Behaviorism is the theory that all behaviors are learned by interacting with the environment. This differs from other theories, which state that behaviors are an innate part of biology. As a branch of psychology, it seeks to predict and control behavior. It assumes that there is no difference between humans and other biological organisms and their ability to learn in response to the environment. It wants to find the simplest explanation possible rather than get conflated with many variables and complexities.
Despite its contributions to psychology, behaviorism has many criticisms. Because it assumes that nearly everything an organism learns comes from how it interacts with its environment, many holes can arise due to the complex nature of human psychology. Many other fields point out these conflicts. For example, in humanism, humanity’s ability to make decisions with free will plays a key role in understanding psychology, and behaviorism ignores the idea entirely because of its core principles. Biological psychology theorizes that every behavior comes from an organic source, which lies on the other end of the spectrum from behaviorism that states that everything comes from external stimuli. Behaviorism also does not take into account memory, problem-solving, critical thinking, etc., all of which play a key role in how humans make decisions and interact with the environment.
Pros and Cons of Behaviorism
While it might not paint a complete picture of psychology, it is still possible to learn more about an individual’s mind based on their principles. For example, if someone lives next to a railroad and always eats exactly when the train is roaring by, they will find that if the train goes by and they don’t eat, they will get hungry. People can learn how they respond to particular stimuli and how it affects them, rather than living by them and never knowing why they’re always suddenly hungry right when the train goes by. The main advantages of this theory are that it can generate predictable outcomes, which can be measured and tested. It can be used in therapy to help shift behaviors away from negative ones to positive ones. One of the biggest shortcomings of this theory, though, is that it doesn’t take into account critical thinking and decision-making skills. Once the person notices they get hungry when the train goes by, they aren’t stuck living that way forever. They can make a change if they desire, eating at a different time of the day instead. This is the concept of free will, which happens when a person does whatever they wish. Rather, behaviorism seeks to explain every choice that is made through responses to external stimuli.
B.F. Skinner began his career as a writer, though returned to college to receive a Ph. D. in psychology, and then went on to become a professor at several institutions, but became the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1958 and held the position until his retirement in 1974. He founded the theory of Radical Behaviorism following the establishment of behaviorism by John Watson in 1913. Because things within the mind like beliefs and memories could not be empirically defined, he dismissed them entirely. Thus, adopting the theory that every observable response comes from an external stimulus, completely outside of what is felt within the mind. In his novels Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he argued that humanity should seek to craft their environment to optimize behaviors and forget concepts of free will. Additionally, he continued to refine the theory of operant conditioning, based on Thorndike’s Law of Effect, furthering his theory of behaviorism by developing explanations for more intricate things like superstitions and complex chains of behavior.
Behaviorism in the Classroom