Behaviorism is often referred to as a 'methodology' (in the words of one of its most well-known proponents, B.F. Skinner) of psychology, in the sense that it proceeds out of a sense of immense dissatisfaction with what Skinner and others perceived as the primordial state of the "science of human affairs." One of its fundamental observations is that traditional psychology relies too eavily on mentalistic explanations of behavior (that is, the language of feeling, inner psychology), and that this mode of thinking tends to be very circular. An excellent example used by Skinner in his lecture entitled "Behaviorism at Fifty" describes a T.V. commercial in which pain is depicted as little electronic signals running up an arm to a little man who pulls a lever signaling pain. Skinner called the little man with the lever the "inner man," the epitome of explanatory fictions which he called mental way stations.

Burhuss Frederic Skinner

Any acount of behaviorism can't ignore Skinner as one of the most influential writers on the subject. His book Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a flagship for behavioristic thinking, and one of the most interesting expressions of its psychological methodology. In the opening chapter, he attacks Greek theories of human behavior as not containing even the "seeds" of progress in that particular science. Skinner systematically rejects the claims that "human behavior is particularly difficult" or that "there is something about human behavior which makes scientific analysis, and hence an effective technology, impossible" on the grounds that there has simply been no organized effort to develop tools of analysis of "commensurate complexity" such as have been developed in the fields of biology or physics.

Skinner asserts that misguided treatment of causes sustain the tradition of mentalistic explanation. As he sees it, the persistence of the terminology of "wills, impulses, feelings, purposes, and other fragmentary attributes of an indwelling agent" is due to an overdue emphasis on the processes of provocation and response in organisms. That is, it is the habit of most people, and even of certain psychologists, to examine an event and the effect it causes in the subject (a reflex) while ignoring "what the environment does to an organism not only before but after it responds."

This all leads up to Skinner's theory/tool of "operant conditioning" which he says may prove to be a technology "commensurate with our problems." The process at its most basic level is simply the beginning of a system of arranging the environment in a particular way so that particular actions bring about certain consequences, thus either reinforcing or creating an aversion for the behavior. By developing more complex systems in this vein, Skinner believes psychology as a science will slowly replace all of the current 'myths' of the functions of human behavior (called "explanatory fictions by Skinner) with defined laws of prediction and control. This is the technology of behavior which Skinner gives as his goal.

Radical and Moderate Forms

Skinner wasn't the only behaviorist, however, and many of his contemporaries take issue with his analysis. Norman Malcom's lecture "Behaviorism as a Philosophy of Psychology," especially, is an excellent critique of Skinner's thought as radical bahaviorism. Malcom focuses on a potential fallacy of radical bahaviorism regarding first-person utterances which he regards as the "Achilles heel of behaviorism." As a radical behaviorist, Skinner believes that all psychology is reducible to observe causal relationships, that is, relationships comprised of observable variables. Given this radical methodology, Skinner maintains the position which Malcom calls the "natural temptation" of behavioristic philosophers: that "first-person psychological sentences have the same 'content', or the same verification, as the corresponding third-person sentences." As Malcom appoints out, this is obviously not true. He uses the example of a man searching for his glasses to show that the acting subject in no way concludes from verifiable data that he or she is performing a given action, he or she simply knows. As an observer I might survey details of a scene in which a man is rummaging about a desk where I know he usually keeps his glasses, and notice that he is indeed at that moment without those glasses, in order to conclude that he is searching. But that man does no such thing, or as Malcom comments, he would be regarded as crazy. From this Malcom concludes that "we have no ground at all for believing that either intentions or announcements of intention are under the 'control' of anything," a belief which Skinner as a radical behaviorist and a determinist must adhere to.

Malcom's detraction is useful, I think, to avoid a fearful ramification of radical behaviorism: the objectification of the human person. Behaviorism as a philosophy of psychology simply ignores the possibility of a greater spontaneous human freedom for the purposes of clarified psychological study, whereas Skinner's radical bahaviorism empirically denies the existence of an inner psychology. It points clearly to a modern compromise which ought to be achieved among the technologists and the moralists. A technology of behavior will prove to be, I believe, an invaluable tool for the conception and creation of newer and better social institutions. At the same time, however, a sort of optimistic faith in the power of the creativity of the individual consciousness will be nearly as invaluable, to protect against the sort of nihilism that arose nearly contemporaneously with the scientific revolution, and which so much of 19th and 20th century philosophy has struggled against.


skongshoj says re behaviorism: Q: What does one behaviorist say to another after sex? A: It was great for you, how was it for me?

Psychology --Where Matter is over Mind


The brain within its groove
Runs evenly and true;
But let a splinter swerve,
'Twere easier for you
To put the water back
When floods have slit the hills,
And scooped a turnpike for themselves,
And blotted out the mills!

"The Brain Within Its Groove" Emily Dickinson


You Rang? Where's Din Din?

