can adapt and alter their behavior when they obtain new information even if that behavior was firmly established through antecedents or consequences.

Concluding Remarks

One of the greatest strengths of the Behavioral Model of Psychology is the focus on clearly observable and measurable behaviors allowing for the careful design of treatments. Weaknesses of this approach include the failure to consider the cognitive and biological processes that are known to influence human actions. The conditioning process alone has been used to understand many different types of behaviors, ranging from how language develops to how people learn to interact with each other. While the behavioral approach might not be the dominant force as it once was, this model has still had a major impact on the understanding of human psychology. Even with the advent of a new model that included the various private mental events, such as thoughts, that the behavioral model left out, the importance of behavioral change was not discounted. In fact, the cognitive behavioral model often initially focused on putting in place behavioral strategies while working to establish new ways of thinking about experiences. This is due to the recognition of the powerful effects that behavior change can have on mood and other psychological states.

The behavioral model was the basis of the Boulder Model, the primary training model for doctoral graduate programs in clinical psychology. This was because it recognized both the empirical science and practice of psychology. The name of the Boulder model reflected the equal focus on these two areas by naming the model the Scientist-Practitioner Model of Professional Psychology (Johnson, & Baker, 1949).


Benjamin Jr, L. T. (2007). A brief history of modern psychology. Blackwell Publishing.

Johnson, N. L., & Baker, D. B. Boulder Conference (1949). The Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology.

Lavond, D., & Steinmetz, J. (2012). Handbook of classical conditioning. Springer Science & Business Media.

Plante, T. G. (2010). Contemporary clinical psychology. John Wiley & Sons.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1.

© 2017 Natalie Frank


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      Darla Sue Dollman 2 weeks ago

      Great article--you covered a lot in this piece and it's interesting and easy to read.

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 2 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

      Thanks Darla - I'm glad you found the article easy to read. I wanted it to just be a quick introduction to the behavioral model while also focusing on the history of change in psychology models.

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