Observable behaviors are actions that can be seen with the naked eye. They are sometimes referred to as overt behaviors.
The distinction between observable and unobservable behavior is important in the theoretical orientation of behaviorism.
Whereas operant conditioning theorists only considered observable and measurable behaviors to be worthy of study, other theorists held that our inner thoughts and covert acts are also important considerations in psychology.
Observable Behaviors Definition and Overview
Proponents of behaviorism, notably John Watson and B. F. Skinner, believed that in order for psychology to be a respected science, it should only concern itself with what can be seen and measured.
They rejected references to inner thoughts and feelings (i.e., cognitive processes) because it was not possible to measure those constructs.
As Watson (1913) put it so directly,
“Psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics” (p. 176).
Observable Behavior Examples
- Bar-pressing in the Skinner Box: When a rat presses a bar it can be clearly seen. Furthermore, the rate of bar-pressing can be counted and measured for specific periods of time.
- Salivation in Response to Food: When presented with food, an animal’s digestive system will secrete salivatory juices which can be collected and measured. (See also: The Pavlovian Response)
- Running: Running is an observable behavior which can be measured in units of seconds or minutes from point A to point B. Thus, running can be observed as the measurable response in a fight-or-flight situation.
- A Student Raising their Hand: Behaviorists would describe a student raising their hand as a physical gesture and not include references to internal states such as “showing interest” or “being eager.”
- Social Interaction: When two people are talking it can be measured in terms of number of words spoken, rate of speed, and synchrony. From a behaviorist perspective, there is no need to include references to mental states such as goals or intentions.
- Greeting Others with a Smile: A friendly gesture such as smiling can be measured in terms of duration and frequency of occurrence. However, there is no need to infer emotional states such as joy or happiness.
- Treating Addictions: When a behaviorist treats someone with a substance abuse issue, they don’t explore inner conflicts, but instead focus on situations that lead to consumption.
- Paying Attention During Meetings: Actions such as looking at the phone or asking for questions to be repeated are examples of observable behaviors. However, references to internal states such as lack of motivation or interest are not.
- A Student Being Disruptive: Disruptive behavior should be defined in terms of observable acts, such as talking out of turn, pushing a classmate, or throwing objects. These can all be seen and measured.
- On-Task and Off-Task Behavior: Instead of using terms such as “showing interest” or “being distracted,” teachers often use terms that describe directly observable behaviors such as: “taking notes” (on-task) or “playing with their pen” (off-task).
Observable Behavior in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive psychology is directly concerned with the study of internal mental processes. In addition, many clinical psychologists practice Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), which sees cognitions as the basis of several psychological dysfunctions.
As Beck (1995) stated,
“In a nutshell, the cognitive model proposes that distorted or dysfunctional thinking (which influences the patient’s mood and behavior) is common to all psychological disturbances” (p. 1).
Unfortunately, a significant challenge to studying cognitions is accurate measurement (Hurlburt et al., 2002).
Researchers have identified two techniques to overcome this challenge: think-aloud methods and descriptive experience sampling (DES).
The think-aloud method involves asking the participant under study to engage in an activity and narrate their thoughts as they occur.
DES is a bit more complicated. A beeper sends random cues to the participant to immediately write down what is happening in that moment and their associated thoughts.
The researcher or therapist then have a discussion with the participant, from which key features are extracted and used for further study.
Both techniques offer opportunities to study mental processes as observable phenomenon, and therefore subject to scientific study.
1. Measuring Emotional Attachment
The attachment bond between mother and child has been studied for over 50 years (Ainsworth, 1967). The early research, conducted by Mary Ainsworth, involved observing the interactions between mother and child in Uganda. Later, Ainsworth developed a structured assessment procedure called the Strange Situations Test.
The test is comprised of 8 situations, each lasting approximately 3 minutes, that evoke mild stress in the infant.
Highly trained observers are stationed behind a two-way mirror and have been trained to make systematic observations of the baby’s behavior in each situation.
Based on the baby’s actions, their emotional bond with the parent can be determined. There are a total of 4 attachment styles: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant, and disorganized.
The Strange Situations Test is an excellent example of how observed behavior is used to infer internal emotional states.
2. Measuring Emotions Via Facial Expressions
Early behaviorists preferred to avoid discussing emotions because they refer to internal states that cannot be observed. However, modern research has demonstrated that observable facial expressions can be measured and indicative of internal states.
Dr. Paul Ekman is one of the most prominent figures in the study of facial expressions.
His earliest research involved traveling to Papua New Guinea to study the facial expressions of a tribe that had nearly zero contact with the modern world.
By describing various situations (via a translator) he noticed that the facial expressions displayed were amazingly similar to those in the West.
He took photos of those expressions and found that his colleagues were quite accurate at correctly identifying those emotions. In fact, they were remarkably similar to the facial expressions displayed by participants in his studies in California.
In the years since, the study of observed facial expressions has become both a science and skill practiced by law enforcement agencies such as the FBI.
3. Neuroimaging Techniques
In a perfect example of how technology has changed the science of psychology, the emergence of neuroimaging techniques has allowed researchers to actually see thoughts and feelings (loosely defined).
Researchers can use an fMRI to identify the areas of the brain involved in various cognitive processes, such as reading or planning ahead.
As another example, when an individual is trying to solve a puzzle, certain areas of the brain will become active.
In terms of feelings and emotions, when a person is feeling intense anger or fear, another area of the brain will light-up.
Even different states of consciousness, such as being asleep or awake, can be measured in real-time.
One can’t help but to wonder what Watson and Skinner would say today about the observability of mental states.
4. Functional Behavioral Assessment (FBA) Of Observable Disruptive Behavior
Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) involves collecting information regarding a student’s behavior. Information about the antecedents of the behavior and factors that encourage that behavior are then used to develop a positive behavior support program.
A program that addresses the why of the behavior are more effective than those that only try to modify the behavior.
This video demonstrates how an FBA might be carried out in a classroom setting.
The teacher gives the class an instruction and one student does not comply.
The teacher then uses an FBA form to write notes on what the student did (behavior), what occurred just prior to the student misbehaving (antecedent), and what happened as a result of the student’s misbehavior (consequence).
These notes on the observable behaviors are then used to infer the student’s motives, that is, what function the misbehavior serves.
As the narrator speculates, there are two functions: escape from task (see also: escape learning) and attention seeking.
This analysis informs the design of an intervention that will focus on the function of that behavior.
Observable behavior refers to the actions of an individual that can be seen and measured.
As the field of psychology has developed into a scientific discipline over the last 100 years, there has been steady progress in measurement techniques.
What were once phenomena considered unobservable and therefore unmeasurable, such as cognitive processes and emotional states, can today be measured with varying degrees of accuracy.
Neuroimaging techniques allow for the precise measurement of thinking and feeling in the brain, often in real-time.
Other strategies are less precise, but still valuable. For instance, identifying emotional states by observing changes in facial expressions is useful in law enforcement.
Assessing emotional bonds by observing actions in structured situations has led to a greater understanding of social and personality development.
Including previously rejected psychological constructs related to inner processes has helped advance our understanding of human behavior. There is no doubt this trajectory will continue and pay meaningful dividends along the way.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1967). Infancy in Uganda. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Beck, J. S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York: Guilford Press
Hurlburt, R. T., Koch, M., & Heavey, C. L. (2002). Descriptive experience sampling demonstrates the connection of thinking to externally observable behavior. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 26, 117-134.
Moore, J. (1999). The basic principles of behaviorism. The philosophical legacy of behaviorism, 41-68.
Skinner, B. F. (2011). About behaviorism. New York: Vintage.
Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158-177.