15 Types of Behaviors

behavior in psychology types and explanation

Psychologists have identified a range of behaviors that have been variously categrized into different types of behaviors over time.

Some common types of behaviors include: overt, covert, conscious, unconscious, rational irrational, voluntary, and involuntary behaviors.

Theories of behavior in psychology are diverse, but tend to trace their origins to the theory of conditioning, which was first proposed by Pavlov (classical conditioning) and refined by B.F. Skinner (operant conditioning).

Classical and orient conditioning held that behaviors could be affected or ‘shaped’ by a stimulus-response network which provides rewards and punishments based on the desirability of the behaviors.

Today, however, psychologists believe that human behavior is much more complex than simple reward and punishment. We now acknowledge that how we behave is influenced by factors such as your environment, psychology, emotions, and personal history.

Tyoes Of Behaviors

1. Overt Behavior

Overt behavior refers to behavior that is openly displayed and readily observable. It is the opposite of covert behavior, which tends to be hidden, subtle, or unobservable.

The behaviorist school of psychology (which included theorists like Pavlov, Watson, and Thorndike) used to believe that only overt behaviors mattered. If your behavior wasn’t measurable, then it didn’t exist! This, of course, was a key flaw of this approach to behavior analysis.

Overt behaviors can be both intentional and unintentional. The key criteria for fitting into this type of behavior is that it is observed. So, overt behaviors can often be unintentional (such as when you make a mistake in sport that you didn’t notice but your coach did!)..

2. Covert Behavior

Covert behavior refers to our behaviors that are not obviously apparent to others. This is often behaviors that are subtle and demonstrate self-restraint or self-control.

Examples of covert behaviors include maintaining a ‘poker face’, hiding our emotional reaction, intentionally withholding information, or actively choosing not to do something.

Many covert behaviors have bad intentions and are designed to deceive. For example, a spy might need to use them to get information from a foreign government official.

But we all need covert behaviors to maintain social acceptability. For example, if you don’t like your wife’s outfit, you’ll want to keep that to yourself! Controlling and hiding our behaviors is essential for avoiding falling into trouble or crossing a taboo.

3. Conscious Behaviour

Conscious behavior refers to behaviors that we are aware we are making. It may be either covert or overt. The key feature is that we know we’re doing it.

In other words, it is any behavior that we are aware of (and, as a result, usually that we can control). Examples of conscious behaviors include choosing to be rude to someone, choosing our outfit for the day, or choosing what to eat at a restaurant.

Conscious behaviors are targeted by operant conditioning, whereby a parent, teacher, or similar social actor attempts to shape a person or animal’s conscious behaviors through providing rewards and punishments.

A key feature of conscious behavior is that it tends to be associated with personal responsibility. You’re praised for consciously choosing to do something positive and blamed for consciously making an error.

4. Unconscious Behaviour

If conscious behavior refers to things we know we’re doing, unconscious behavior is the opposite: it happens without our awareness. Because we’re not aware of it, it also tends to be out of our control.

By definition, we neither intended or planned to engage in these behaviors. Often, they feel as if they have happened automatically and before we could prevent them.

Examples of unconscious behaviors in humans include all the little things our executive function does to keep us alive: breathing, blinking, digesting, and smelling.

But there are also behaiors that we unconsciously engage in that are ingrained habits, such as bad posture, a twitch, some facial expressions, mumbling, and speaking too loudly indoors.

For these behaviors, we often rely on our close friends and family to alert us to them so we can bring them into consciousness. We may also rely on therapists to help us identify and work through them, especially if they are destructive behaviors, such as unconscious rudeness.

Related: Non-Associative Learning

5. Rational Behavior

Rational behavior refers to behaviors that comes about as a consequence of logical thought processes, such as cost-benefit analysis, use of common sense, or critical analysis. It is the opposite of irrational or emotional behavior.

Since modernism, rational behavior has been held up as the gold standard of behavior in both business and personal life. In fact, Max Weber coined the term rationalization to refer to the primacy of rational thought in today’s world.

Instead of relying on supersticion, magic, or prayer, people today tend to employ logical thinking to predict the outcomes of actions.

The rise of rationality has helped in booming efficiency and productivity in the economy, the supremacy of the scientific method, and improving healthcare standards.

6. Irrational Behavior

Irrational behavior is often driven by our emotional side rather than logical processes.

Irrational behaviors can include phobias, emotional outbursts, and disproportionate reactions.

Psychologists have been studying the causes of irrational behaviors for centuries. Freud, for example, theorized that our behaviors are often underpinned by innate desires and complexes that we developed in childhood.

