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Towards Understanding Behaviorism School of Psychology Term Paper


Purpose To critically discuss the behaviorist school of psychology, including its origins, renowned psychologists associated with the school, underlying viewpoints, and its place in contemporary times
Introduction Introduces the topic of behaviorism; defines behaviorism
Early Origins of Behaviorism Discusses how behaviorism was introduced in 1912 and the reasons behind its introduction
Rise of Behaviorism: Prominent Figures & their Contributions Discuss:
  • J.B. Watson – stimulus and response experiments implications & contributions to behaviorist school
  • Ivan Pavlov – classical conditioning, contributions, & implications to behaviorism school
  • B.F. Skinner – operant conditioning, radical psychology & contributions to behaviorism school
Conclusion Concludes the topic by offering useful insights on behaviorism
Personal reflection Offer my own thoughts, strong points of behaviorism and critique


Since psychology first emerged as a distinct scientific field, diverse schools of thought with explicitly formulated theories and methodologies have emerged to dominate the field.

To date, the most influential schools of psychology comprise of behaviorism, psychoanalytic, functionalism, constructivism, humanistic, and cognitivism, among others (Burgos, 2007). While each of these schools has been highly influential in determining the growth of psychology as a field, most psychologists embrace eclectic or diverse perspectives that coalesces unique aspects of each school.

It is the purpose of this paper to critically discuss the behaviorist school of psychology, including its origins, renowned psychologists associated with the school, underlying viewpoints, and its place in contemporary times.

It is imperative to note at this early juncture that behaviorism as a school of psychology confines itself to the objective evaluation of observable and quantifiable characteristics of behavior (Hawkins, 1990). Typical behaviorists, according to Burgos (2007), hold the view that all forms of behavior can be explained by environmental causative agents rather than by subjective internal phenomena such as consciousness, sensation, emotions or motives

Early Origins of Behaviorism

Behaviorism was introduced in 1912 after it became evidently clear that the existing school of psychology, known as introspective psychology, was only interested in espousing the view that consciousness is the core subject matter of psychology (Watson, 2008).

The behaviorists’ main bone of contention during that time was that “consciousness” as advocated by psychologists such as James, Wundt and Judd was hard to define or use as an objective basis of psychological thought since it was eclipsed by a kind of understated religious philosophy (Watson, 2008).

As such, the behaviorists formed the conclusion that the field of psychology could no longer be limited to subjective and prejudiced subject matter, intangibles, and concepts that could not be objectively comprehended or evaluated by ordinary mortals.

In line with the above, scientists in the fields of medicine, chemistry, and physics were making steady progress in discovering new elements using objective methodologies that could be replicated in other laboratories.

Consequently, the behaviorists had to come up with ways through which they could get uniformity in subject matter and in methodologies, and a good starting point was to do away with all medieval conceptions that could not be proved or quantified through observation (Watson, 2008). The general agreement was that psychologists should limit their work to the things that could be observed, hence necessitating the formulation of objective laws and guidelines concerning these things.

Since behavior could be observed, the school of behaviorism was born with the basic premise that the core subject matter of human psychology is the observed behavior or the various activities of the human being. The concept of stimulus and response became of great importance to behaviorists in observing behavior.

Rise of Behaviorism: Prominent Figures & their Contributions

J.B. Watson

The first phase of ‘behavioral revolution’ was initiated in 1913 by psychologist J.B. Watson (1878-1958), with the emphasis being on observable stimuli and responses. It is imperative to note that although Watson is largely perceived as one of the pioneers of the behaviorist school of thought, he was greatly influenced by the works of Ivan Pavlov, especially in conditioned reflexes (Powell, n.d.).

The psychologist was largely concerned with counteracting the influences occasioned by structuralism and functionalism, but his form of classical behaviorism proved overly inadequate since it failed to “convincingly account for the variability and apparent spontaneity of some forms of behavior” (Moore, 2010, p. 143).