Brief Overview

Layman's definition --based on Adult Home-Schooling

Behaviorism, or Behavioral Psychology, is that science that studies primarily the way organisms act, and in this discipline either disregard, or set aside delving into the thinking processes involved. The term behaviorism is more accurate, emphasizing 'behavior' than behavioral psychology for the fact that the later term includes the word that means study of the 'mind,' which, because of mystery and subjectivity is less able to be put under the laboratory's 'microscope.'

What they do?

The emphasis is on being able to use the scientific method, i.e., experiments can be done and repeated and statics gathered, for gaining insight on what makes creatures, and thus humans tick, and not with philosophical or metaphysical disciplines.

Ring a Bell?

It has roots in rationalism (reason over emotion), started by Aristotle sometimes called objectivism (purging personal feelings about an observation), and functionalism (the purpose and environmental effects), It has irreversibly influenced modern psychology, in spite of the critique of its obsessive focus on what seems to be just the 'machinery' aspect of organic life. Indeed, the early studies were on reflexes, and the way the environment shapes entities. A stimulus gets a response. The most famous lab animals in the world are, of course, Pavlov's dogs. In this renown Russian "Dog-Salivation Experiment" they would ring a bell before the subject's food was brought, and afterwards all it would take was the ding-dong to get Fido to drool.

Behaviorism has become popular because it appeals to the humanist liberality in our society -- we can recondition people back from the fringes. (But hard-core humanist critics developed branches that, in turn, reacted against its seemingly reducing beings to automatons.) It also came up with better, more empirical answers to questions about the mind while others for thousands of years kept using a Platonian, metaphysical model: that separated body and soul, that made the mind into something incorporeal.

Both Watson and Skinner's experiments on infants working on fear caused many to see them as cold-blooded.

If it feels good...

The most famous of these behavioral theorists is B.F. Skinner, and his school has become the apologists for orthodox behavioral psychology. The learning arena for pigeons was the "Skinner Box" and their 'feeding time' was positive reinforcement (albeit unbeknownst to them).

The newer school that does include mental process has expanded the classical 'stimulus-response' to 'stimulus-organism-response.'

I Want to be Teacher's Pet

Some key elements of this school which have proved valuable to educators along with uplifting the role of teacher are:

  • Emphasis on orderly use of behavior modification.
  • Concentrate on definite selected results in learning.
  • Aid in making curriculum.
  • Training in action.
  • Helps in analyzing what works and does not.
  • Efficiency in utilizing teacher's relation with textbooks.
  • Qualifying skills and knowledge.
  • Stresses learning as an occurrence over just a progressive movement.
  • 'Bite sized' information is more digestible.


Who's Your Daddy? --Skinner's (Academic) Great-Grandaddy

The logical approach that is a hallmark of behaviorism could be seen in, Psychologia (first coined from the Greek by Melanchton) written in Latin by the sixteenth century Marburg Aristotlian professor, Rudolf Goeckel (or Goclenius). Reading his studies of thin or thick, and sweet or sour tears showed from our perspecive that he only took psychology baby steps out of its primitive state, but just stepping out in those days was adventurous. Contrary to common knowledge, James B. Watson (though major contributor, and used the term behaviorism) was not the first pioneer in this field as often touted. The credit of this ancestry could actually go a century earlier to James Rush, a son to one of America's Declaration of Independence signers, a Constitutional Convention of 1787 delegate, and a philanthropic and famous early American physician, Benjamin Rush. The father, as the first American psychiatrist, attempted to treat mental illness with relatively benign treatment as opposed to incarceration, although he was a big advocate of bloodletting. The father's footsteps -- that James, a young, impetuous genius --followed led more exclusively down a path into the field of psychology, which at that time was strewn with irrational "theological" debris.

The Contributors

James Rush


I guess that's why they call me
a working man.
--Rush (the group)


After studying a while in Edinburgh, Rush left Scotland and its so-called school of thought, and returned with longing for something different. He began in the 1820's to work on motor theories of speech trying to find novel ways to help voicing words. He reduced some complications in spelling, like "thot" for "thought, " but his radical ideas that did not occur to others forced him to pay for his own publishing, which did make it to a seventh edition his his lifetime.

More significantly is his observance --breaking from the psychological thought of his day --that the mind was not just for cognitive and perceptive functions but for talking and acting.

His two volumes were entitled, (take a huge breath for reading this one outloud):


Brief Outline of an Analysis of the Human intellect Intended to recifiy the scholastic and vulgar perversions of the natural purpose and method of thinking; by rejecting altogether the theoretical confusion, the unmeaning arrangement and indefinite nomenclature of the meta physician.{sic}


He contemplated that thoughts were more like reflections of the something material, and the images were not the cause of it, but were thought in reality. He was way ahead of his time, in spite of theologians dominating that field.

