Behaviorism: Origins, Theories, and Application

Before behaviorism, most scientists considered cognition to be the subject of psychology. This approach necessitated the strict division between the physical body and mind. As an objection to this dualist strategy of viewing psychology, behaviorism emerged. The fundamental idea of behaviorism is that behavior is the basis of psychology. While the mind cannot be physically observed, both animal and human behavior can be examined and influenced. This notion proposed that psychology can be viewed as a science because observing behavior means relying on objective and empirical methods. Behaviorism is often considered to be a revolutionary idea because it changed the course of the development of psychology as a discipline. Today, behaviorism is manifested in many industries, including education, the criminal justice system, and healthcare.

Literature Review

Historical Origins

Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments on dogs played a significant role in the emergence of behaviorism. Pavlov initially focused on research on the physiology of digestion, conducting numerous experiments on animals (Baum, 2016). Subsequently, a series of discoveries prompted him to, for the first time, describe the response of a living organism to an incoming external or internal stimulus (Watson, 2017). Pavlov called such reactions as reflexes, dividing them into conditioned and unconditioned.

First, he studied the digestion of animals, measuring how much saliva is released from them when they see edible and inedible items. Over time, the scientist noticed that salivation in dogs began as soon as an assistant came in, bringing them food (Baum, 2016). Concluding that animals react to employees’ white clothes, Pavlov hypothesized that salivation is a reflex reaction of dogs to a specific stimulus and that they associate white clothes with food (Baum, 2016). According to him, the salivation that started when the dogs were indeed brought food was an unconditioned reflex, while the salivation caused by the appearance of white clothes was an acquired, conditioned reflex (Baum, 2016). It was the beginning of an in-depth study of the human nervous system, including the essence of psycho-emotional reactions of human beings.

Influenced by the discoveries of Pavlov, John Watson derived the formula of S – R. In this formula, S is the stimulus, and R is the reaction (Watson, 2017). The stimulus forces the body to behave in a certain way and, consequently, it is followed by a particular reaction (Watson, 2017). The term “behaviorism” was also coined by Watson – he summarized his ideas in an article called “Psychology as the behaviorist views it,” which was published in 1913 (Watson, 2017). In his work, Watson (2017) claimed that psychology is the study of behavior. Because behavior can be examined and objective conclusions can be derived from such observations, Watson urged that psychology should be considered a scientific discipline.


Pavlov’s experiments led to the emergence of a theory, which is now called classical conditioning. It can be summarized as a learning principle, according to which neutral stimuli are granted with meaning. For instance, food is a potent stimulus for dogs, whereas a bell ring is not perceived as a significant event. By pairing these two stimuli, however, Pavlov was able to train dogs to react to a bell ring the same way they respond to food (Baum, 2016). In psychological terms, Pavlov managed to transform a neutral stimulus into a conditioned stimulus by pairing the neutral incentive with an unconditioned stimulus. A motive is unconditioned when an animal’s reaction does not depend on previous experiences (Davey, 2017). In the case of Pavlov’s experiment, food is unconditioned because animals tend to react instinctively to the presence of food.

Classical conditioning was later expanded by the theory of operant conditioning. Burrhus Skinner proposed that behavior can be shaped by altering environmental events (Baum, 2016). He discovered that rats learn much faster when they are served food each time they accomplished specific actions favorably (Davey, 2017). Skinner derived that byusingeinforcement, it is possible to increase the likelihood of a behavior’s occurrence, and by punishment, it can be decreased (Davey, 2017). Both reinforcement and punishment can be negative or positive, and the difference is in the type of stimulus used. These discoveries have many implications for human learning as well and are frequently used as a means for behavior management.

The principles of operant conditioning are based on the ideas of Edward Thorndike, particularly on the Law of Effect. Thorndike believed that a positive outcome that follows a particular action motivates the subject to repeat it in the future (Baum, 2016). However, when the subject gets used to that pleasing effect, it does not receive the same level of satisfaction. Thorndike demonstrated his theory in his famous puzzle-box experiment – a cat placed that was placed inside a box took less time to escape with each successive trial (Baum, 2016). In real life, alcohol abuse can be presented as an analogy. When a person first drinks, he or she receives satisfaction that decreases with each time he or she consumes alcohol (Davey, 2017). As the body gets used to the level of alcohol, it demands larger volumes to get the same level of satisfaction.

Current Applications

The theories and principles of behaviorism are often used in clinical settings to treat mental disorders and behavior problems. This application of behavioral methods is summarized under a single term of behavioral therapy. The primary objective of such treatment is the removal of behaviors that patients find to be disturbing (Davey, 2017). For instance, if a child is often accused of misconduct at school, parents may benefit from the services of a behavioral therapist, who will use the methods based on operant and classical conditioning to help the child and the parents (Davey, 2017). Substance abuse and alcohol addiction problems can be overcome by using the mentioned psychological methods.

Behaviorism is often used in the corporate sector when facilitating employee productivity and motivation. Many of the popular reward and incentive systems are based on the principles of behaviorism (Stoyanov, 2017). For instance, the framework of accomplishments and corresponding monetary awards are used in many companies around the world. Managers believe that the incentive of receiving a financial benefit increases the likelihood of employees working more effectively (Stoyanov, 2017). Executive compensation systems also make use of the ideas of behaviorism. For achieving company goals, both long-term and short-term, executives are often promised monetary compensation or the company’s shares (Stoyanov, 2017). This approach increases the motivation of employees, and in turn, facilitates productivity.

In education, behaviorism is used when developing teaching strategies that are most suitable for students. The goal of an instructor is to ensure that all students are maximizing their potential and learning seamlessly (Sangkyun, Kibong Lockee, & Burton, 2018). Operant conditioning may be used to create a classroom strategy that continuously motivates students to learn and improve themselves (Sangkyun et al., 2018). For instance, a teacher may reward students with free time during class for their productive work in previous lessons (Lefrancois, 2019). Alternatively, the best student may be awarded a prize at the end of each week.


Behaviorism had a significant impact on psychology as a scientific discipline. It promoted the use of objective methods when studying psychology and claimed that behavior is at the core of this science. Watson is considered a father of behaviorism, but it was Pavlov’s experiment that encouraged further research. The initial ideas of Watson were later expanded by the contributions of Skinner and Thorndike. Today, concepts proposed by behaviorists are used in many industries, including education, healthcare, and business. Mental disorders are often treated using behavioral therapy, and companies develop their compensation strategies by relying on the theory behind behaviorism. Despite being controversial, behaviorism remains a critical area of psychology.


  1. Baum, W. M. (2016). Understanding behaviorism: Behavior, culture, and evolution. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Davey, G. (Ed.). (2017). Applications of conditioning theory. London: Routledge.
  3. Lefrancois, G. R. (2019). Theories of human learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Sangkyun, K., Kibong, S., Lockee, B., & Burton, J. (2018). Gamification in learning and education. Cham: Springer.
  5. Stoyanov, S. (2017). A theory of human motivation. London: Routledge.
  6. Watson, J. B. (2017). Behaviorism. New York: Routledge.

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PsychologyWriting. "Behaviorism: Origins, Theories, and Application." September 22, 2023.