The Business of Practice

Understanding Behaviorism

Behaviorism is the key to understanding human behavior. By understanding the principles of behaviorism, we can explain why people behave the way they do and better manage our behavior and the behavior of others.

Understanding Behaviorism

What is a Behavioral Psychologist?

Psychology has its roots in behaviorism. Behaviorism began with the work of Ivan Pavlov, who discovered classical conditioning, and B. F. Skinner, who developed operant conditioning.

Behaviorism is based on the idea that environmental factors determine all behavior, not internal mental states. This means that all behavior can be explained by how we have been conditioned to respond to our environment. Behaviorism has been very influential in the development of psychology as a science. However, it has also been criticized for its lack of focus on mental states and its emphasis on external factors as the cause of all behavior.

The Basic Principles Of Behaviorism

Behaviorism is the study of observable behavior. The basic principle of behaviorism is that behavior is a function of the environment. It focuses on the principle that behavior is learned through conditioning. There are two types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

  • Classical conditioning is when a behavior is learned in response to a stimulus that is not naturally associated with that behavior. There are lots of examples of classical conditioning in everyday life, such as if a person is exposed to loud noise (the conditioned stimulus) and then feels fear (the unconditioned response), they may learn to fear loud noises (the conditioned response).
  • Operant conditioning is when a behavior is learned in response to the consequences of that behavior. Operant conditioning examples in everyday life include if a person gets a reward (the reinforcer) for completing a task (the operant behavior), they are more likely to complete that task in the future.

The Role of Learning In Behavior

Behaviorism is all about learning. Specifically, it concerns how organisms learn from their environment and how this learning changes behavior. There are three main approaches within behaviorism – classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. All three methods involve the process of conditioning, whereby an animal or person learns to associate a particular stimulus with a particular response.

  • Classical conditioning is when a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a particular response. For example, if a rat is given a food pellet every time it hears a click, it will eventually learn to associate the click with the food. It will start to salivate in anticipation of the food whenever it hears the click.
  • Operant conditioning is a type of learning that occurs as a result of the consequences of a behavior. If a behavior is followed by a positive consequence (such as a reward), then that behavior is more likely to be repeated in the future; if a behavior is followed by a negative consequence (such as punishment), then that behavior is less likely to be repeated in the future.
  • Observational learning is a type of learning that occurs as a result of observing the behavior of others. An example of observational learning includes if a child sees another child being rewarded for picking up a set of toy blocks, the child is likely to pick them up the next time they are available.

The Role of Cognition In Behavior

Cognition is just another word for thinking or knowing. We’re aware of pretty much anything that goes on in our heads. That includes things like remembering, imagining, planning, and paying attention. Our behavior is mostly just a reaction to the things happening around us and the things we’re thinking about.

Behaviorism is the idea that our behavior is mainly a result of our environment and learning. 

Cognition plays a significant role in our behavior. Our thoughts and memories can influence what we do in the present moment. For example, if we’re thinking about a scary movie we saw, we might start to feel afraid.

The Role of Motivation In Behavior

Motivation is a crucial factor in behavior. A motivated individual is likelier to engage in behavior than those who are not motivated. Internal factors include things like need, want, or desire. External factors include things like rewards or punishments.

Behaviors that are reinforced (rewarded) are more likely to be repeated than behaviors that are not reinforced. Behaviors that are punished are less likely to be repeated than behaviors that are not punished.

People often talk about motivation in terms of positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by a positive consequence (reward). Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by removing a negative consequence (punishment). Positive and negative reinforcement can increase the likelihood of repeated behavior. 

The Role of Emotion In Behavior

All three behavior theories suggest that emotion plays a role in behavior.

  • Classical conditioning is based on the idea that emotions are learned through association. For example, if a person has a positive experience with a certain stimulus (e.g., eating a delicious meal), they are likely to associate positive emotions (e.g., happiness) with that stimulus. On the other hand, if a person has a negative experience with a stimulus (e.g., being bitten by a dog), they are likely to associate negative emotions (e.g., fear) with that stimulus.
  • Operant conditioning is based on the idea that emotions can influence behavior. For example, if people feel happy, they are likelier to behave positively (e.g., being friendly to others). On the other hand, if a person feels angry, they are more likely to behave negatively (e.g., being aggressive).
  • Social learning theory suggests that emotions play a role in behavior because we learn by observing the feelings of others. For example, we might become angry if we see someone getting angry. Similarly, if we see someone happy, we might become happy ourselves.


By understanding how we behave, we can change our behavior to get the desired outcomes. We can use this knowledge to improve our relationships, health, and well-being.

Additional Resources on Behavior Therapy


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