Behavioral Perspective Theory: History and Critique

The behavioral perspective in psychology is also frequently referred to as behaviorism theory. The behaviorism theory originates from a 1913 article, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” written by American psychologist John Broadus Watson. In his education, Watson primarily studied philosophy but then transitioned into psychology and studies of animal behavior. Watson developed his own unique approach in psychology to behavior analysis, which resulted in the creation of the theory of behaviorism. Watson’s works were influenced by the discoveries of Ivan Pavlov, whose experiments with dogs served as a foundation for the classical conditioning process. While Pavlov’s work mainly involved studies of dogs’ digestion systems and their tendencies to salivate in an automatic process, Watson took the conditioning experiments further to study the human emotions of fear, rage, and love. Another significant figure for behaviorism is Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who originated the studies on radical behaviorism.

The history of behaviorism starts with Pavlov’s discovery of animal reflexes in 1897. Reflexes are animals’ and humans’ unconscious responses to different stimuli, such as smell or sound. Through his observation of dogs during the studies of dogs’ digestive systems, Pavlov discovered that dogs frequently started salivating in the presence of his assistants who fed the dogs. With a series of experiments, Pavlov was able to connect the salivation reflex to another stimulus, such as a sound signal. Pavlov’s discovery formed a theory of conditioning that inspired Watson’s approach to behaviorism. Watson’s experimental contribution to behaviorism included the controversial Little Albert Experiment, which centered on developing a fear response connected to a white rat stimulus in a baby named Albert (Hogan, 2019). While the experiment is acknowledged as unethical in modern society, it supported the behavioral theory and strengthened its popularity during the middle of the 20th century. Many behaviorists established their own theories in the last decades after Skinner introduced his behavioral perspective (Araiba, 2019). Skinner perceived the behavioral theory as a simplistic theory that does not support the wide characteristics of human behavior.

The main idea of the behavioral perspective is that the basis for an individual’s actions is sourced from their experience in interactions with the environment. When an individual encounters a specific stimulus, his reaction is based on the human response mechanics learned from previous experiences. The behavioral perspective includes several other concepts that result from the initial theory. First, the conditioning concepts introduced by Pavlov constitute a part of the behavioral perspective. The conditioning process implies imposing a certain behavior, also referred to as a conditioned response, through a conditioned stimulus. The second significant concept that also presents a form of conditioning is associative learning. Associative learning suggests that in the learning process, a new response is associated with a particular stimulus.

Next, the behaviorism theory includes the concept known as the law of effect, defined by Edward Thorndike. The law of effect states that during the learning process, satisfaction strengthens the association, while annoyance or discomfort weakens the association’s strength. Therefore, pleasure experiences are more likely to be associated with stimulus than their negative counterparts (Brau et al., 2018). The concept of Thorndike’s law of effect was further replaced by a similar concept that used the term ‘reinforcement,’ implying the satisfaction part and ‘punishment’ for the discomfort. Therefore, in summary, the behavior perspective studies the influence of environmental factors in the form of stimulus on human reactions and responses.

The behaviorism theory has several pros and cons, which predominantly focus on its strengths and weaknesses concerning different areas of human behaviors and the factors that influence them. First, the theory is based on observations, implying that it has a strong evidence base. Furthermore, the theory’s evidence base allows a thoroughly scientific approach to the theme of understanding human behavior. Lastly, the theory provides a wide area of application in different areas where modifying behaviors is essential. The practical aspect of the theory is explained by its simplicity, which is often lacking in other psychological theories.

On the other hand, due to its animalistic origin, the theory’s simplicity limits the possible influences on human behavior to environmental factors without considering other factors, such as thoughts and feelings. Therefore, the application areas for behavioral theory are limited to child care and education, as children are more likely to be subjected to learning methods from behavioral theory. As an additional flaw, while the theory covers the aspect of associative learning, it does not address other types of learning processes.

Despite its flaws, the theory is important to the subject of psychology as it established a foundation of knowledge about human behavior development. Behaviorism provided valuable insights into the influence of environmental background on human behaviors and explained why people raised in different conditions express different behaviors. In my opinion, the theory presents a substantial starting point for the development of the psychology of human behavior. I think that behaviorism theory acts as a primary root of understanding human nature and its properties because of its simplicity sourced from biological origins.


Araiba, S. (2020). Current diversification of behaviorism. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 43, 157–175 (2020). Web.

Brau, B., Fox, N., & Robinson, E. (2018). Behaviorism. In R. Kimmons (Ed.), The student’s guide to learning design and research [eBook edition]. EdTech Books. Web.

Hogan, J. D. (2019). Twenty-four stories from psychology. SAGE.

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PsychologyWriting. "Behavioral Perspective Theory: History and Critique." September 5, 2023.