Behaviorism: Theories, Applications, and Criticisms


Behaviorism is a psychological approach that emphasizes the importance of observable behavior and environmental factors in shaping behavior. The theory suggests that behavior is a result of environmental stimuli and that the consequences of a behavior determine whether it will be repeated or not (Cherry, 2021). In this blog post, we will explore the main principles, theories, applications, criticisms, and contemporary relevance of behaviorism.

Theories of Behaviorism:

Behaviorism is a broad term that encompasses several theories, each with its own unique perspective on human behavior. The two best-known theories of behaviorism are classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning, developed by Ivan Pavlov, is a learning process in which a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with a stimulus that naturally elicits a response. Over time, the neutral stimulus comes to elicit the same response as the natural stimulus (McLeod, 2018). For example, a dog may learn to salivate at the sound of a bell that has been paired with the presentation of food.

Operant conditioning, developed by B.F. Skinner is a learning process in which behavior is shaped by its consequences. Behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors that are punished are less likely to be repeated (McLeod, 2018). Skinner believed that all behavior was learned through this process, and that complex behaviors could be broken down into smaller, operant components.

Applications of Behaviorism:

Behaviorism has had a significant impact on several areas, including psychology, education, economics, and animal training.

Behavior therapy, a type of psychotherapy based on behaviorism, has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression (Cherry, 2021). The approach focuses on changing behavior through the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

In education, behaviorism has been used to develop effective classroom management techniques, such as positive reinforcement and token economies (McLeod, 2018). These techniques aim to increase desirable behavior while reducing undesirable behavior.

In economics, behaviorism has been used to study decision-making and consumer behavior. For example, behavioral economists have shown that people are more likely to make decisions based on emotions and social norms than on rational calculations (Cherry, 2021).

Finally, behaviorism has been used extensively in animal training, particularly in the use of positive reinforcement to shape behavior (McLeod, 2018).

Criticisms and Limitations of Behaviorism:

Behaviorism has been criticized for its mechanistic view of human behavior, which reduces complex behavior to simple, observable stimuli and responses (Cherry, 2021). Critics have also raised ethical concerns about the use of behavior modification techniques, such as punishment, in the treatment of psychological disorders (McLeod, 2018). Additionally, behaviorism has been criticized for its lack of attention to internal mental processes, such as thoughts and emotions, which play an important role in human behavior.

Behaviorism in the Context of Contemporary Psychology:

Despite these criticisms, behaviorism has had a significant impact on contemporary approaches to psychology. The use of positive reinforcement and other behavior modification techniques is still widely used in behavior therapy (Cherry, 2021). Additionally, behaviorism has influenced several areas of neuroscience, including the study of learning and memory (McLeod, 2018). Behaviorism has also influenced behavior genetics, which examines the role of genetics in behavior.


Behaviorism remains an important approach to understanding human behavior, despite its limitations and criticisms. Its emphasis on observable behavior and environmental factors has had a significant impact on psychology, education, economics, and animal training. While its mechanistic view of the behavior and lack of attention to internal mental processes have been criticized, behaviorism has continued to influence contemporary approaches.


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