Behaviorism is a psychological theory of learning based on the idea that learning occurs through a process of conditioning of behaviors.
There are two main types of conditioning associated with behaviorism
- Classical Conditioning: This is where an association is made between two stimuli, such as associating a bell with lunch time.
- Operant Conditioning: Developed by B.F. Skinner, this theory argues that we can change students’ behaviors through consequences, such as rewards, or punishments. For example, if a student gives a correct response, they get a reward, which will increase their likelihood of giving that response next time.
1. Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning involves teaching a student to associate two stimuli with one another. It does not require rewards and punishments, but rather repetition of an association.
This was famously demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov in his Pavlov’s dog experiment, where he taught dogs to salivate in response to the sound of a bell. In the classroom, we might see it when the teacher walks into the classroom and the students instinctively go silent.
Through this experiment, Pavlov demonstrated that the dog had learned to associate the bell with food, causing a physical reaction in the dog.
There are several terms here to help explain what happened:
- Unconditioned stimulus: Food naturally causes salivation
- Conditioned stimulus: The bell, being associated with food, now also causes salivation
- Unconditioned response: Salivation in response to food
- Conditioned response: Salivation in response to a bell
You may notice that a particularly scary teacher – say, the principal – will cause the whole class to go dead silent when they walk into the classroom. There’s no reward or punishment involved in this process, but rather, an association is developed between the principal and the need to be silent, because we learn over time that whenever we see the school principal, it’s usually time to be quiet and listen for an important announcement.
2. Operant Conditioning
For instance, if a student is rewarded with praise or a good grade for studying hard (behavior), they are likely to repeat that behavior in the future.
Conversely, if a child touches a hot stove (behavior) and gets burned (negative consequence), they learn not to touch the stove again.
Operant conditioning is very useful for teachers because it demonstrates that reward and punishments lead to rapid acquisition of the desired behaviors, such as the correct answer to a question.
Operant can be very useful in teaching times tables through rote learning – 5 x 5 = 25 leads to a reward! However, the weakness is that the student may not actually mean that 5 x 5 means “five groups of five objects”, meaning learning has been rather shallow and the child hasn’t obtained true comprehension.
Shaping involves slowly changing behavior over time by reinforcing behaviors that are closer and closer to the target behavior. This is also known as successive approximation.
We might, for example, celebrate a language learner’s success in using simple past tense before moving onto more complex, but often more natural, past continuous tense.
Successive approximations are also often used in the process of treating phobias. If a person has fear of heights, we wouldn’t take them to the roof of the nearest skyscraper. Rather, we might start them on a 2nd story building, then a 3rd, and so on, until they finally reach those higher heights.
If you’re training a dog to roll over, you might start by rewarding the dog for lying down, then for rolling onto its side, and finally for completing a full roll. Each step is an approximation towards the final desired behavior.
Extinction refers to the gradual weakening and eventual disappearance of a learned behavior. In other words, the response has ‘gone extinct’.
This tends to happen when a reward or punishment that was previously associated with a behavior is no longer provided. Over time, the association between the behavior and the reward or punishment breaks.
A child used to throw a tantrum in a store because they knew it would get them a toy. But the parent finally grew a spine and stopped buying the toy, despite the tantrums. After a while, the tantrum behavior eventually stopped, because the child stopped associating tantrums with getting their own way.
5. Observational Learning (Social Learning)
Observational learning is a progression of behaviorism that introduces the idea we learn not only through direct reward and punishment, but also by observing others.
For example, if a child watches a sibling receive praise for doing chores, the child may also start doing chores in the hope of receiving similar praise.
Developed by Albert Bandura, this type of learning is considered to be partly behaviorism, but also partly its own theory. It does involve a form of conditioning – the behavior is learned (conditioned) through observation of consequences. However, it also introduces the idea that learning can occur vicariously.
In the famous Bobo doll experiment, Bandura split children into two groups. One group observed an adult acting lovingly toward a doll. The other group observed an adult acting aggressively toward a doll. Then, when the children were allowed to play with the doll, Bandura observed that the children mimicked the adults they observed. This demonstrated that the children had learned behaviors through observation alone, with no direct instruction.
6. Token Economies
A token economy is a behavior modification technique that uses rewards (tokens) as reinforcers to shape behavior. The tokens can be exchanged later for other reinforcers that are highly appealing to the recipients.
By reinforcing desired behaviors with tokens, the student is more likely to exhibit that behavior again. This is based on the principles of operant conditioning and has many uses in an educational setting.
An example might be a classroom management system where students earn tokens for positive behavior (like completing homework or helping classmates) and can trade them for privileges or treats.
7. Aversion Therapy
This therapeutic method involves pairing an unwanted behavior with discomfort in order to reduce the occurrence of the behavior.
The unpleasant stimulus serves as a deterrent, essentially associating a stimulus with a learned negative consequence, which deters us from going down that path again.
Aversion Therapy Example
A person trying to overcome procrastination might wear a rubber band around their wrist and snap it causing a mild pain each time they catch themselves being unproductive.
Habituation occurs when a stimulus ceases to provide the same strong response as it once did, due to decreasing sensitivity to the stimulus.
It differs from extinction because the stimulus doesn’t disappear. The stimulus remains, but we become so used to it that our response weakens.
