Learning theories – Behaviourism

As part of the EDX Portfolio development, this content covers the following:.

  • a description of Behaviourism, and
  • the inclusion of a learning scenario where I can directly associate the learning theory, behaviorism.

What is behaviourism?

Behaviorism is an attitude – a way of conceiving of empirical constraints on psychological state attribution.
Strictly speaking, behaviorism is a doctrine – a way of doing psychological or behavioral science itself.

Behaviorism, the doctrine, is committed in its fullest and most complete sense to the truth of the following three sets of claims which are logically distinct.

  1. Psychology is the science of behaviour. Psychology is not the science of the inner mind – as something other or different from behavior.
  2. Behavior can be described and explained without making ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. The sources of behaviour are external (in the environment), not internal (in the mind, in the head).
  3. In the course of theory development in psychology, if, somehow, mental terms or concepts are deployed in describing or explaining behavior, then either (a) these terms or concepts should be eliminated and replaced by behavioral terms or (b) they can and should be translated or paraphrased into behavioral concepts.

Source: Stanford’s Behaviourism page


There are three types of behaviourism (source: Stanford’s Behaviorism page)

Methodological behaviorism is a normative theory about the scientific conduct of psychology. It claims that psychology should concern itself with the behavior of organisms (human and nonhuman animals). Psychology should not concern itself with mental states or events or with constructing internal information processing accounts of behaviour. According to methodological behaviorism, reference to mental states, such as an animal’s beliefs or desires, adds nothing to what psychology can and should understand about the sources of behaviour. Mental states are private entities which, given the necessary publicity of science, do not form proper objects of empirical study. Methodological behaviorism is a dominant theme in the writings of John Watson (1878–1958).

Psychological behaviorism is a research program within psychology. It purports to explain human and animal behavior in terms of external physical stimuli, responses, learning histories, and (for certain types of behavior) reinforcements. Psychological behaviorism is present in the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), as well as Watson. Its fullest and most influential expression is B. F. Skinner’s work on schedules of reinforcement.

To illustrate, consider a hungry rat in an experimental chamber. If a particular movement, such as pressing a lever when a light is on, is followed by the presentation of food, then the likelihood of the rat’s pressing the lever when hungry, again, and the light is on, is increased. Such presentations are reinforcements, such lights are (discriminative) stimuli, such lever pressings are responses, and such trials or associations are learning histories. Per McLeod, (2018), Pavlov’s classical conditioning study (later developed by Watson, 1913), it provides evidence of how classical conditioning involves learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus that already brings about a particular response (i.e., a reflex) with a new (conditioned) stimulus, so that the new stimulus brings about the same response. The study was conducted by the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, in the 1890s where he was researching salivation in dogs in response to being fed. Pavlov inserted a small test tube into the cheek of each dog to measure saliva when the dogs were fed (with a powder made from meat). Pavlov introduced additional stimuli such as a bell in addition to providing the dogs food. He found that for associations to be made, the two stimuli (food and bell) had to be presented close together in time (such as a bell). He called this the law of temporal contiguity. If the time between the conditioned stimulus (bell) and unconditioned stimulus (food) is too great, then learning will not occur.  Because this response was learned (or conditioned), it is called a conditioned response (and also known as a Pavlovian response). The neutral stimulus has become a conditioned stimulus.

Analytical or logical behaviorism is a theory within philosophy about the meaning or semantics of mental terms or concepts. It says that the very idea of a mental state or condition is the idea of a behavioural disposition or family of behavioral tendencies, evident in how a person behaves in one situation rather than another. When we attribute a belief, for example, to someone, we are not saying that he or she is in a particular internal state or condition. Instead, we are characterizing the person in terms of what he or she might do in particular situations or environmental interactions. Analytical behaviorism may be found in the work of Gilbert Ryle (1900–76) and the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–51) (if perhaps not without controversy in interpretation, in Wittgenstein’s case). More recently, the philosopher-psychologist U. T. Place (1924-2000) advocated a brand of analytical behaviourism restricted to intentional or representational states of mind, such as beliefs, which Place took to constitute a type, although not the only type, of mentality (see Graham and Valentine 2004). Arguably, a version of analytical or logical behaviorism may also be found in the work of Daniel Dennett on the ascription of states of consciousness via a method he calls ‘heterophenomenology’ (Dennett 2005, pp. 25–56). (See also Melser 2004.)

