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A theory of human development initiated by American educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, and developed by American psychologists John Watson and B.F. Skinner.

Behaviorism is a psychological theory of human development that posits that humans can be trained, or conditioned, to respond in specific ways to specific stimuli and that given the correct stimuli, personalities and behaviors of individuals, and even entire civilizations, can be codified and controlled.

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) initially proposed that humans and animals acquire behaviors through the association of stimuli and responses. He advanced two laws of learning to explain why behaviors occur the way they do: The Law of Effect specifies that any time a behavior is followed by a pleasant outcome, that behavior is likely to recur. The Law of Exercise states that the more a stimulus is connected with a response, the stronger the link between the two. Ivan Pavlov's (1849-1936) groundbreaking work on classical conditioning also provided an observable way to study behavior. Although most psychologists agree that neither Thorndike nor Pavlov were strict behaviorists, their work paved the way for the emergence of behaviorism.

The birth of modern behaviorism was championed early in the 20th century by a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University named John Watson. In his 1924 book, Behaviorism, Watson made the notorious claim that, given a dozen healthy infants, he could determine the adult personalities of each one, "regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors." While making such a claim seems ridiculous today, at the time Watson was reacting to emerging Freudian psychoanalytical theories of development, which many people found threatening. Watson's scheme rejected all the hidden, unconscious, and suppressed longings that Freudians attributed to behaviors and posited that humans respond to punishments and rewards. Behavior that elicits positive responses is reinforced and continued, while behavior that elicits negative responses is eliminated.

Later, the behaviorist approach was taken up by B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) who deduced the evolution of human behavior by observing the behavior of rats in a maze. Skinner even wrote a novel, Walden Two, about a Utopian society where human behavior is governed totally by self-interested decisions based on increasing pleasure. The book increased Skinner's renown and led many to believe that behaviorism could indeed produce such a society.

In the 1950s, however, the popularity of behaviorism began to decline. The first sustained attack on its tenets was made by Noam Chomsky (1928-), a renowned linguist, who demonstrated that the behaviorist model simply could not account for the acquisition of language. Other psychologists soon began to question the role of cognition in behavior.

Today, many psychologists debate the extent to which cognitive learning and behavioral learning affect the development of personality.

Further Reading

Donahoe, John W., and David C. Palmer. Learning and Complex Behavior. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994.

Nye, Robert D. Three Psychologies: Perspectives from Freud, Skinner, and Rogers. 4th ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Pub. Co., 1992.

Rachlin, Howard. Introduction to Modern Behaviorism. 3rd ed. New York: Freeman, 1991.

Sapolsky, Robert M. Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality. Springfield, VA: The Teaching Company, 1996. (Four audio cassettes and one 32-page manual).

Staddon, John. Behaviorism: Mind, Mechanism and Society. London: Duckworth, 1993.

Todd, James T., and Edward K. Morris. Modern Perspectives on B.F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Todd, James T., and Edward K. Morris. Modern Perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Westen, Drew. Is Anyone Really Normal?: Perspectives on Abnormal Psychology. Kearneysville, WV: The Teaching Company, 1991. (Four audio cassettes and one 13-page booklet).

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage