What is Behaviorism?

Behaviorist principles have been tested and are evidence-based. That’s part of the reason they’re so popular.

What do these principles tell us about ourselves?

1. You are not your internal processes.

Your behavior can be reduced to stimulus-response. While Behaviorism acknowledges that you have internal process, they need not be considered to explain your behavior.

2. Your behaviors can be conditioned.

If you have a response to a given stimulus, a second stimulus can be associated with the first. Soon enough, you will respond to the second stimulus just as you did to the first.

3. Your emotions can be conditioned.

Classical Conditioning, one of the founding Behaviorist theories, posits that you should be able to replace “response” with “emotion” in #2. This hasn’t been rigorously proven, and the most successful experiment–Little Albert–had confounding variables. Still, conditioning can be used to help you get over your unreasonable fear of purse dogs.

4. Your behaviors almost certainly HAVE been conditioned.

Whether you put the toilet seat down to maintain the peace or make sure to raise your hand half a dozen times in class because you need those participation points to pass, you’re behavior has been shaped by Operant Conditioning, a theory that extends Classical Conditioning. Rewards and punishments are used to make desired behavior more likely and undesirable behavior less likely.

5. You still have autonomy! (voluntary actions)

Sigh. How many of you are too young to even get the reference in that poster?

So, turns out that Behaviorism can’t entirely account for voluntary or brand new behaviors. Not everything you do can be narrowed down to an external stimulus. Well, maybe. Variability in behavior can be reinforced, making it more likely that you’ll behave in unique ways. How’s that for some meta-control?

6. Computers have been effective at teaching students.

A direct application of Behaviorism is Programmed Instruction (PI), which can deliver small units of instruction and assessment in a pre-programmed pattern. Computers have made this process even more powerful because PI can be driven by a powerful, intelligent algorithm, so that answers to assessments drive which units are delivered next and the pace of instruction. This all leads to highly individualized instruction. PI has been shown to be effective at raising students’ performance on standardized assessments. The Matrix is just PI taken to its logical extreme.

7. Schools are largely Behaviorist institutions.

Behaviorism provides great tools for classroom management. So, even if the instruction isn’t based in Behaviorism, chances are the teacher is using some Behaviorist principles to get you to sit in your chair and shut up. The instruction is probably Behaviorist, though, too. Standardized tests have to be written and produced by somebody, so a few companies are making a profit from our attempt to assess the effectiveness of instruction. Then, because there pay depends on kids passing these tests, teachers need a curriculum that can prepare the students for the test. Well, those nice testing companies went ahead and produced that curriculum that the school district can purchase. It’s all very tide. Those curriculum are based on Behaviorism, because Behaviorism produces measurable results and thus they can say that these pre-packed curricula are proven to work.

8. Modern behaviorism acknowledges your mind.

Turns out that if they completely ignore a major aspect of a complex phenomenon, theories don’t do a great job explaining that phenomenon. Behaviorists have realized that in recent years. Modern Behaviorism incorporates considerations of cognition.

It’s not quite as dire as it might seem. Schools aren’t conditioning us all into automatons. Automatons, though, can provide sufficient instruction to improve test scores.  Here’s the take-away: Behaviorism has its uses even if the theories themselves are not entirely appealing. Now, please proceed to the comments to either say something awful or to be horrified, whichever the Internet has conditioned you for.


Schunk, D. (2012). Learning theories : an educational perspective. Boston: Pearson.






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