Behavioral Psychology: Meaning & Theories

Behavioral psychology is the study of how people and other animals act, think and feel. It is a discipline that examines behavior in different situations. Since humans are social beings, this means that behavioral psychologists are interested in how we perceive the world around us and how we interact with one another.

What is Behavioral Psychology?

According to behavioral psychology, people learn all of their behaviors from their experiences with the outside world. Therefore, behavioral psychologists, also known as behaviorists, hold that external factors, such as laws, education, socioeconomic forces, etc., rather than internal factors, such as thoughts, emotions, and personality, among others, influence how we behave. For instance, according to behaviorism, anxiety is not caused by internalized traumatic experiences or genetic predispositions, but rather is a behavior learned from the environment, such as by being around others who are anxious.

Behaviorism is a way of thinking about the limitations of empirical evidence on psychological state attribution. Behaviorism is, strictly speaking, a concept that governs how psychology and behavioral research are conducted.

The cognitive-behavioral psychology movement was largely founded by psychologist John B. Watson. Despite not being the father of behaviorism research, Watson's seminal essay "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" consolidated and enhanced several prior behavioral ideas.

History of Behavioural Psychology

The late 19th-century laboratory studies of learning gave rise to behavioral psychology. More recently, starting about 1950 under the influence of Skinner and his associates, behavioral psychology has been applied to human issues. The majority of ideas relating to psychopathology, psychotherapy, and personality may be broken down into three to five major schools. Based on the mechanical metaphor, behavioral psychology is practiced. Among modern ideas, behavioral psychology has the strongest empirical foundation.

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was one of the pioneers of contemporary behavior theory. The first research done by Pavlov focused on canine digestion. He discovered that the dogs spat forth saliva both when they saw food and when it was put in their mouths. Pavlov rapidly discovered that the presence of the lab assistant caused salivation, and that striking a bell or emitting a tone, if they happened right before feeding, also quickly started to cause salivation. Classical, responsive, or Pavlovian conditioning are terms that have evolved from Pavlov's discoveries.

The work of Pavlov was quickly made known to American psychologist and outspoken materialist John B. Watson. Concepts like mind, awareness, volition, and emotion offended Watson vehemently. He thought psychology ought to be the study of clearly discernible behavior. Watson made a key influence on the advancement of behavioral psychology by adopting Pavlov's conditioned reflex approach. Watson placed a strong emphasis on comparative psychology because he was sure that higher-order animals and humans may benefit from using the same principles of animal behavior.

Modern Behaviour Theory

According to behavior theory, there are two categories of behavior: operants and responses. Respondents are actions that are essentially triggered by or under the control of prior events. They are uncontrollable and comprise the autonomic nervous system, smooth muscles, and glands. Unless the organism is worn out or debilitated, responses happen spontaneously after their triggering stimulus; for this reason, responses are occasionally referred to be "reflexive." Respondents are first controlled by a constrained set of stimulus events that are based on biological and genetic variables.

New eliciting stimuli can be created by delivering the old stimulus first, then the new one. The respondent or Pavlovian conditioning is the term used to describe this process. Respondent extinction is the process of getting rid of conditioned respondents by exposing them to the conditioned stimulus in the absence of the natural eliciting stimulus until the organism stops responding.

There is a narrow range of response behavior. First, biological parameters are used to identify the respondents; in essence, replies are made using the biological traits of the organism. Second, learning merely controls the already respondents to the new stimulus; no fresh responses are created. Third, conditioned stimuli rapidly lose their ability to elicit responses. Fourth, the majority of behavior is not reactive.

Behavioral Psychology Studies and Examples

The behavioral method is exemplified by some of the most well-known psychological investigations, such as Pavlov's study with dogs, Skinner's work with pigeons, and Watson and Rayner's tests on a small kid named Little Albert.

Pavlov’s Dog

The research with dogs conducted by Ivan Pavlov helped to develop one of psychology's most significant ideas: classical conditioning. Russian scientist Pavlov was really looking into how dogs' digestive systems worked. Pavlov and his helpers exposed dogs to various food and non-edible substances as part of their research, then they observed the amount of saliva produced. Salivation is a reflex action that happens without conscious thought in response to specific stimuli however, Pavlov discovered that dogs were reacting to something else when he saw that they would salivate even in the absence of food and fragrance. Then he recognized that because the technicians generally fed the dogs, the dogs had begun to link the white lab coats of the research assistants with food. Following the formalization of these informal observations into an experiment, Pavlov found that if a neutral stimulus was present in the environment of the dog at the time the dog received food, then that stimulus could become associated with feeding and cause salivation even in the absence of food. This is referred to as classical conditioning nowadays. Although Pavlov made his discovery of classical conditioning in 1897, his work continues to be a source of inspiration for scientists today and has significant psychological implications, such as the treatment of phobias, anxiety, and panic disorders, as well as behavioral change.

Skinner’s Pigeons

Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning, is a method of learning that links behavior with a reward or punishment. Giving a dog a reward each time he lifts his left paw, for instance, teaches him that doing so will result in additional treats. Operant here means "managed by its consequences," which means that a connection is formed between a behavior (in this example, elevating the paw) and a reward (in this case, a treat) for it (Goldman, 2012). And this is what Skinner found in a pigeon experiment. He discovered that rewarding a bird for a certain behavior made it happen more frequently (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003).

Little Albert

In the Little Albert experiment, conducted by John Watson and Rosalie Rayner, a 9-month-old infant named "Albert B." was exposed to a range of stimuli, including a white rat, a bunny, a monkey, masks, and burning newspapers. The little youngster initially exhibited no anxiety toward the items the researchers showed him. Then, each time the kid came in contact with a rat, Watson would bash a metal pipe with a hammer. Little Albert began to associate the raucous sounds with the white rat, anticipating a commotion whenever he saw the rodent. The youngster eventually started crying after only seeing the rat. Even in the absence of sound, Little Albert would cry and try to crawl away whenever he saw the rat.


In the early 20th century, behavioral psychology dominated the field of psychology, and some of its most well-known research include Pavlov's dog training trials, Watson's Little Albert experiment, and Skinner's pigeon operant conditioning investigations. Generations of psychologists and our understanding of behavior have been affected by the findings of these investigations and other research. Even while behaviorism is less popular than it once was, it continues to provide the foundation for many therapeutic strategies that aid in problem-solving.

Updated on: 10-Jan-2023


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