To remedy this situation, organismic expressions were entrenched between the stimuli and response to mediate the association between the two, thereby accounting for the inconsistency. As such, external stimuli were perceived to trigger some intervening, internal processes that were casually associated in an intricate yet systematic manner to an eventual response.

This new paradigm proposed by early behaviorists was meant to cater for certain influences that inarguably influence behavior but cannot be observed in physical sense (Maniacs, 2002), and operated under the basic premise that “…the response is functionally related to the mediator inside the organism, rather than to the environment, because the organism is in direct contact with the mediator, rather than the environment” (Moore, 2010, p. 143).

This kind of thinking provided a platform to explain some intangible variables such as mood and attitude. For example, variable behavior observed in a human being could be explained using the variability of mood or attitude. However, Skinner continued to reject the investigation of mental processes as unscientific (Plaud & Montgomery, 1993).

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov (1845-1936) is undoubtedly one of the most popular scientists in Russia and indeed the whole world. Although his conditioned-reflex experiments were fundamental to the development of behaviorism, Pavlov is on record for previously rejecting Psychology as a science (Powell, n.d.).

In one of his experiments on digestive processes, Pavlov detected that non-food stimuli related to food was capable of educing salivary secretions even though no food was actually present in the mouth, thus the discovery of conditioned reflexes. The discovery led Pavlov to study in depth what is today known as classical conditioning. In one of his notable experiments, the sound of a bell rung immediately the dog was fed caused it to salivate in anticipation of feeding even when no food was present.

Pavlov termed this neutral auditory response as the conditioned stimulus, while the food was termed the unconditioned stimulus. It was observed that the dog salivated in response to the food, thus the unconditioned stimulus always brought forward what Pavlov called the unconditioned response (Powell, n.d.). In other words, the dog salivated in anticipation of the food.

Pavlov later observed that the unconditioned response (salivation in response to food) could actually be reinforced when the process of presenting the food was tied to the sound of a bell and repeated severally. This new learned response was therefore termed ‘conditioned response’ since it could be observed repeatedly after being reinforced by the conditioned stimulus.

The implications of Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments on behaviorism are tremendous, to say the least. Further synthesis of the above experiment reveals that an unconditioned response can be produced by the reinforcement of a conditioned stimulus, thus the unconditioned response becomes the conditioned response (Burgos, 2007).

This implies that behaviorism takes into account learning by association, a concept that is widely used in teaching small children to learn ideas by associating them with a conditioned stimulus. Learning by association is indeed used to modify behavior in institutions of learning and even in our daily experiences within the immediate environment through the reinforcement of desired behaviors and disregarding the undesired ones.

For example, praising a student for achieving good marks can be used to reinforce the desired behavior while punishing a student for making noise in the classroom can be used to curtail such undesired behavior.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) contributions to the behaviorism school of thought undoubtedly place him as one of the distinguished psychologists of all times (Plaud & Montgomery, 1993). Skinner’s interest in behaviorism started in 1928 after enrolling in Harvard University for a graduate’s degree in psychology.

His keen interest in studying behavior had been influenced by previous works of J.B. Watson. While at the university, Skinner created an operant chamber which enabled him to precisely observe the number of times a rat or pigeon could press a bar to obtain a food pellet (O’Donohue & Fergusson, 2001).

Although Skinner’s orientation towards behaviorism became radical by the day, leading to what is today called radical behaviorism, his contributions continue to be used in a multiplicity of fields.

Owing to Skinner’s contributions, the school of behaviorism moved further towards embracing the concept of operant conditioning to reinforce behavior (Plaud & Montgomery, 1993).

Basically, ‘conditioning’ is a scientific term used to imply learning, while ‘operant’ was used by Skinner to imply that human beings and animals operate on their immediate environments. As such, operant psychology is based on the notion that an action or behavior exhibited by an organism often has ramifications that occur naturally in the immediate environment.

Skinner’s works also demonstrated that reinforcement is an element that makes it more likely that a specific behavior or action will be repeated, while consequences of a specific action may either positively or negatively reinforce behavior (Hawkins, 1990). These concepts form some of the basic tenets of behaviorism to date.

