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What is the Behaviourist Approach?

Updated on May 21, 2013
Behaviourist psychologists will often remind you that we are just animals like any other and are prone to the same psychological mechanisms as the other higher mammals.
Behaviourist psychologists will often remind you that we are just animals like any other and are prone to the same psychological mechanisms as the other higher mammals. | Source

What is it?

Invented by John Watson (1878-1958), the behaviourist approach founds itself upon the principle that humans are born as a tabula rasa or 'blank slate'. What this means is that all of our behaviours are completely learnt and therefore we are not biologically destined to behave in particular ways.

At its most extreme, behaviourism is the belief that all of our behaviour is solely a cause of our environment; nature (our genetics and subsequent physiognomy) plays no part in it.

Internal mental processes (thought, judgement etc.) and the subconscious (explored in the psychodynamic approach) are completely ignored and are not explored in this approach.

You should also note that knowing about the behaviourist approach will be very useful to you if you are not already aware about the processes which drive our behaviour - for some, it is truly an eye-opening experience.

More on Thorndike

Thorndike first proved the validity of his 'Law of Effect' with experiments involving cats and puzzle boxes.

The cats were placed in locked boxes that could be opened by pulling a lever found inside. Initially, the cats would take a long time to find and use the latch. After a while however, the times decreased and the likelihood that they would do the right movement (and get the reward) increased with it.

The cats must have done this through trial and error and not through active thought, since even after having escaped once and placed back in the box, the cats did not free themselves straight away but took less time instead.

Thorndike's experiments pathed the way for another behaviourist psychologist - Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990).

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) and his Law of Effect

Edward Thorndike's Law of Effect states that if a behaviour leads to positive consequences then the likelihood that the behaviour will be repeated is increased. This also applies to the reverse, with negative consequences decreasing the likelihood of an action.

Note that the Law of Effect does not state that we actively decide to perform a behaviour through actively thinking about consequences - this increased likelihood of behaviour is not within our control - unless of course, we control the consequences we receive from certain actions.

Although quite a seemingly obvious concept of action and reward, the important feature of Thorndike's (1874-1949) Law of Effect is that the likelihood of our behaviour changes without us realising and so our behaviour is very strongly influenced by the sources of reward and punishment in our lives: e.g. parents, teachers, friends, government.

B.F Skinner (1904-1990)'s 'Skinner Boxes'

B.F Skinner is famous for his "Skinner box" experiments involving starved rats in special boxes. These rats would have to press down on a lever to receive a pellet of food. Once again, much like in Edward Thorndike's (1874-1949) experiments with cats, the rats learnt through trial and error and receiving positive reinforcement,that the lever would result in food (positive stimulus).

Skinner also does experiments with pigeons, even making it look like they're reading and following instructions!

See the video below to see how Skinner taught a pigeon to spin around when seeing the word 'turn'.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) and his Operant Conditioning

Skinner came up with the idea that all of our behaviour is solely a result of us learning from our environments through a process known as operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is essentially what you might know as positive and negative reinforcement and bases itself off of Thorndike's (1874-1949) Law of Effect:

Positive Reinforcement: when you are given what you perceive to be a reward (not just physical but also for instance, a parent's praise or some desired knowledge) for doing an action and are therefore more likely to repeat that action in the future.

Negative Reinforcement: when the consequence of an action results in the removal of something unpleasant (note: this does not mean being punished for performing a behaviour - making it different from Thorndike's Law of Effect).

Punishment: the process of receiving negative consequence for performing a behaviour and thereafter performing that behaviour less often (the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring reduces).

Skinner himself with his Skinner Boxes in action!

One of Pavlov's - and perhaps the most famous of - dogs!
One of Pavlov's - and perhaps the most famous of - dogs! | Source

Classical Conditioning in Action!

  • Are you afraid of the dentist's drill? That may be because you have had the experience of associating the drill of a dentist to the sometimes agonising pain of it coming in to contact with a tooth.
  • Are there certain foods that just put you off eating? Maybe they make you feel sick? Well those foods are likely the foods that you have had food poisoning with! Now you are classically conditioned to dislike that food - even if it is the freshest and highest quality of all!

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) and his Classical Conditioning

You may already have heard of Pavlov's dogs after the experiment Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) conducted on the digestive system of dogs.

Ivan Pavlov cleverly noticed that when he presented his dogs with food, they would automatically salivate - before the food even reached their mouths. Pavlov then tried ringing a bell every time he presented the dogs with food. After a while, Pavlov only needed to ring the bell in order to cause the dogs to salivate - he didn't need the natural stimulus of food anymore.

This simple but important observation lead to the idea behind classical conditioning - that animals (and people) make associations with otherwise unrelated things (in this case the bell caused salivation).

An unnatural response to a stimulus created through classical conditioning is called a conditioned response (as opposed to a natural response).

Don't Worry!

After a month, Little Albert's phobia of white furry items was significantly less severe!

Even so however, many people find the experiment very aggressive and therefore unethical - see the video below and decide for yourself.

