The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning

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Nurture has long been accepted as one of the most important components of a traditional behaviorist approach. Initially, both Skinner and Watson wanted the science of human behavior to become as rigorous as physics, which is why they considered it imperative to chart only measurable and observable responses. According to traditional behaviorists, only several general laws of learning can explain behaviors in every situation at any point in life. The theory of behaviorism, or behavioral psychology, is a learning theory that is based on the perception that all behaviors that an individual develops through life are acquired with the help of conditioning. Conditioning takes place when there are various interactions with the external environment, and behaviorists believe that the responses to outside stimuli can shape responses.

According to the behaviorist school of thought, human behaviors can be systematically and observably explored not taking into account the mental states of the individuals who are being studied. Therefore, behaviorism as a theory considers only behaviors, leaving behind emotions and cognitions that are highly subjective. People are seen as being born as a ‘black state’ that can be changed and adjusted through conditioning.

Behaviorism entails two types of conditioning, which include classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning refers to the technique of behavioral training that combines neutral stimuli with a stimuli that occur naturally. Consequently, the neutral stimulus stems from the same response as with a natural stimulus, even in instances when the naturally emerging trigger presents itself. A prominent example of classical conditioning at work is Pavlov’s experiment on dogs that entailed using a neural signal of a sound and the natural reflex of saliva production. Through linking the connections of the neutral stimuli with the environmental stimuli in the form of food, the sound that is being produced triggers a salivation response in dogs. However, in reality, people will not respond the same as Pavlov’s dogs. However, there are multiple usages of classical conditioning, and the techniques are useful for helping people deal with their fears and anxieties. For instance, therapists can combine the stimuli to provoke anxiety in their patients with relaxation techniques in order establish a positive association.

Operant conditioning is a behaviorist model that implies learning with the help of punishments and reinforcements. With the help of operant conditioning, it is possible to create associations between behaviors and the implications of such behaviors. Operant conditioning occurs in cases when the desired outcome follows an action, which leads to actions that trigger a desirable activity to be repeated again. In instances when behavioral responses result in adverse outcomes, they are less likely to be repeated in the future. An illustration of operant conditioning at work is the rat experiment, which involved teaching rats to press a lever when the necessary light is on. For example, when rats press a lever when a green light is on, they get some food, and when they press the lever when a red light is on, they get mildly electrocuted. With the help of positive and negative reinforcements, rats learn that they should press the lever when the green light is on. In human development, reinforcements can take many forms, from verbal praise or verbal reprimand to providing something tangible, such as a toy or some playtime.

A significant piece of criticism of behaviorism pertains to the perspective provided by developmentalists, including scholars that believe that nurture is essential. Questions about whether people are more than just “efficacy feelings or reinforced responses” arise, which leads to further exploration of human development (Belsky 14). Behaviorism has been criticized for not considering the influence of a basic core personality of an individual as well the role of the lessons that people learn in childhood, which are vital in shaping one’s adult life. Behaviorism, at its core, does not address one of the most important questions, which is what really motivates people. In order to address the gaps in the study of behaviorism, developmentalists turned to the insights offered by Freud and the psychoanalytic theory, which pays major attention to early childhood and unconscious motivations.

Although behaviorism has been steadily replaced by the application and the study of evolutionary psychology or psychoanalytic theory, it still has a meaningful influence on the understanding of human psychology. The processes of conditioning alone have been widely used to understand various types of behaviors, ranging from the way in which language develops to the way in which people learn. Thus, behaviorism is highly valuable in its practical application to real-life situations, such as reducing or modifying problematic behaviors and encouraging more helpful and positive responses. Beyond psychology, animal trainers, parents, and many others can use behavioral principles in order to facilitate the emergence of positive actions and discourage the occurrence of negative ones. For example, operant conditioning is something that one immediately recognizes in his or her life, whether it pertains to training a family dog or teaching young children good table manners.

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Belsky, Janet. Experiencing the Lifespan. 15th ed., Worth Publishers, 2018.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022, February 6). The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning. Retrieved from


PsychologyWriting. (2022, February 6). The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning.

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"The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning." PsychologyWriting, 6 Feb. 2022,


PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning'. 6 February.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning." February 6, 2022.

1. PsychologyWriting. "The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning." February 6, 2022.


PsychologyWriting. "The Theory of Behaviorism: Learning and Conditioning." February 6, 2022.