The ideas of behaviourism have their roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
John B.Watson, an American working in the realm of the new psychology, is widely accepted
as one of the earliest proponents of behaviourism. He is believed to have first used the term
‘behaviourism’ (though he probably used an American spelling).Watson came to the view that
psychology could only ever become a true science if it became a process of detailed objective
observation and scientific measurement.This notion of observation and measurement became
central to the work of behaviourists.
Any consideration of mental process, which is by
definition unobservable, fell outside their self-imposed range of interest. So behaviourist
approaches to, and explanations of, learning developed out of the study of what can actually
be seen.As we will see, this approach to developing a psychological theory of learning ignores
much of the hidden mental process which later workers in the field have come to explain and
to hold as crucially important to our understanding of the complex activity that makes up
different types of learning.
Behaviourism is based around the central notion of a reaction being made to a particular
stimulus.This apparently simple relationship has been used to describe even the most complex
learning situations.At its simplest, we can observe behaviour, which we can refer to as ‘learnt
behaviour’, in a wide range of diverse situations. For example, a performing seal will respond
to a particular stimulus – the sound of a hooter or the presentation of a fish – by raising itself
up and slapping its flippers together as if clapping. A pet dog will respond to the stimulus of
the spoken word,‘Beg’, by doing just that, much to the delight of onlookers.
This stimulus-response relationship can also be seen in humans. In situations where an
immediate response is required, practice situations are repeated endlessly so that the soldier,
firefighter or airline pilot will make the correct, possibly life-saving response in a given situation.
The importance of responsive practice has been underlined in more recent years and explained
in terms of the reinforcement of particular neural pathways in the brain, which has the effect
of faster and smoother implementation of certain actions and responses. The adage ‘practice
makes perfect’ seems to hold good for behaviourists and neuropsychologists alike.
we notice an obvious response to the signal marking the end of a lesson. No matter how many
times the teacher might remind a class that the bell is a signal for the teacher, the class can
hardly restrain themselves from collecting their pens and pencils together ready to leave. Also
in the classroom, a child might respond to the stimulus of the question,‘What are seven eights?’
with the automatic response,
This immediate ‘correct’ response will be made if the
connection between the stimulus and response has been built correctly in the first instance,
and subsequently reinforced over time; the associated neural pathways have been practised and
strengthened.It should be noted here that making a ‘correct’response does not necessarily imply
understanding. In the same way as a parrot might react to the question, ‘How are you?’ with
the response,‘I’m fine’,so a child correctly responding with ‘56’ need not necessarily understand
the significance of the reply. Behaviourism is based upon the simple notion of a relationship
between a stimulus and a response, which is why behaviourist theories are often referred to as
‘stimulus-response’ (SR) theories
Behaviourism: a definition
Behaviourism is a theory of learning focusing on observable behaviours and discounting any
mental activity. Learning is defined simply as the acquisition of new behaviour.
Behaviourists call this method of learning ‘conditioning’.Two different types of conditioning
are described and demonstrated as viable explanations of the way in which animals and humans
alike can be ‘taught’ to do certain things. First there is classical conditioning.
This involves the reinforcement of a natural reflex or some other behaviour which occurs as
a response to a particular stimulus.A well-known example of this type of conditioning,the first
of its kind,is the work of Ivan Pavlov,a Russian physiologist at the start of the twentieth century,
who conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. He noticed that dogs salivated when
they ate, or even saw, food. In his initial experiments he sounded a bell at the time when food
was presented to the dogs.The sound of the bell became, for the dogs, an indication that food
was about to be presented and eventually the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell
irrespective of the presence of food.The dogs had been conditioned to respond to the sound
of the bell by producing saliva.Their behaviour had been successfully modified.
We talk about conditioning and conditioned responses in a general way. Feelings of fear at
the sound of the dentist’s drill or at the sight of a syringe in preparation for an injection are
examples of conditioned responses.
Pavlov identified four stages in the process of his classical conditioning and what follows
from the initial connection between stimulus and response:acquisition,extinction,generalisation
The acquisition phase is the initial learning of the conditioned response – for example, the dog
salivating at the sound of the bell.
Once learnt, a conditioned response will not remain indefinitely. Extinction is used to describe
the disappearance of the conditioned response brought about by repeatedly presenting the bell,
for example, without then presenting food.
After a conditioned response to one stimulus has been learnt, it may also respond to similar
stimuli without further training. If a child is bitten by a dog, the child may fear not only that
particular dog, but all dogs.
Discrimination is the opposite of generalisation.An individual learns to produce a conditioned
response to one stimulus but not to another similar stimulus. For example, a child may show
a fear response to freely roaming dogs, but may show no fear when a dog is on a lead, or distrust
Alsatians but not Jack Russell terriers.
The second type of conditioning is ‘operant conditioning’. Operant conditioning is the most
important type of behaviourist learning. It is more flexible in its nature than classical
conditioning and therefore seen as potentially more powerful. It involves reinforcing a
behaviour by rewarding it. It can also work in a negative way, when an undesirable behaviour
can be discouraged, by following it with punishment of some form. In some cases, simply not
offering an expected reward for a particular behaviour is a sufficient punishment. For example,
if a mother gives her child a chocolate bar every day that he tidies his bedroom, before long
the child may spend some time each day tidying.In this example,the tidying behaviour increases
because it is rewarded.This rewarding is known as ‘reinforcement’. It is likely that the tidying
behaviour would decrease or stop completely if the rewards were suspended.
Skinner, a psychologist working in America in the 1930s, is the most famous psychologist
in the field of operant conditioning and probably the most famous behaviourist. Skinner studied
the behaviour of rats and pigeons, and made generalisations of his discoveries to humans. He
used a device now called a Skinner box.The Skinner box was a simple, empty box in which
an animal could earn food by making simple responses,such as pressing a lever.