Subsequent theorists, like Watson, studied how to both instill and phase out irrational fears in children through processes of learned association and systematic desensitization, respectively.

7. Voluntary Behaviour

Voluntary behavior is behavior that we choose to do of our own volition, consciously, and without coercion or force.

An example of voluntary behavior is the act of choosing to go to a party. You had the free choice to do it, and you could have chosen not to do it without consequences.

Sometimes, a person might also refer to volunteerism when using this term – e.g. to volunteer your time, skills, or efforts to someone for free.

8. Involuntary Behaviour

Involuntary behavior refers to things that we do that we cannot control.

An involuntary behavior may be a reflexive response to a stimulus that we find unstoppable. For example, flinching when something swings by your face might be considered involuntary.

This sort of behavior does not require any thought or deliberation and is often linked to flight or fight responses.

Involuntary behaviors are often subconscious – such as reflexes – but may also be conscious if the behavior is coerced or forced.

9. Target Behavior

Target behavior is a specific term within behavioral psychology. It refers to the behavior that you want to address or phase out in applied behavior analysis will be observed after successful conditioning.

For example, when training a dog, the target behavior could be described as the dog ignoring the owner. The replacement behavior, on the other hand, might be: the dog sits when the trainer says ‘sit’.

With the target and replacement behaviors defined, the trainer works on systematic training that will involve providing rewards and punishments to the pet based on its reactions to the term ‘sit’.

10. Ethical Behavior

Ethical behavior refers to behaviors that are compelled by a person’s moral framework.

Often, these behaviors are underpinned by a religious doctrine or coherent ethical philosophy.

However, ethical behaviors are contested because we tend not to agree upon a universal idea of ethics or human rights.

While we may hope for our society’s legal frameworks to reflect our own personal ethics, sometimes ethical behaviors are not necessarily legal behaviors.

11. Unethical Behavior

Unethical behaviors are those behaviors that are inconsistent with a a moral framework.

Behaving unethically is often policed through informal social coersion, such as through social exclusion, guilting, and social shame for people who contravene the society’s agreed-upon ethics.

However, for serious contraventions of ethics, it may also cross into the realm of legality, meaning it may also be punished by a state exercising legitimate power through the courts.

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.

12. Learned Behavior

Learned behaviors is another term directly from behavioral psychology. It explains behaviors that have emerged following behavioral conditioning.

These are contrasted to innate behaviors, which are behaviors that we’re born with or appear to be a part of human nature. Innate behaviors are often behaviors that occur in pursuit of basic needs – food, water, shelter, and so on.

By contrast, learned behaviors have emerged out of experience

 For example, Pavlov demostrated that dogs could learn behaviors when a stimulus (ringing a bell to signify dinner time) is associated with a learned response (the dog salivating).

A behavior is considered to have been learned when a conditioned response is observed in reaction to a conditioned stimulus.

13. Prosocial Behavior

Prosocial behaviors are behaviors that are taken in consideration of the interests and desires of your community or social group.

Examples of prosocial behaviors include using manners, volunteering to help your community, sharing, taking turns, and respecting others.

These sorts of behaviors are taught by parents and schools. The sorts of skills you’d want to develop to be a prosocial person include teamwork, collaboration, respect, honesty, fairness, and integrity.

Interestingly, prosocial behaviors are also observable in intelligent animals such as whales and dolphins.

14. Replacement Behavior

Replacement behavior is another term directly from behavioral psychology. It refers to the conditioned behavior that replaces a poor behavior. Often, instead of quitting one behavior outright, it’s easier to replace it with another behavior.

For example, in applied behavior analysis, clinicians may train a child to replace their temper tantrums with another action, like taking a walk or saying how you feel.

Other examples of replacement behaviors include using deep breathing exercises whenever you feel stressed to replace nail-biting, or actively choosing to remove yourself from a situation rather than having an argument.

15. Collective Behaviors

Collective behaviors occur when people in large groups choose to follow the group’s lead, which often leads to rejection of moral thinking in an individual (known as ‘deindividuation‘).

Furthermore, collective behaviors tend to be spontaneous and unpredictable, such as during riots or society-wide moral panics. This can lead to unexpected outcomes that are often negative both for the individual and society. 

Nevertheless, collective behavior can also be harmless. For example, following the latest fashion fad can also be considered a collective behavior.

Furthermore, these behaviors could happen to people who are in cluse physically proximity (e.g. crowds) or across long distances (e.g. mass hysteria, social media trends, etc.).

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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. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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