15 Examples of Behavior in Psychology (List)

behavior in psychology examples and explanation

Behavioral psychology is a field of psychology that focuses on the study of behaviors and how they are learned and changed.

Within this field, we can identify a range of behaviors that each have unique causes, intentions, or consequences. Examples of behavior in psychology include over and covert, conscious and unconscious, rational and irrational, and ethical and unethical behaviors.

One of the earliest theories of behavior in psychology was that of conditioning, which was first proposed by Pavlov (classical conditioning) and refined by B.F. Skinner (operant conditioning).

These theories held that behaviors could be shaped and changed through the use of outside stimuli that came to be associated with certain behaviors in the minds of the test subjects.

Today, many psychologists hold that behaviors are much more complex than that, and interact with a person’s psychological, emotional, and cognitive contexts.

Examples of Behavior in Psychology

1. Overt Behavior

Overt behavior is defined as actions or activities that are openly displayed and readily observable.

Many psychologists from the behaviorist school of thought (such as Pavlov, Watson, and Thorndike) focus almost entirely on how to affect overt behavior and almost ignore covert behaviors.

Overt behaviors may be intentional and under conscious control (such as when we actively focus on improving our posture as we walk); or, they may be unintentional or reflexive behaviors (such as your bad posture that you’re not aware of – but others are!). What matters is that they’re observable.

2. Covert Behavior

Covert behavior is any behavior that is not obviously apparent to others. It can include things like hiding emotions, withholding information, or disguising one’s true intentions.

Covert behavior sounds like it has bad intentions, but it’s also a good thing. If you didn’t have the ability to control what you say and do, you’d struggle in social situations.

For example, if you don’t like your wife’s outfit, you’ll want to keep that to yourself!

We often use covert behaviors to achieve a specific goal in a social situation or to avoid conflict or unpleasant situations.

But in some cases, it may be very antisocial, such as when it’s used to manipulate or control others.

3. Conscious Behaviour

Conscious behavior is behavior that is intentional and purposeful. It happens as a result of conscious thought and decision-making, not out of reflex or habit.

In other words, it is any behavior that we are aware of and can control. This type of behavior includes things like choosing what to wear, deciding what to say, and choosing whether or not to participate in an activity.

We also tend to hold people more accountable for their conscious behaviors than their unconscious ones. If a person is unconsciously doing something annoying, we’re likely to be more forgiving than if the person is actively and consciously trying to annoy us.

4. Unconscious Behaviour

Unconscious behavior is behavior that happens without our awareness or control. It is, of course, the opposite of conscious behavior.

This refers to actions that we do not intend or plan for. It usually happens automatically and before we can even stop it.

Examples of unconscious behaviors in humans include things like blinking, breathing, and digesting food.

But it could also be ones that we can work on removing or replacing, such as bad posture, a tendency to mumble, or a tendency to speak too loudly indoors.

While we are not consciously aware of these behaviors, they are still happening, and we often need to rely on others to help us recognize them.

Many psychologists make a living trying to encourage people to change unconscious behaviors by having them forge new behaviors through effort and repetition. For example, we can use cognitive behavioral therapy to identify and then address unconscious behaviors.

Related: Non-Associative Learning

5. Rational Behavior

Rational behavior is behavior that is based on reason and logic. It is the opposite of emotional or irrational behavior.

Rational behavior is often praised as a desirable way to make decisions, as it can lead to more logical and objective choices.

However, rational behavior is not always the same as optimal behavior and is often not necessarily prosocial (good for the social group at large).

For this, we should contrast rational with optimal behaviors:

  • Optimal behavior is behavior that leads to the best possible outcome;
  • Rational behavior simply means that the person making the decision is basing their choice on reasoning and logic rather than an emotional or unconscious response.

As such, it is possible for a person to make a rational decision that is not optimal if they do not have all of the relevant information or if their reasoning is selfish and doesn’t lead to the best outcome for everyone involved.

6. Irrational Behavior

Irrational behavior does not align with logic or reason. Some people recognize that their behavior is irrational, while others do not.

For example, some people react irrationally in response to stimuli that they have come to associate with fearful experiences. For example, phobias are often irrational. They’re excessive fears that are over the top or beyond logic.

Psychologists have worked with clients to address their irrational behaviors through procedures such as stimulus desensitization, which was used by Watson to help a child lose his fear of rabbits.

