Behaviorism was one of the first learning theories to be developed, with roots in 18th and 19th century philosophies of logical positivism and British Empiricism (Graham 2015). As the association with empiricism implies, behaviorism as a psychological theory focuses entirely on what can be observed and measured; if something cannot be observed and measured, it cannot be assumed to exist, and therefore cannot be assumed to affect the actual observed phenomenon. The first psychologist to take a behaviorist approach to explaining his observations was Ivan Pavlov, whose famous classical conditioning experiment with dogs, food, and bells demonstrated that use of stimuli can create behavioral associations with previously neutral stimuli (McLeod 2013). J. B. Watson built on the work of Pavlov and others, and created the formal concept of behaviorism with his article, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” a text that Green (1997/2009) terms a “manifesto,” noting that when Watson took editorial control of the journal Psychological Review, he “made no bones about his intention to use his editorial control . . . to force animal psychology [the behaviorist approach that regarded thinking as nothing more than ‘subvocal thinking’] on traditional psycohlogists [sic].” Watson’s major contribution, in addition to his advocacy for behaviorism, came in his transfer of Pavlov’s theories of classical conditioning of animals to human subjects with the “Little Albert experiment,” an experiment that would probably be deemed unethical now as it involved creating a phobia in a human infant (for more information on this experiment and concerns about it, see the Wikipedia article: “Little Albert experiment”).
The last major figure to be associated with behaviorism, and probably the most influential, is B. F. Skinner. Skinner developed the concept of operant conditioning, which emphasizes the use of positive and negative reinforcement to “make an association between a particular behavior and its consequence” (McLeod 2018). Skinner was less extreme than Watson in that he saw humans as being more complex than animals, and therefore in need of different types of behavioral training; while Watson tried to apply Pavlov’s classical conditioning directly to humans, Skinner modified the process to account for the complexities of human behavior, naming his process “operant conditioning.” The key to Skinner’s modifications is the distinctions he made between types of responses that would affect the learner differently. Skinner developed the concept of reinforcement, noting that behaviors that are reinforced are more likely to be repeated, and those that are not are more likely to not continue (undergoing “extinction”). Reinforcement is one of three types of feedback that can come in response to a behavior. These three types of feedback are:
- Reinforcers (both positive and negative), “responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated” (McLeod 2018)
- Neutral operants, “responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated” (McLeod 2018)
- Punishers, “Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated” (McLeod 2018)
Skinner initially tested his theories through animal experiments, as did many behaviorists, but his work on operant conditioning translates effectively to human learning, in no small part because Skinner acknowledges that unmeasurable mental processes to play a part in learning. He chose to focus on the parts that could be measured, but the decision not to treat human subjects as programmable machines adds a dimension of flexibility to his work on operant conditioning.
Connections to Teaching and Learning
Behaviorist approaches to psychology and to learning focus on phenomena that can be observed and recorded, looking for measurable change in those phenomena. It is from behaviorism that we have developed the idea that all learning can be quantifiable, which has lead to the idea that learning can be assessed and measured through tests and other types of assessments. Behaviorist approaches to education, therefore, focus on results, not on process, and the over-use of behaviorism can probably be tied into the shortcomings of testing cultures in education in the United States. In some ways, testing culture has reverted to the more extreme form of behaviorism promoted by Watson, rather than following Skinner’s lead and acknowledging the unpredictable elements of the human mind, and this has lead to a “one size fits all” approach that works for very few learners.
Though behaviorism has been overused in many ways, it is an extremely useful learning theory to apply to learning contexts where the necessary behavior can be directly observed as being performed correctly or incorrectly, and where there are clear right and wrong responses that can be generalized from a single specific situation to a range of related situations. The area of education where this is most useful is in technical skills which can be done the right way or done the wrong way; assembling a piece of machinery, for instance, or producing basic code that performs a specific, replicable function.
Example of behaviorism in action
Behaviorism is used especially well in some elements of video games, where players must learn the basic rules of the game without direct instruction. Games rely on operant conditioning for many aspects of player learning, and can use behaviorist learning in very complex ways where negative and positive feedback play off one another to teach players caution without making them risk-averse.
A fundamental aspect of behaviorist training in adventure and role-playing games is teaching players what non-player characters (NPCs; also “mobs” for “mobile,” a term used by Richard Bartle  to describe programmed virtual creatures) are friendly or hostile. Games have a range of ways to do this, but one method that is extremely common is that hostile NPCs will immediate attack player characters (PCs) that come within a certain radius.
Friendly or neutral NPCs, rather than attacking, may approach the PC and initiate a conversation, or may simply wait for the player to initiate contact.
After a couple of encounters with hostile NPCs, the negative feedback of being attacked quickly teaches players to be wary. Being attacked is not, however, does not fall into the “punisher” category for the simple reason that in most games, hostile NPCs will also drop loot or other rewards (such as experience points that make the player character more powerful) when the player character survives the encounter. The negative feedback of being attacked and possibly dying is, therefore, in tension with the positive feedback of the reward for defeating the NPC; the negative feedback teaches players to be cautious and alert, but the positive feedback of the reward makes them more likely to take risks.
This video game example shows how complex behaviorism can be even though it does not engage with mental processes. A behaviorist approach can allow learners to distinguish gradations and nuance, and can effectively train learners to have the “right” unconscious responses in specific situations.
Graham, G. (2015) Behaviorism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/behaviorism/
Green, C. (1997/2009) Introduction to: “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” John B. Watson (1913). Classics in the History of Psychology. Retrieved from https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/intro.htm
Little Albert Experiment. (8 June 2018). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Albert_experiment
McLeod, S. (2013) Pavlov’s Dogs. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html
—–. (2018) Skinner—Operant Conditioning. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero [Computer software]. (1989) Bellevue, WA: Sierra Entertainment.
In order, starting with the header image
Bru-nO. (2017) [Measure Unit of Measurestab]. Pixabay. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/measure-unit-of-measure-meterstab-2737004/
Pixaline. (2016) [Feedback Opinion Gut]. Pixabay. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/feedback-opinion-gut-bad-neutral-1311638/
Goblin chasing the PC. (2018) Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero [Computer software screenshot]. (1989) Bellevue, WA: Sierra Entertainment.
Chatting with the Sheriff. (2018) Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero [Computer software screenshot]. (1989) Bellevue, WA: Sierra Entertainment.