John Watson and his famous Little Albert Experiment

Not too shockingly, this experiment was conducted on a little boy (11 months) called Albert and is the most famous experiment in this area of psychology!

Every time he would reach out for a small white rat, Watson would make a large bang. Watson repeated this several times and soon, when presented with the white rat alone, little Albert would show signs of fear.

This phobia for white rats came about through the association between the loud and frightening bang and the white rat. In fact, Little Albert would be terrified when presented with things that reminded him of the white rat - santa's beard, cotton wool and white rabbits.

A Thorough Explanation of the Little Albert Experiment

Strengths of the Behaviourist Approach

  • Very scientific - experiments are conducted with great precision and consistency and so at least the results, even if they were to be insignificant, would be more accurate than other approaches of psychology.
  • Logical - most people find it very easy to believe that we would do actions that we are rewarded for and not do actions that we are punished for. The idea of association is also an easy one to understand and accept.
  • Practical - the theories can easily be tested and the results evaluated in real life: we use punishment and reward schemes in education with great results.


  • Ignores the findings shown in the Cognitive Approach: that our active mental processes shape our behaviour as well as being conditioned to do things without thinking about it. The experiment on little Albert showed only that conditioning works on an 11 months baby, but a fully grown adult will do what he wants regardless of whether or not he has been rewarded or punished for it e.g. if a government has imprisoned a person several times for committing a crime which that person believes is in fact not a crime at all (protesting etc.) then he is very likely to repeat that action regardless of his conditioning.
  • Ignores the findings shown in the Biological Approach: a wide range of evidence has been compiled to show that to some degree at least our genetics shape our behaviour (e.g. if someone has an abnormally high level of testosterone his behaviour may be more aggressive than the average person's).
  • Ignores the findings shown in the Humanistic Approach: where a key principle is that humans have free agency to do what they want - not be trapped helplessly by our environment and its conditioning sources.
  • Operant and Classical conditioning does not at all explain spontaneous and unexplainable behaviour in humans.
  • Much of the evidence for the Behaviourist Approach is findings made from animal experiments which cannot apply to humans who are far more complex than animals like cats and pigeons.


Do you agree with the Behaviourist Approach?

See results


5 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of this hub.

Just to Sum Up

A different take on behaviourism..
A different take on behaviourism.. | Source


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    • profile image

      jim bob 3 years ago

      good article

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Ahah yes I should include that in the hub! Everyone can relate haha.

      Thanks for reminding me!


    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 5 years ago

      Psychology is not really my thing, but had to comment that this hub reminded me of an episode of the Big Bang Theory, when Sheldon feeds Penny chocolates so she will do what he wants her to do. Don't mean to simplify your hub by any means. They are always so in depth and well researched.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Thank you I will!

    • abbykorinnelee profile image

      Abigayle Malchow 5 years ago from Ripon Wisconsin

      I wrote a hub about it when I found should check it out:) I don't think advice helps with my kid lol trial and error and a lot of psychology:)

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Ahah, I imagine that raising a teenager is one of life's hardest challenges, one to come for me I suspect! Good luck nonetheless, I'm afraid I can't offer a grain of advice on the matter other than hang in there and put your psychology bach to good use on him/her!

      And I've never even heard of this "cyber psychology" - I'll look into it!

    • abbykorinnelee profile image

      Abigayle Malchow 5 years ago from Ripon Wisconsin

      You are very welcome and thank you for the best wishes. Need more luck with raising a productive teenager that can contribute to the good of society and not be a selfish person with no interpersonal communication skills as society and technology are my enemies:) I need more luck with that than finally finishing my Psychology degree:) lol Although that started fifteen years ago at 18 and you see how long its taking lol.

      There are so many things that go into our thought processes and our behaviors and actions, its not one thing nor another it's a combination of them...not nature, not nurture, not white nor black but grey. I love that psychology is turning into a more scientifically accepted field through the evolution of the field. Have you heard of the new branch of CyberPsychology? I just recently did and its really interesting and I think a great way to expand the field. Thanks for the feed back:) Made me feel good today:)

    • Philanthropy2012 profile image

      DK 5 years ago from London

      Thanks for stopping by with your input and positive feedback! Here's some positive reinforcement: thanks! You're great :D maybe you'll repeat the behaviour haha.

      And as you can probably tell from the third option in the poll, I agree that it definitely happens, reinforcement, but there are of course other things we need to consider like our thought processes.

      Only, it seems to make sense that our very thought processes are also a result of conditioning!

      Oh and you're even doing a Bach in Psychology! How exciting! - Therefore I say, good luck with the degree and the 'taming of the kids'! :)

    • abbykorinnelee profile image

      Abigayle Malchow 5 years ago from Ripon Wisconsin

      Ahhhh it! One of my favorite ones. I like that its backed by scientific empirical research and data. Its testable in its effectiveness. Guaranteed to work when treating things like phobias. Works excellent with kids with Autism...ABA therapy. The token economy is used in my house with my teenager and changed my child's behavior over everything else. Rewards and reinforcement is a great idea. I even like the idea that we don't really have free will that its all reinforcements in our environment or not that form our choices...interesting ideas. Thank you for the read.