Habituation may happen in the classroom, for example, when a teacher’s teaching style becomes boring to students – the teach will need to mix things up to revive students’ enthusiasm for learning
People who live under flight paths often don’t even hear planes flying overhead, but their visitors sure do. The sound planes in their environment initially may have distracted the homeowners, but over time they have become so used to the sound that it ceases to distract them anymore.
9. Systematic Desensitization
This is a therapy method used to overcome phobias and other anxiety disorders.
Systematic desensitization involves gradually exposing a person to the feared object or situation in a controlled and safe way, until the fear response is extinguished.
For example, a person with a fear of spiders might first think about spiders, then look at pictures of spiders, then look at a spider in a jar, and finally hold a spider.
Mary Cover Jones famously helped a child named Peter overcome his fear of white rabbits with systematic desensitization. She did this by exposing Peter to the animal while he ate meals. She then slowly brought it closer in each session until it sat in his lap while he ate.
10. Conditioned Emotional Response
This is an emotional response that has been linked to a previously neutral stimulus by association.
It often occurs during traumatic events and is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
For example, if you have had a traumatic experience with a dog in the past, you may become anxious or fearful (emotional response) whenever you see a dog (now a conditioned stimulus).
Conditioned Emotional Response Example
A soldier goes to war and, in the heat of battle, at the scariest moment of his life, he hears loud bangs all around him from bombs. After returning to civilian life, every time he hears fireworks, he has a heightened panic response.
11. Positive Punishment
Positive punishment is an important term in behaviorism but is a bit of a misnomer. The punishment isn’t actually “positive” per se. The word positive in this case means “to add”. We might call this an “added punishment”.
So, positive punishment involves adding an unpleasant consequence after an undesired behavior is exhibited to decrease future responses.
An example of positive punishment may be giving a class of students an extra 2 minutes of lunchtime detention each time they misbehave, which can decrease the likelihood of misbehavior.
12. Negative Punishment
Negative punishment is the opposite of the above. It’s about removing something pleasurable or desirable as a form of punishment.
So, while positive punishment is about adding something undesirable, negative punishment is about removing something desirable, in order to shape behavior.
If a teenager comes home after curfew, removing their privilege to use the family car can reduce the likelihood of them breaking curfew again.
13. Discrimination Learning
This concept refers to learning to differentiate between stimuli, such as a dog being able to learn the difference between different commands.
In behaviorism, this will involve reinforcing a behavior in the presence of a certain stimulus, but not others.
This concept also exists in constructivist classrooms, where it’s believed that discrimination occurs through experience and development of conceptualizations – or cognitive schema – in order to establish cognitive equilibrium.
A dog may learn to sit on command (in response to the word “sit”) but not in response to any other spoken words.
14. Stimulus Generalization
Stimulus generalization occurs when a person or animal starts responding to one stimulus, then multiple stimuli, in a similar manner. They have ‘generalized‘ their response to stimuli.
Scholars have shown that stimuli that are similar to the initial stimulus will evoke a response similar to the original stimulus.
Here, we’re experiencing the opposite of stimulus discrimination, and in fact, it represents the absence of the ability to discriminate between different stimuli.
If a child has been conditioned to fear white dogs, the child might also exhibit fear in the presence of all white animals.
15. Escape Learning
Escape learning is when a person or animal learns to terminate an aversive stimulus by engaging in a specific behavior.
Escape learning was originally demonstrated by B. F. Skinner, using an apparatus known as the Skinner Box, which is essentially a metal cage.
Skinner placed a rat in the Skinner Box. When the floor was electrified, the rat experienced the aversive stimulus. But the rat eventually learned that pressing a lever on the side of the cage would end the electric shock.
Once the rat learned this association, the rat quickly pulled the lever as soon as the shock occurred. In other words, it learned engage in behaviors that help it to escape an aversive sitautions.
A person with social anxiety feels a negative sensation in social situations – generally, heightened stress. They have learned that by feigning sickness, they can get out of the situation. So, whenever they are caught in a social event, they pretend to be sick to quickly escape the aversive stimulus.
16. Premack Principle
Also known as “Grandma’s rule,” this principle states that a more desirable activity can be used effectively as a reinforcer for a less desirable one.
Essentially, the principle involves offering an incentive that will be received once an unpleasurable task is completed.
Students often use this themselves when studying, such as in the pomodoro technique. They promise themselves a break or a treat if they study for a certain amount of time.
Telling a child “If you finish your homework, you can play video games” uses the desirable activity (playing video games) to reinforce the less desirable one (completing homework).
17. Avoidance Learning
This occurs when actions are taken to prevent an aversive stimulus from occurring.
For example, someone might study hard to avoid getting a poor grade, or consistently pay their bills to avoid late fees.
Note that avoidance learning differs from escape learning because avoidance learning pre-emptively avoids a situation before it even comes about, whereas escape learning is about ending an unpleasant experience that is currently occurring.
We can split it into active avoidance learning, where we do something to avoid a situation; and passive avoidance learning, where we actively fail to do something to prevent an eventuality.
When a person has learned that they are allergic to soy (aversive stimulus), they will not eat (avoidant behavior) tofu or drink soy milk. This is passive avoidance learning.
Behaviorism is a central theory in educational psychology. It demonstrates some key drivers in shaping thoughts and behaviors. It can be very powerful and lead to fast behavioral acquisition, but it is often critiqued for its lack of acknowledgement of the role of internal cognitive processes in learning, and often leads to shallow learning where people only learn behaviors rather than the reasoning behind certain concepts, such as knowing that 5 x 5 = 25, but having no idea what it actually means.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]