7. Voluntary Behaviour

Voluntary behavior is any movement or action that is initiated and controlled by an individual and done without force or coercion.

My students often conflate this with conscious behavior; however, the focus here is on the lack of coercion rather than whether it’s conscious or not. For example, some conscious behaviors are compelled by coercion, whereas voluntary behaviors are done without compulsion.

The vast majority of our behavior is voluntary; we decide when and how to move our bodies, what to say, what to think, and so on.

We have a great deal of control over our voluntary behavior. We can choose to do things differently if we don’t like the way they are going. Our high degree of ability to control our voluntary behavior separates us from other animals who act much more on compulsion rather than critical thought.

8. Involuntary Behaviour

Involuntary behavior is any action that is not within our control.

It is often a reflexive response to a stimulus that does not require any thought or deliberation. For example, the flight or fight response is often involuntary. In this sense, it can be similar to unconscious behavior.

However, it can also include conscious behaviors that we are participating in out of coercion rather than choice.

In some cases, unconscious involuntary behavior may even be indicative of a larger underlying health problem. For example, uncontrolled shaking can be a symptom of Parkinson’s disease, while incessant blinking may be a sign of Tourette’s syndrome.

9. Ethical Behavior

Ethical behavior refers to actions that are taken based upon a personal or shared moral framework.

We often refer to ethical behavior in the context of situations where a person faces two choices that can be differentiated through a moral lens.

For example, we might refer to ethical behavior when talking about an employee who chooses not to steal from their workplace even though they may know they can get away with it if they want to.

10. Unethical Behavior

Unethical behavior refers to behaviors that are inconsistent with a personal or agreed-upon shared moral framework.

This behavior occurs out of the same choices that were discussed above under ‘ethical behaviors’, except the person has chosen the path that was not consistent with the best possible moral framework.

Of course, there is a range of moral frameworks that we can follow, meaning one person’s ethical behavior is another person’s unethical behavior.

We see this, for example, in cultural touchstone debates like issues around whether it is okay to steal from the rich to give to the poor.

11. Learned Behavior

In behavioral psychology, we generally refer to learned behaviors when referring to the process of conditioning.

For example, Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory demonstrates that dogs can develop learned behaviors when a stimulus is associated with a learned response.

The behavior is considered to have been learned when it was developed through engagement with a stimulus and response mechanism that led to a change in thought processes.

Today, we refer to learned behaviors when exploring educational theories, theories of socialization, theories of crime, and so on.

12. Prosocial Behavior

The term prosocial behavior is used when exploring whether people’s behaviors are consistent with the well-being of the people around them.

In parenting and the education system, we attempt to teach prosocial behaviors by getting children to work in groups toward common goals, play team sports, and think about issues from the perspectives of others.

Examples of prosocial behaviors include volunteering, helping the elderly, and offering words of encouragement.

We can also observe prosocial behaviors in intelligent animals such as whales and dolphins.

13. Target Behavior

A target behavior is a behavior that a researcher, teacher, parent, or similar agent of socialization attempts to replace during applied behavior analysis.

Like learned behaviors, target behaviors are central concepts within conditioning theory. It’s the behavior that you want to condition out of the subject (often, by making it go extinct – see: extinction in psychology).

For example, you may want to phase out chewing on fingernails or cuticles, so that’s the target behavior.

14. Replacement Behavior

Replacement behaviors are actions that replace a problematic behavior or habit that you want to remove. Often, instead of quitting one behavior outright, it’s easier to replace it with another behavior.

Replacement behaviors are regularly used in behavior therapy in clinical settings in order to help a client remove their problematic behaviors.

Examples of replacement behaviors include the use of deep breathing exercises that could replace a bad habit like nail-biting, or going for a walk to replace losing your temper at your partner.

15. Collective Behaviors

Collective behaviors occur when a large number of people act in an unstructured and unpredictable way, but often still as a group or crowd.

These tend to be the spontaneous behaviors of a group who may not have planned-out their behaviors initially. They are therefore difficult to predict and control. 

Collective behavior can range from harmless things like fashion fads to violent and anti-social actions like mob lynchings. They can involve people who are physically close to each other (e.g. crowds, riots, panics, etc.) or quite distant (rumors, mass hysteria, fads, etc.).

Interestingly, in groups, people often discard their moral and ethical thinking because they can blend in with the crowd and become unaccountable. This is a process called ‘deindividuation‘ and it makes some groups very dangerous.

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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.

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