Those who study behaviorism believe animal and human psychology can be studied primarily through their behaviors. They don't rely on studies of emotions or motives. Instead, they assert that all psychological studies should focus on outward behavior. In the examples of behaviorism below, we'll explore the value in examining a person's actions rather than examining their inner thought processes.
Scholars in the field of behaviorism say that psychology should focus on the actual behaviors of people rather than what we cannot observe directly, such as thoughts, moods, and emotions. There are three main branches of behaviorism: methodological, psychological, and analytical. Two of the main developers of behaviorism were psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, who we will discuss further here.
This form of behaviorism was developed by John B. Watson, the most notable of psychologists in this area. Methodological behaviorism draws a very clear line in the sand. It states that psychologists should not spend their time examining people's mental states, such as their beliefs or desires. In fact, Watson was vocal in his rejection of self-reflection or introspection.
Rather, psychologists only need to focus on behavior. Watson is known for believing that the goal of psychology is to predict and control behavior. Someone's mental state is a private manner, subject to change. Observing behaviors and mannerisms, however, can produce an empirical study.
After Watson, the next most notable psychologist in this space is B. F. Skinner. Skinner believed that someone's behavior is an outward display of their mental processes. Psychologists believe this form of behaviorism is exhibited in terms of physical stimuli or even emotional responses.
Have you ever seen a dog with a routine feeding schedule? Say its owner rings a bell whenever it's time to eat. Very quickly, the sound of the ringing bell might cause the dog to salivate because he knows what's about to come.
This brings us to another form of conditioning. Classical conditioning has to do with the unconscious association made between two things. Operant conditioning deals with a different kind of cause and effect relationship. It states that if a person (or animal) performs a certain behavior, they learn to expect a certain consequence. These consequences come in the form of reinforcement or punishment.
Both reinforcement and punishment have positive and negative versions. Don't think of "positive" as good and "negative" as bad. Rather, "positive" is adding something and "negative" is removing something; reinforcement encourages a desired behavior while punishment discourages an undesired behavior.
Let's consider a scenario where a child is about to touch a rose. If we want to encourage the child to touch the rose, then:
Positive Reinforcement: She is treated to the silky surface when she touches the rose.
Negative Reinforcement: She continuously endures a mild electric shock until she touches the rose. While touching the rose, the electric shock stops.
If we want to discourage the child from touching the rose, then:
Positive Punishment: She touches the rose and is pricked by the thorn.
Negative Punishment: Pleasing music fills the room, but when she touches the rose, the music stops. If she wants the music to continue (desirable), she has to not touch the rose.
As Skinner continued to study psychological behaviorism, he started to believe that someone's internal thoughts and feelings should be observed in conjunction with their behaviors. As such, analytical behaviorism -- also known as logical behaviorism and sometimes as radical behaviorism -- states that people's behaviors are outward manifestations of their mental processes. This is a rather radical detour from methodological behaviorism.
What are humans, but intriguing entities of thoughts, feelings, and actions? We make such an interesting study because we're multi-faceted. Let's take a look at a few examples of behaviorism in our everyday interactions.
Parents often use a reward system when potty training a toddler. Candy, stickers, or other small rewards can be used. Each time a child does a desirable behavior - like sitting on the potty, having a dry diaper in the morning, or going to the bathroom on the potty - the parent gives the child a reward. The hope is that the child will continue to exhibit the desired behavior because he or she wants to earn the reward, until eventually the behavior becomes a habit and the reward is no longer necessary.
Companies offer raises to employees who exhibit excellent performance. The hope of a raise can serve as motivation for employees to do their jobs well.
Sometimes, people develop phobias as a result of traumatizing experiences. Let's say a woman witnessed her father die after choking on a piece of food. As she goes on to have children, she may pay extra close attention to cutting food into smaller pieces so her children won't choke.
Four-year-old Emma has a chore chart that includes such behaviors as making her bed, getting dressed, brushing her teeth, and taking her breakfast plate to the sink. If she completes her chores, she earns a sticker on her chore chart. Once she has five stickers, she gets to pick what the family will have for dessert.
Consider what we do every time our phones vibrate or sound a notification tone. We instinctively reach for our phones without making a conscious decision to do so (classical conditioning). The notification tone, in and of itself, is a neutral stimulus. But, it's associated with getting a social media update or text message, which we want to check/read. In essence, each of us have learned behaviors or reactions to the tones of our phones.
Sarah is in the habit of speeding on her way to work. One morning, she gets stopped by a police officer and is given a $275 speeding ticket. After that, she never speeds again; the negative consequence to her behavior of speeding causes her to obey the speed limit, since she doesn't want to get another speeding ticket.
A husband and wife start to live together for the first time. The husband has a habit of leaving tea bags everywhere. This might irritate his wife. She can choose to clean up all his tea bags for him, or she can leave them to stain the furniture. If she winds up leaving them, and then makes a big show of his decision to pick up his tea bags as he goes, this positive reinforcement can prove effective. In an effort to please his new wife (and not ruin the furniture), it's possible those tea bags won't be left around the house any longer.
Sometimes, teachers utilize a "risk and reward" system to help students see the value in doing the right thing. Behaviorism is a particularly unique study in the classroom, as there are many approaches to help students embrace a lifelong love of learning.
Mrs. Smith's second grade class is behaving poorly. She decides to develop a behavior management system. At the end of each hour, if the students have followed the rules at an acceptable level, Mrs. Smith puts a tally mark on the board. At the end of the day, if there are more than five tally marks, Mrs. Smith draws a star on the board. Once ten stars have been drawn, the class gets a pizza party. She hopes that the incentive of a pizza party will motivate them to follow the rules.
If a high school student is late to school more than three times in a marking period, he or she will earn a detention and have to stay after school. School officials hope that the possibility of detention will encourage students to come to school on time.
Student-athletes are required to maintain at least a grade of a C in every class in order to participate in their various sports. If a grade drops below a C, the athlete will not be allowed to compete until he or she improves the grade. The negative reinforcement of not being allowed to compete often motives a student to quickly do what is needed to improve his or her grade.
If a student habitually walks into his literature class late, the professor might start to wonder why he takes such a casual approach to her class. Is it because he dislikes literature or hates waking up in the morning? Or, is it because every time he walks into the classroom late, the professor stops her lecture and cracks a joke about him walking in late - again? If it's the last possibility, then the student has learned that he will garner attention, even for a bad behavior. Once the professor either begins to ignore the tardy student or dock points for class participation, this form of negative reinforcement might spur change.
We humans are an interesting bunch, aren't we? We have so many complex layers, even as children in an elementary classroom. It's interesting to see where people can be flexible and where they can't.
Behaviorism is great for encouraging good study habits. There are clear risks and rewards to acing that next test. As you help students embrace their academic journeys, check out these Study Habits for Spelling Tests. They just might help you cultivate the next national spelling bee champion!