The origins of behaviourism: (source: EDX course page: Behaviourism)

Early in the twentieth century psychologist J.B. Watson expanded upon Pavlov’s findings, developing what is now a learning theory: behaviorism.  Watson suggested psychology be studied through objective, observable behaviors rather than subjective, internal thoughts and consciousness.  Watson proffered that experience and environment (rather than internal motivations or inherited traits) dictate who or what a person becomes (how he behaves).  

Popularized by B.F. Skinner in the 1960s and 1970s, behaviorism supposes that psychology is more aptly studied through observing behaviors of individuals and making connections between their behaviors and their environments or prior stimuli.  Outward actions are the result of stimuli — positive or negative consequences.  According to behaviorist theory, humans are no different from other animal species — like Pavlov’s dogs — in that we respond to stimuli: when we receive a pleasurable response to an action, we seek to repeat that action; when we receive a negative or unenjoyable response to an action, we avoid repeating that action. 

Methodological behaviourism: (source: Berkeley Graduate Division: Behaviourism)

Introspective psychology  dominated the late-19th and early-20th centuries where introspective psychologists such as Wilhelm Wundt maintained that the study of consciousness was the primary object of psychology. Their methodology was primarily introspective, relying heavily on first-person reports of sensations and the constituents of immediate experiences.

Behaviorists such as J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner rejected introspectionist methods as being subjective and unquantifiable and therefore methodological behaviorism began as a reaction against introspectionist methods. Instead, J. B. Watson and B. F. Skinner focused on objectively observable, quantifiable events and behaviour. They argued that since it is not possible to observe objectively or to quantify what occurs in the mind, scientific theories should take into account only observable indicators such as stimulus-response sequences.

According to Skinner (1976, 23), “The mentalistic problem can be avoided by going directly to the prior physical causes while bypassing intermediate feelings or states of mind. The quickest way to do this is to … consider only those facts which can be objectively observed in the behavior of one person in its relation to his [or her] prior environmental history.” Radical behaviorists such as Skinner also made the ontological claim that facts about mental states are reducible to facts about behavioral dispositions.

View of knowledge

Behaviorists such as Watson and Skinner construe knowledge as a repertoire of behaviours. Skinner argues that it is not the case that we use knowledge to guide our action; rather, “knowledge is action, or at least rules for action” (152). It is a set of passive, largely mechanical responses to environmental stimuli.

View of learning

From a behaviorist perspective, the transmission of information from teacher to learner is essentially the transmission of the response appropriate to a certain stimulus. Thus, the point of education is to present the student with the appropriate repertoire of behavioral responses to specific stimuli and to reinforce those responses through an effective reinforcement schedule (161). An effective reinforcement schedule requires consistent repetition of the material; small, progressive sequences of tasks; and continuous positive reinforcement. Without positive reinforcement, learned responses will quickly become extinct. This is because learners will continue to modify their behavior until they receive some positive reinforcement.

From the EDX page: Behaviourism: When applied to education as a learning theory, behaviorism indicates that the role of the teacher/instructor is to promote learners’ positive or desired responses (behaviours) by providing appropriate stimuli and continual positive reinforcement.  This type of instruction typically requires much repetition, memorization, question-and-response, and external motivators such as grading and praise resulting in operant conditioning.

Per Archer, (1998), the figure below is captioned,  Banking education treats children (or adults) as empty vessels to be filled. The topic is functional literacy and Archer refers to the works of Freire, (2018) who perfectly embodies behaviourim in my view – its a deliberate approach for oppression and ironically suppresses performance, creativity, new ideas, ingenuity, purpose….the list goes on. Freire talks about “banking education” below:

It is explicitly a form of ‘banking education’: “the more that students put their efforts into receiving and storing information deposited in them, the less they can attain the critical consciousness that comes from intervening in reality as makers and transformers of the world.” 

delete - banking knowledge

View of motivation

Behaviorists explain motivation in terms of schedules of positive and negative reinforcement. Just as receiving food pellets each time it pecks at a button teaches a pigeon to peck the button, pleasant experiences cause human learners to make the desired connections between specific stimuli and the appropriate responses. For example, a student who receives verbal praise and good grades for correct answers (positive reinforcement) is likely to learn those answers effectively; one who receives little or no positive feedback for the same answers (negative reinforcement) is less likely to learn them as effectively. Likewise, human learners tend to avoid responses that are associated with punishment or unpleasant consequences such as poor grades or adverse feedback.

