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What Is Behaviorism?

Behaviorism seeks to identify observable, measurable laws that explain human behavior. Because behaviorism focuses on observable behavioral outputs, classical behaviorists argue that any task or behavior can be modified with the right conditioning, regardless of individual traits and thinking patterns. That conditioning may be neutral or may include consequences, such as rewards or punishments.

Behaviorism was dominant in the first half of the twentieth century and is no longer widely cited amongst clinicians or academics. Modern psychology privileges the inner landscape of emotions and thought, but behavioral therapy techniques are often used to help with developing new skills, connecting the steps required to complete a task, and rewarding desired behavior, particularly in the areas of developmental delays and the modification of problematic behaviors. The theory of behaviorism laid the groundwork for understanding how we learn, and has had a durable influence on everything from animal training to parenting techniques to teaching standards.

Why People Like Behaviorist Approaches to the Mind

By Patrizia Tilly / shutterstock

One reason behaviorism rose to prominence in the 1920s is because it implies human behavior is predictable. For example, most people expect others to behave in a predictable fashion. On a social level, behavioral predictability builds confidence and trust. Behaviors and attitudes that deviate too far from the established norm or that are erratic and unpredictable are often considered unacceptable. At the same time, some people appreciate breaks in predictable routines. Some experts fear that, overall, predictability is being compromised in our competitive and ever-changing global economy and use of virtual systems. The idea that one can predict how another person will behave or elicit a standard response using operant conditioning was enticing to generations of psychologists.

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