What Is Behaviorism?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Behaviorism is the psychological theory that suggests that humans and animals can be conditioned to respond to certain external cues, or "stimuli," in certain ways. Based in part on the early experiments of Edward Thorndike and the famous work on conditioning by Ivan Pavlov, behaviorism had, and still has wide-ranging implications, from education to advertising to rehabilitating convicted criminals. Its theoretical basis was in the utilitarian principle that people and animals are primarily concerned, and ethically speaking, ought to be concerned, with achieving the most pleasurable possible outcome. This essentially self-interested approach to human development was in a way a reaction to Freudian emphasis on the irrational. Behavioralists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner argued instead that people would naturally repeat behaviors that led to positive outcomes or responses. This, in the end, was a rational decision.

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fact-finder | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Behaviorism is a school of psychology that explains observable human behavior as a response to stimuli in the environment. After Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1840–1936) demonstrated that reflexes could be conditioned to respond in a certain way, American psychologist John Broadus Watson (1878–1958) continued to study the effect of stimuli on behavior. While many researchers of the time saw psychology as the subjective (rational) study of people's emotions, Watson declared that such experiences could not be studied because a person could not observe them objectively (impartially). He therefore developed laboratory experiments that would produce scientifically measurable results. Watson believed that all behavior, including emotions and habits, is made up of chemical reactions and muscular movements that can be noticed and measured. As a result of Watson's theories, research on humans from infancy to adulthood took place between 1920 and 1950.

In opposition to Watson, American experimental psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904–1990) showed that it was possible to study scientifically such inner processes as language development and methods of learning and problem solving. Skinner's research was widely influential. His ideas led to new teaching techniques called "programmed learning" that were tailored to the individual's needs and provide immediate feedback. Skinner also put forth ideas that have been useful in developing behavior training programs for severely mentally handicapped people.

Further Information: Magnusson, Magnus, ed. Cambridge Biographical Dictionary. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990; "Measured Learning." The Economist (US). December 5, 1992, pp. 90–91; Reed, James. "Mechanical Man: John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism." Science. June 16, 1989, pp. 1386–87.

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