Implications for teaching

Behaviorist teaching methods tend to rely on so-called “skill and drill” exercises to provide the consistent repetition necessary for effective reinforcement of response patterns. Other methods include question (stimulus) and answer (response) frameworks in which questions are of gradually increasing difficulty; guided practice; and regular reviews of material. Behaviorist methods also typically rely heavily on the use of positive reinforcements such as verbal praise, good grades, and prizes. Behaviorists assess the degree of learning using methods that measure observable behavior such as exam performance. Behaviorist teaching methods have proven most successful in areas where there is a “correct” response or easily memorized material. For example, while behaviorist methods have proven to be successful in teaching structured material such as facts and formulae, scientific concepts, and foreign language vocabulary, their efficacy in teaching comprehension, composition, and analytical abilities is questionable.

Behaviourism and the corporate environment (source: Pardy & Andrews, 2009).

In 1977 Willard Day, a behavioral psychologist and founding editor of the journal Behaviorism (which now is known as Behavior and Philosophy), published Skinner’s “Why I am not a cognitive psychologist” (Skinner 1977). Skinner began the paper by stating that “the variables of which human behavior is a function lie in the environment” (p. 1). Skinner ended by remarking that “cognitive constructs give … a misleading account of what” is inside a human being (p. 10)

Behaviourism could not account for different forms of memory such as short term and long term memory. In addition, there were other areas that psychologists needed to explore such as motivation, perception, creativity, problem-solving, experience and interpersonal relations. These areas and more became increasingly difficult for behaviourism to explain and therefore brought about a paradigm shift and led the way to a new theory of psychology known as “cognitive science” in the 1960s.

Whilst the field of psychology advanced beyond behaviourism, the field of management did not and is quite a different story, even in the 21st century and results in questionable leadership. Behaviourism is still applied with a vengeance by managers and it thrives in command and control management systems. It is applied with such force ad magnitude that its premise is accepted without question.

When speaking about management systems, it is worthwhile having a view on what is meant by a management system and why have one?

Simply stated, a management system is the framework of policies, systems, processes, and procedures to ensure that a business or organisation can fulfill all tasks required to achieve its defined and stated business objectives.
There is a fundamental concept reflected in this definition: that objectives are defined and stated. Effective management systems, just like companies, are based on establishing and aligning goals, thereby ensuring unity of purpose and focused control while driving improvement. 

From the start, behaviourism tried to make use of positive reinforcement as the tool to shape workers’ behaviour. Whilst negative reinforcement is not necessarily stressed, it is different sides of the same coin and that does not do much for motivating people. Both are saying to employees, do this and you will get that. The purpose of the reward or punishment is to control or manipulate the behaviour of the employee.

Research has shown that positive reinforcement does very little to alter the attitudes that underlie behaviours. Using rewards on people to get them to do what you want them to do are not such a clear-cut solution to the question of “how do you change a person’s behaviour?” As early as the 1960s research projects were revealing that rewards (positive reinforcement) were not all that effective when used to try to improve skills or work performance. In the command and control system, there is a division of labour. Managers do all the thinking and workers to the work. They punch in, do the work and punch out. During that time positive reinforcement can be provide with the basic assumption that positive reinforcement is an enjoyable and greatly appreciated consequence handed out by management.

In the 1970s a quality revolution was started in the United States by the imports of products from Japan. This included but was not limited to products previously manufactured in the United States (television sets, radios, calculators and automobiles). This revolution focused on how to manage a work system to improve quality instead of concentrating on mass quantity as a goal.

The revolutionary idea in this management system is everyone who works in the system is needed to study the problem in it and make improvements. The goal of this system is to reduce waste, scrap, rework and accidents in order to make good products. In this system, workers are hired for their mental labour as well as their manual labour. It does not require command and control of workers. The goal is to get control of the system. Control is not the goal but the effect of good management (of the system). For example, in a quality management system, the mental labour of employees is needed to fix the system. Everyone must learn the tools to identify system problems and take proper action to fix the system instead of fixing the blame. Fixing the blame is very costly and destroys teamwork. In this work setting the role of managers is changed. Workers “on the line” now learn how to record data about their processes. They work in teams instead of for the boss. In some companies, there is no boss. The teams study their operations and look for better ways to do the job, eliminate waste, scrap, and rework before it happens – not after. In short, teams replace the old front-line supervisor whose job it was to make workers do their job correctly.

This management system is slowly evolving. The new model of how we will manage in the 21st century is not complete and will probably continue to evolve over the next decade. One thing is for certain, it will not look anything like the command and control model we have used and are presently dismantling. In addition, technology will change everything.