William James

Born rich in New York City in 1842, and spoiled because of losing his leg as a child, he nevertheless stayed (significantly) introspective through his life. He was know for his teachings on pragmatism, and along with John Dewey and James R. Angell they were countering structuralism which was just the opposite of our discussion which concentrated only on varying levels of consciousness. They were, however, contrary to 'purer' behaviorists employing introspectionism that would deal with the ephemeral elements of the mind. Not following the typical teaching of Phrenology. He emphasized adoptive behavior or group of dispositions.

Ivan Pavlov


You can ring my bell... Anita Ward


The almost household name, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born Sep 14 1849 and died in 1936. His early work on laws of conditioning (classical), experiments that showed the brain's cerebral cortex function for reflex, were a foundation on which not only his direct pupils, but others could lay a solid edifice.

Edward Lee Thorndike

Born in 1874, (he died in 1949) he switched from English at Wesylan College to psychology at Harvard, and there watched the behavior of his basement-kept chickens in William James' place. He was famous for his "puzzle boxes" which he came up with the law of effect from "trial and success," and he proposed the law of exercise whereby practice make closer to perfect with regards to learning in beginning what would be known as operant conditioning.

James B. Watson


Elementary, my dear Watson! --C. Doyle/ S. Holmes


Sometimes considered an "Apostle of Behaviorism," Watson was born in 1878 near Greenville, South Carolina. fortunately he was able to rise academically above his family's relative lack of prosperity and wound up at Harvard.

Going against and beyond structuralism, which although it looked at activities of mental activities instead of content, Watson insisted on an objective approach that did away with the "supernatural" unscientific study of mental aspects, introspection. He adapted what conditioning laws Pavlov started and began to iron out principles which others continued known as operant conditioning.

He was optimistic about this new school of psychology he called behaviorism, bringing to America the great findings of Pavlov. He stated his confident goal that was echoed also by later behaviorists: that he would be able with this discipline to shape anyone into anybody, whether doctor, lawyer, or almost Indian Chief.

Clark Hull

Clark L. Hull was born in 1884 (died in 1952), an almost engineer who worked with "Mesmerism", as his 1933 title demonstrates, Hypnosis and Suggestibility. But more importantly this once President of the American Psychology Association, who published Principles of Behavior in 1940, contributed much to objectively getting at the psychological subsurface reasons for behavior working with much of Pavlov's laws of conditioning.

B.F. Skinner

The most popular behaviorist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, was born in 1904. (died in 1990) (See more under B.F. Skinner.) He was the daddy of dogmatic doctrine of behavioral psychology. He invented the "Skinner Box," which pigeons demonstrating their conditioning skills under recordable controls. He developed "operant conditioning" which was behavior shaping causing not so intelligent animals to learn somewhat complicated itineraries. His pigeons actually learned to play a sort of 'tennis' match with their beaks! Much of the jargon was further refined by his school.



Words, words, words. --Shakespeare


Avoidance learning


If you play with me you're playing with fire. --Rolling Stones


Pain is the warning signal that causes creatures to learn avoidance responses. Keeping the hands off the stove is one of the first necessary lessons learned, but running from snakes is a superstitiously learned behavior for usually frivolous reasons. These responses are quite persistent, and it has been learned that organisms anticipate perceived danger. Like when all water gets associated with near drowning, and the fear reaction prevents learning the possible benignity of a situation. One can see the problems using it as punishment unwisely for creating beneficial behavior.


  1. An old response is caused by a new stimulus and is also called respondent or classical conditioning.
  2. A new response is resulted from satisfying a need, and is also named instrumental as well as operant conditioning.


This is a process "implicit speech" (similar to "vocal speech"). It is also called cognitive behavior. Its two categories:
  1. Associative
    --Uncontrolled, popularly known as daydreaming or wishful thinking.
  2. Directed
  3. --Purposeful mental activity, involving criticism and creativity. Much more studied than associative thinking.





This is the stimulus-response that Pavlov worked with and his salivating canines. It is where stimulus is coincided with another (food and a bell).




This is the rewarding of 'correct' responses. Here there is a measured amount of reward, and the "Skinner Box" was an animal feeding device for gathering data, especially in a "schedule of reinforcement." The more the animal was given a pellet for pushing the right lever, the more it learned, developing a system beyond their initial trial and error.

  1. Positive
  2. Negative


Golenson, Robert M., PhD,The Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.
Caprio, Frank S. M.D., Helping Yourself with Psychiatry. Hollywood: Wilshire, 1971.
History of Psychology and Psychiatry. ed. A.A. Roback, New York: Citadel, 1964.
Hunt, Morton, The Universe Within, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Pinker, Steven, How the Mind Works, New York: W.W. Norton, 1997.
Skinner, B.F., Beyond Freedom and Dignity, New York: Alfred Knoph, 1971.

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