Behaviorism is a learning theory that only focuses on objectively observable behaviors and discounts any independent activities of the mind. Behavior theorists define learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behavior based on environmental conditions.


Experiments by behaviorists identify conditioning as a universal learning process. There are two different types of conditioning, each yielding a different behavioral pattern:

  1. Classic conditioning occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus. We are biologically “wired” so that a certain stimulus will produce a specific response. One of the more common examples of classical conditioning in the educational environment is in situations where students exhibit irrational fears and anxieties like  fear of failure, fear of public speaking and general school phobia.
  2. Behavioral or operant conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced. Basically, operant conditioning is a simple feedback system: If a reward or reinforcement follows the response to a stimulus, then the response becomes more probable in the future. For example, leading behaviorist B.F. Skinner used reinforcement techniques to teach pigeons to dance and bowl a ball in a mini-alley.

There have been many criticisms of behaviorism, including the following:

  • Behaviorism does not account for all kinds of learning, since it disregards the activities of the mind.
  • Behaviorism does not explain some learning–such as the recognition of new language patterns by young children–for which there is no reinforcement mechanism.
  • Research has shown that animals adapt their reinforced patterns to new information. For instance, a rat can shift its behavior to respond to changes in the layout of a maze it had previously mastered through reinforcements.

How Behaviorism Impacts Learning

This theory is relatively simple to understand because it relies only on observable behavior and describes several universal laws of behavior. Its positive and negative reinforcement techniques can be very effective– such as in treatments for human disorders including autism, anxiety disorders and antisocial behavior. Behaviorism is often used by teachers who reward or punish student behaviors.


Behaviorism is often seen in contrast to constructivism. Constructivists are more likely to allow for experimentation and exploration in the classroom and place a greater emphasis on the experience of the learner. In contrast to behaviorists, they feel that an understanding of the brain informs teaching.


D.C. Phillips & Jonas F. Soltis, Perspectives on Learning, Chapter 3. Teachers College Press.


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17 Responses to Behaviorism

  1. admin says:

    Lynn – I assume you are looking for an author, and a date? The content was created by On Purpose, and then edited by a team. So I would list the author as ‘On Purpose Associates.’ The date should be ‘no date’ as it continually evolves. I hope that helps.

  2. DF says:

    How is this a criticism?

    Research has shown that animals adapt their reinforced patterns to new information. For instance, a rat can shift its behavior to respond to changes in the layout of a maze it had previously mastered through reinforcements.

  3. admin says:

    DF – good question. That line is confusing. The reason is that you might not want the pattern to change based on the new information. In other words, this approach (some critics claim) might lose effectiveness over time. Hope that helps.

  4. Natalie Balfour says:

    I think you give a simplistic yet clear perspective of the behaviorist approach.It is easy to read and informs you of the underlying principles of both operant and classical conditioning. I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Matt Brown says:

    Definitely interesting and helpful. I deff believe in positive and negative reinforcement techniques and by observing the behaviors of the students it is easy to determine which technique to use.

  6. Steve Eversole says:

    As a behavior analyst with an Ed.D. and certification (BCBA-D), I would like to point out a few errors in the above description. First, we don’t discount mental activities, at least not as implied above. It is true that we focus on observable behavior, but we acknowledge that cognitive activities occur. It is just that these activities are understood to be governed by the same principles that govern observable behavior. When I solve a problem by thinking it through, I’m engaging in a verbal dialogue with myself. This dialogue is shaped by reinforcement and punishment just like any other behavior.

    This brings us to the point about behaviorism not being able to explain language patterns arising without reinforcement. A developing infant will make babbling sounds, likely the result of automatic reinforcement. Parents shape these sounds over time into phonetic sounds, then words, sentences, etc.

    The comment about animals adapting to new information is due to generalization, a phenomenon that has empirical support stretching back over 30 years.