In the command and control model, the line worker’s ideas, creativity and motivation were not required. Management took care of things. The new management model will require that everyone’s ideas, creativity, ingenuity and motivation are paramount to the success of the organisation.

The system creates the behaviour of both managers and workers. We know we can replace and entire workforce with new people and they will produce the same results. Systems can be very complex and it is the complexity and variation inherent in all the components of the system that will generate defects, scrap, rework, incidents and accidents. Work is a system. A system is a series of events that must have an aim. When you know the aim of the system, everyone must work together in a cooperative manner to achieve the aim. Businesses must have an aim of satisfying and taking care of the customer. If you don’t someone else will and you will lose business. How you manage a system is a system in itself.

PRACTICE EXERCISE – applying the behaviourism learning theory

Provide a description of a learning scenario in which behaviorism is the primary learning theory that drives the activity.  The example should not be something you have experienced firsthand, but instead apply behaviorism to an example you create. Remember, behaviorism is focused on an observable behaviour so provide enough detail to explain the behavior you would observe in order to know if someone learned.

Include the stimulus and the response in the learning scenario and, the types of positive and negative reinforcement in your scenario.

Lastly, suggest what you believe to be at least two pros and two cons of developing instruction that is grounded in behaviorism.

1 – Learning scenario where behaviorism can be applied

According to Staddon & Cerutti, (2003), operant behaviour is a term coined by B.F. Skinner (Skinner, 1937) and is defined as a behaviour “controlled” by its consequences. Staddon & Cerutti, (2003) argue operant behaviour is not a novel term and can be likened to instrumental learning” i.e. what most people would call habit. According to Clear, (2018), “Habits are the way you embody identity. True behaviour change is really identity change.”

Operant conditioning is a type of behaviourism and is the study of reversible behaviour maintained by reinforcement schedules, (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003).

An example would be set a daily target and time for exercise with a view to achieving weight loss. This can be done through any number of running apps out there. Running apps have a range of features linked to positive reinforcement and have schedules built within the app to remind, engage and talky up running scores, tell you when you last ran, how you improved since the time before. There are many built in incentives such as “run for the oceans” where your running score contributes to large corporates making donations to save the planet. The reinforcement of the reminders gives some incentive based on how you are ahead or behind your targets and other statistics to motivate you to persist with the new exercise regime. It incorporates weighing in, heart rates and other metrics on how “good to yourself” you are being. The constant reminders, emails, pop up messages, ability to share with your friends and compare as well gives you the stimulus you need plus the reinforcement metrics to “soldier on” in achieving your new self.


  • If you have tried to change your behaviours and you believe you do not have enough willpower, following a highly rules-based approach may be the most appropriate way to effect behavioural change.
  • There can be positive mental effects to deliberately following certain rules where you have a clear goal / identify in mind as described by Clear, 2018.


  • Per Freedman, (2012), the central irony of Skinner’s theory is that to control our behaviour and we must accept a fundamental lack of control. Using multiple apps to design new habits, whilst helpful reminders, means we are “slaves” to the carefully designed technologies that have the potential to develop obsessive behaviours with little tolerance for deviation from the rules.
  • There is no evidence that the collection of “badges” and “high fives” on the app will actually achieve the goals of the person using the app. There are many other considerations that the app “cannot observe” and therefore predicting the real factors for success & achievement is extremely difficult. We can already see this with online learning and it is not clear why people start learning online nor why they register and then don’t start or abandon later on.
  • There could be unintended consequences as our metrics start to get permissioned for other things in our lives such as the right to healthcare, insurance premium rating, personal health ratings etc.

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Avery.

Freedman, D. H. (2012). The perfected self. The Atlantic, 309(5), 42-53.

Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA.

Skinner, B. F. (1937). Two types of conditioned reflex: A reply to Konorski and Miller. The Journal of General Psychology, 16(1), 272-279.

Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual review of psychology, 54(1), 115-144.

2 – Learning scenario where behaviourism can be applied

In thinking about regular spelling tests, an obsession from teachers, there aim was to get full marks and you could probably say that there should be no excuse not to achieve 100%.

The reward would be to move onto more challenging spelling and you could be part of the “advanced” group. Our school entered the advanced group into spelling competitions and this came with great kudos. My claim to fame being that I won an inter-school spelling competition. Being good at spelling was easily associated with being “smart” and those that could not spell were not always considered very bright.

