What is behaviorism?

Posted by Greten on 20 Feb 2023 under Terms, Theories

Behaviorism is a learning theory that emphasizes the role of external stimuli and the environment in shaping behavior. Its premise is that learning occurs through the reinforcement of good behaviors and the punishment of undesirable behaviors. Behaviorism is frequently employed in education to establish a regulated, controlled learning environment that encourages learners to develop specific behaviors or responses.

When a learner performs the intended behavior, positive reinforcement entails the presentation of a reward, such as praise or a good grade. In contrast, negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unpleasant stimulus, such as a scolding, when the learner exhibits the desired behavior. Punishment deters undesirable behavior by presenting an unpleasant experience.

Behaviorism emphasizes the necessity of repetition and practice in learning. By giving students repeated opportunities to practice and reinforce desired behaviors, they can gradually become more automatic and ingrained. This form of learning, according to behaviorists, may be applied to any subject, from language to mathematics.

Thumbs up hand emerging from a laptop screen.

Behavioral approaches are applicable in various educational settings, including classrooms, online learning, and training programs. However, several critics of behaviorism in education point out the lack of emphasis on higher-order thinking skills, creativity, and problem-solving ability. It also puts less emphasis on the learner's unique experiences and opinions, which might hinder engagement and motivation.

Who are the people behind behaviorism?

These are the researchers who made significant contribution to the development of behaviorism as a learning theory in education.

Ivan Pavlov (1849–1946), a Russian scientist, is best known for developing classical conditioning. He performed tests on dogs, demonstrating how they could be trained to salivate in reaction to a specific stimulus, such as the sound of a bell.

Bell swings in front of a dog.

John B. Watson (1878–1958), an American psychologist, is regarded as one of the founders of behaviorism. He felt that training could explain all behavior and that environmental influences played an essential part in molding conduct. Watson is best known for his "Little Albert" experiment, in which he trained a kid to fear a white rat by coupling it with a loud noise.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner(1904–1990), also an American psychologist, developed the concept of operant conditioning. He claimed that the consequences of one's actions shape it. For example, positive consequences, such as rewards, make a behavior more likely to be repeated. In contrast, negative consequences, such as punishment, make a behavior less likely to be repeated.

Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), another American psychologist, is well-known for his work on the law of effect. He claimed that acts that result in favorable outcomes are more likely to be repeated. Still, negative consequences are less likely to be repeated. This idea foreshadowed Skinner's concept of operant conditioning.

Lastly, Clark Hull (1884–1952), also an American psychologist, is well-known for his work on behavioral mathematical models. He suggested that behavior can be explained as a function of the organism's drive, habit strength, and the outcome's incentive value. Hull's work contributed to the development of a theoretical framework for comprehending the concepts of behaviorism.

What are the limitations of behaviorism?

While behaviorism has enormously contributed to psychology and education, it has some limits.

  • Lack of insight into internal mental processes: Behaviorism ignores the function of internal mental processes in shaping behavior, such as thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. This constraint limits the behaviorist approach's reach and ignores the role of cognitive and affective aspects in learning.
  • Overemphasis on observable behavior: Behaviorism emphasizes observable conduct while ignoring the importance of subjective experiences, emotions, and attitudes. This strategy may fail to account for the complexities of human behavior and disregard the impact of social and cultural influences.
  • Learning oversimplification: Behaviorism oversimplifies learning by reducing it to a stimulus-response link. It ignores the influence of individual characteristics, motivation, and prior experiences on learning.
  • Limited generalizability of findings: Findings have limited generalizability because behaviorism is based chiefly on laboratory trials with non-human species, such as animals. The results may be limited in their generalizability because this methodology does not adequately reflect the complexity of human behavior in realistic circumstances.
  • Concerns about ethics: Critics chastised the behavioral approach for employing conditioning tactics such as punishment and reinforcement, which can present ethical issues. An example of an ethical issue in the behaviorist approach is the experiment conducted by Watson, in which he used a human infant. These approaches may be seen as manipulative and are not always acceptable or effective for encouraging long-term behavior change.

How to apply behaviorism using educational technology in a K-12 class?

Behaviorism is among the pillars of basic education. Bloom's taxonomy, which is the basis of developing learning objectives, is a list of verbs teachers and other learning professionals can use. Verbs or action words: actions that can be observed and measured to determine if sufficient learning occurred.

In educational technology, there are several ways to use behaviorist approaches. One approach is to use personalized learning platforms, which offer adaptable learning experiences based on a student's progress and performance. This allows students to receive quick feedback and reinforcement for their actions, which can help them learn more effectively.

VR environment of valley and Sun.

Another method is gamification, which involves presenting instructional content in games or simulations to boost student engagement and motivation. This method employs prizes and positive reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviors such as assignment completion or achievement of learning objectives. Furthermore, behaviorism can be used with virtual or augmented reality. Students can interact with simulated surroundings to practice and reinforce desirable behaviors in a safe and controlled context. Positive reinforcement and feedback give students compelling and engaging learning experiences that increase their knowledge and abilities.

How to apply behaviorism in corporate training?

Corporate training is about more than upskilling. The other aim is to modify the behavior of employees to boost productivity. So, for example, while it is essential to train employees on how to use new software or a new process, a behaviorist approach would see to it that employees actually use this new software or process.

Behaviorism can be used in corporate training to influence and shape employee behavior through rewards and penalties. Corporate trainers can use reinforcement to enhance desired behaviors like meeting sales targets, being punctual, or being productive. Punishment can reduce unwanted behaviors like tardiness, poor work quality, or bad customer service.

Gamification approaches can also boost employee engagement and motivation using behavioral principles such as rewards, feedback, and positive reinforcement. Furthermore, behaviorism can be used to create training programs that aim to acquire new skills and competencies by breaking complex tasks down into smaller, more manageable components and offering feedback and rewards at each stage of the process. This method can be beneficial in technical training programs when mastery of a particular skill is essential for job performance. Finally, behaviorism can generally be utilized in corporate training to improve employee performance, motivate and engage employees, and build a continual learning and improvement culture.


Behaviorism is a learning theory that focuses on the role of external stimuli and the environment in shaping behavior. It emphasizes the importance of reinforcement and punishment in encouraging or discouraging certain behaviors. This theory has been employed in various educational settings, including classrooms, online learning, and training programs. Key contributors to behaviorism include Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, Edward Thorndike, and Clark Hull.

While behaviorism has contributed significantly to psychology and education, it also has limitations, including a lack of insight into internal mental processes, overemphasizing observable behavior, and learning oversimplification. In educational technology, behaviorism can be applied through personalized learning platforms, gamification, and virtual or augmented reality. In corporate training, behaviorism can modify employee behavior and boost productivity.


  • Brau, B. et al. (2018) "Behaviorism", EdTech Books, retrieved 19 February 2022.
  • Cherry, K. (2018) "What is behaviorism?", Explore Psychology, retrieved 19 February 2022.
  • McLeod, S. (2022) "Behaviorist approach", Simply Psychology, retrieved 19 February 2022.


Last updated on 10 Jul 2023.

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