    While it is true that behavior analysis pretty much “owns” autism and anti-social behavior, it has also developed very sophisticated technologies of instruction. “Direct Instruction” (DI) is one example. There was a very large federally funded study in (I believe) the 70s—Project Follow Through–that compared DI to several other models of instruction. DI outperformed all of the other models. However, the education establishment has yet to adopt DI for a variety of political and other reasons. The point is that contributions of behavior analysis to instruction are legion

    Finally, in some respects, behaviorism is simple. It is based on a few basic principles, yet it could explain the acquisition of language, how to teach complex concepts, and yes, how to stop a child’s tantrums. I invite people to read the writings of B.F. Skinner (particularly “About Behaviorism”), Karen Pryor (Don’t Shoot the Dog), and Julie Vargas (Behavior Analysis for Effective Teaching).

    Steve Eversole, Ed.D., BCBA-D

  7. falma dugasa says:

    Behaviorists discount mental power of human beings and they also ignore individual differences in learning. as to me behaviorists’ theories give adequate explanation for simple learning and techniques and principles derived from such theories are of paramount importance in psycotherapy,education, medicine,… dealing with maladaptive behaviors. the theories provide us with rich insight of adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. they are applicable in all aspects human life.

  8. Rod Land says:

    Behaviourism and B.F. Skinner have been my bete noir in teaching and education for 60 years now. The idea and the practice of treating human kids like dogs or pigeons with reinforcement (gold stars) is fundamentally demeaning and revolting. Much of our semi-autistic behaviour (ASDs & Asperger’s syndrome) in the workplace can be put down to Skinner and behaviourism. I think most people have woken up to how limited and damaging it is, but its legacy is legion and it needs to be continually debunked and opposed if we are ever to grow beyond its wretched consequences! Just my view and opinion, of course – just like every reply and everything ever uttered is just the view/opinion of the viewer/opiner! Roll on constructivism and sanity.

  9. REX ROBERTS says:

    Seems like a very limited theory, but will do more research. As a future instructor, do we really want to “condition” young minds? Or teach them how to think and seek answers for themselves? The word bothers me, not the entire concept. Would love to see video of pigeons dancing and bowling!

  10. Paulo says:

    You must read about behaviorism. There are several mistakes in your text. The main one is that you are talking about methodological behaviorism from John Watson but you intend to talk about radical behaviorism from Skinner. It’s really a mess.

  11. HaLeigh C. Newman says:

    This helped explain alot for me!!!! it really did help me on my psychology study guide, and it is pretty accurate!!!

  12. Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934, Behaviorist) « The H800 project says:

    […] Lev Vygotsky Russian born behaviorist (1896 – 1934) (see: behaviorism) […]

  13. PH says:

    Behaviorism does not disregard the activities of the “mind.” Behaviorism tries to operationalize these kinds of vague terms in a way that they can be useful. The “mind” is not a real thing, it’s a label that we give to a certain properties of an organism just like how the color blue is a label that we give to certain properties of the visible spectrum of light.

    The label is completely arbitrary. We choose the properties that belong to the “mind” just like how we choose the wavelengths that belong to the color blue. People commit the fallacy of reificiation when they treat the “mind” like it’s a real thing. What matters is not the “mind,” it’s the measurable properties of the organism that we put under the label of the “mind” just like how it doesn’t matter if we say that blue is between the wavelengths of 490nm to 450nm or 488nm to 462nm, what matters is those measurable wavelengths of light that falls under the label of blue.

  14. Theresa Jenkins says:

    I think the idea of behaviorism not involving the mind is the most ridiculous and faulty thing i have ever heard. The “mind” and the brain govern all body functions and all thought process both conscious and subconscious. The body and the actions of the body, muscle movements, respiration, heart beat are all governed by the brain and the “mind” the brain is always functioning neurologically and hormonally. THIS IS THE WORST THEORY I HAVE EVERY HEARD. The fact that this is published is completely awful to me. For that fact the mind and the brain are not separate entities- that is a term developed by psychologists and a misrepresentation of how the brain functions in thought processes

  15. msee says:

    Learning behavior for animal like rat and pigeon is understood but how this condition relates to human being behavior?,is hundred percent the same?.How the teacher use this theory when he/she teaching is classes?