Given the goals of the behaviourism learning theory, our teachers promoted positive outcomes through star charts, acknowledgement to being in the advanced group – a position you could maintain as long as you continued with higher marks than others. There was of course the bias of being “smart” by association when you were a good speller. People that did not do equally as well were put into groups such as: “beginner” or “intermediate” as part of the reward / punish system.

On reflection, since behaviourism is not typically linked to confirming comprehension, routine spelling tests and gradings did not address the level to which the words being learnt were actually comprehended. In fact, you could have a poor performing spelling student who had very high comprehension in terms of how to use the word effectively. This was of course not part of the rewards system and, to my recollection, not a goal we were aiming for during those routine activities.

Rapid learning of vocabulary, able to spell correctly (therefore understood). Common approach to learning / expanding a foreign language is to increase vocabulary. Meaning in context reinforces recall and use therefore repetition based on a regular shedule with reward is a frequent  approach.
If you wanted to be associated with”SMART ” then the effort / reward might seem worth it. On the flip side, if you had difficulty in achieving good grades then it could be a huge demotivator and you simply do not try.

3 – Learning scenario where behaviourism can be applied

Very simply, completing compliance trainings in the work environment is a necessary task for every person in the company.

I can think of 2 potential “carrot-stick” approaches:

  1. Leader board for those that have completed the task ahead of time and obviously clear indications of those that have not including the minus days if after the deadline.
  2. The ability to win a pair of sneakers (or whatever other reward) based on certain criteria e.g. completed ahead of the deadline means you automatically go into the draw.

The stimulus / response would be daily reminders to encourage you to complete with the potential to be ahead of your peers on the leader board or at least go into the prize draw.

Thereafter, when missing the deadline, it would most likely go into more punitive measures such as getting a formal warning from your line manager and even a potential impact to your bonus. In the banking world, the impact was even at the highest level therefore executives had an extreme focus on achieving compliance as non-compliance from any employee was not an option. Disciplinary measures was a high motivator.

To get the job done, regular team sessions could be held to enable group participation to achieve the goals – watching the compliance videos and answering the questions. It could have potential value in sharing thoughts / having discussions on the compliance questions / answers.

Carrot / stick measures are frequently point in time approaches. “Fire & forget” from an employee perspective i.e. just get it over with.
It won’t necessarily change the behaviour for the the next time (being an annual event). It’s not a priority for most employees.

Can create some fun by gamifying with leader boards – compliance is something that is a pain for many people however necessary for a business to be allowed to operate.
The positive reinforcement and percentage completion can be seen as the employee contribution to helping achieve organisational goals (and achieving company goals).


Archer, D. (1998). The evolving conception of literacy in REFLECT. PLA Notes32(100), 8.

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Skinner – Operant Conditioning.

McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct 08). Pavlov’s dogs. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/pavlov.html

Pardy, W., & Andrews, T. (2009). Integrated management systems: Leading strategies and solutions. Government Institutes.

Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.

Pavlov, I. P. (1928). Lectures on conditioned reflexes. (Translated by W.H. Gantt) London: Allen and Unwin.

Pavlov, I.P. (1927). Conditioned Reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Pavlov/lecture6.htm.

Pavlov, I. P. (1955). Selected works. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Skinner, B. F., 1948. Walden Two, New York: Macmillan.
–––, 1953. Science and Human Behavior, New York: Macmillan.
–––, 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity, New York: Knopf.
–––, 1974. About Behaviorism, New York: Vintage.
–––, 1977. “Why I am not a Cognitive Psychologist”, Behaviorism, 5: 1–10. (This journal is now known as Behavior and Philosophy.)
–––, 1984a. Abstract for “An Operant Analysis of Problem Solving”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7: 583.
–––, 1984b. “Coming to Terms with Private Events”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7: 573–581.
–––, 1985. “News from Nowhere, 1984”, The Behavior Analyst, 8: 5–14.

B. F. Skinner’s 1950 article,  “Are Theories of Learning Necessary?” Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.

Skinner, B. F. (1976). About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.

Stanford’s Behaviorism page provides quite a depth of information about the theory and types

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Further useful links

Understanding instructional design basics and learning principles

Learning experience design differs from instructional design

Behaviourism in instructional design for eLearning: When and How to use

Learning About Learning (YouTube video)

Are Theories of Learning Necessary? (academic article by B.F. Skinner, 1950)

How to Train Your Brain (YouTube video from CrashCourse)

Behaviorism: Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner (YouTube video)

Operant Conditioning (article from SimplyPsychology)

Behaviorism In Instructional Design For eLearning: When And How To Use (article from elearningindustry.com)

Behaviorism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)