It was the opinion of Skinner that positive reinforcement was not only more effective than punishment, but such kind of reinforcement must be swiftly transferred to make an impact on behavior (Plaud & Montgomery, 1993). For example, if a child mocks a teacher in school, the amusement of the other kids (which may be immediate) may serve to reinforce the mocking behavior.

However, if the teacher punishes the child not by caning but by making him to write, “I will not mock again” fifty or more times on the chalkboard, the child is more likely to drop this habit in the future. In this example, the child commences the behavior of mocking, but factors operating within the environment either reward or punish his action.

This is one of the hallmarks of behaviorism, and is still widely used in institutions of learning to reinforce behavior. It was also the understanding of Skinner through his many experiments that behavior can be learned through a process known as ‘shaping,’ which relies on reinforcing a particular action.

Skinner also introduced the concept of programmed instruction to provide immediate feedback (Moore, 2010). However, Skinner never bought the idea that man could control the environment, implying that behaviors will forever be shaped by the environment (Hawkins, 1990).


The above discussion clearly outlines the development of behaviorism and its basic tenets as a school of psychological thought. Watson’s stimuli and response experiments, Skinner’s operant conditioning and Pavlov’s classical conditioning are some of the fundamental hallmarks of behaviorism.

Although other schools of thought such as cognitivism and constructivism are relatively new compared to behaviorism, the place of behaviorism in contemporary psychological thought cannot be overshadowed.

Indeed, behaviorism continues to be used in many fields especially in education, therapy, and medicine to reinforce and modify behavior. Although it has its own weaknesses especially in explaining how subjective and unobservable phenomena influences behavior (Maniacs, 2002), it has remained instrumental in scientifically demonstrating how behaviors are learnt, reinforced and modified.

Personal Reflection

From the discussion, it is indeed true that behaviorism can be adapted in very many fields to teach people how to overcome disruptive and undesired behaviors.

In addition, it has provided psychologists a platform through which they can objectively and scientifically explain behavior and personality development without fear of being accused of subjectivism as was the case with introspective psychology. This is a deserved milestone in a field that was generally accused of lacking scientific principles.

The basic concept of behaviorism, as can be synthesized from the discussion, is that behaviors are acquired and maintained through conditioning – a process that is facilitated by continuous interaction with the environment.

The behaviorists’ assertion that behavior can be studied in a methodical and observable way without making reference to internal mental states so far remains unconvincing.

Also, the notion by Skinner that all animals can be trained to perform similar types of tasks still remains unclear and open to criticism. In equal measure, the convergence of technology in the 21st century has enabled man to control the environment, therefore putting some of Skinner’s arguments into disarray (Hawkins, 1990).

Lastly, while behaviorism has come up with extremely good theories of explaining behavior, I feel that it fails to account for other types of learning that takes place without necessarily relying on reinforcements and punishments.

Reference List

Burgos, J. E. (2007). The theory debate in psychology. Behavior & Philosophy, 35(1), 149-183. Retrieved from Academic Source Premier Database.

Hawkins, R. P. (1990). The life and contributions of Burrhus Frederick Skinner. Education & Treatment of Children, 13(3), 258-265. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier Database.

Maniacs, P. T. (2002). John Dewey and American psychology. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 32(3), 267-294. Retrieved from Academic Source Premier Database.

Moore, J. (2010). Philosophy of science, with special consideration given to behaviorism as the philosophy of the science of behavior. Psychological Record, (60)1, 137-150. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier Database.

O’Donohue, W.O., & Ferguson, K.E. (2009). The psychology of B.F. Skinner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Plaud, J. J., & Montgomery, R.W. (1993). On the influence of Walter S. Hunter in the shaping of modern behaviorism. Psychological Record, 43(3), 361-372. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier Database.

Powell, D. A. (n.d.). Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich (1845-1936). Web.

Watson, J. B. (2008). Behaviorism. London: READ BOOKS.

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