Behavioral Theories of Learning

(by Angela Tressler, India Ficarra, and Evelyn Todd )

Psychoanalysis - (data below found on:
Psychoanalysis, a highly influential method of treating mental disorders, shaped by psychoanalytic theory, which emphasizes unconscious mental processes and is sometimes described as “depth psychology.”

(Info below found on
"Psychoanalysis is a comprehensive theory about human nature, motivation, behavior, development and experience. And it is a method of treatment for psychological problems and difficulties in living a successful life. Psychoanalysis is based on the observation that individuals are often unaware of the factors that determine their emotions and behavior. Because these factors are unconscious, the advice of friends and family, the reading of self-help books, or even the most determined efforts will often fail to provide enough relief. Psychoanalytic treatment explores how these unconscious factors affect current relationships and patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. Treatment traces theses patterns back to their historical origins, considers how they have changed and developed over time, and helps the individual to cope better with the realities of their current life situation. Analysis can be viewed as an intimate partnership, in the course of which the patient becomes aware of the underlying sources of his or her difficulties, not simply intellectually but emotionally as well – in part by re-experiencing them with the analyst. From the beginning of therapy, patient and analyst work together to build up a safe and trusting relationship that enables the patient to experience aspects of his or her inner life that have been hidden because they are painful, embarrassing, or guilt-provoking."

(Cartoon found on

external image g406.gif

(cartoon from
external image ksmn2135l.jpg

(Cartoon found on:

external image Dog001.jpg

(Research from

Behaviorism was largely established through the influential work of the following three theorists:

1.) Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

2.) John B. Watson (1878-1958)

3.) Burhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990)

The following topics are also tied to behavioral theories:
  1. Programmed Learning

 Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov

· Classical conditioning

· Research on physiology and digestion.

· 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology

· Ivan Pavlov was born September 14, 1849

· Died February 27, 1936

Ivan Pavlov's discovery and research on reflexes influenced the growing behaviorist movement, and his work was often cited in John B. Watson's writings. Other researchers utilized Pavlov's work in the study of conditioning as a form of learning. His research also demonstrated techniques of studying reactions to the environment in an objective and scientific method.

Select Publications by Ivan Pavlov:

· Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

· Pavlov, I.P. Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes : Twenty-Five Years of Objective Study of the Higher Nervous

Activity Behavior of Animals.

· Pavlov, I. P. (1994) Psychopathology and Psychiatry.

Biographies of Ivan Pavlov:

·Todes, D.P. (2000) Ivan Pavlov. Oxford University Press.

Contributions to Psychology:

Ivan Pavlov's discovery and research on reflexes influenced the growing behaviorist movement, and his work was often cited in John B. Watson's writings. Other researchers utilized Pavlov's work in the study of conditioning as a form of learning. His research also demonstrated techniques of studying reactions to the environment in an objective, scientific method.

Select Publications by Ivan Pavlov:

· Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

· Pavlov, I.P. Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes : Twenty-Five Years of Objective Study of the Higher Nervous Activity Behavior of Animals.

· Pavlov, I. P. (1994) Psychopathology and Psychiatry.

Biographies of Ivan Pavlov:

· Todes, D.P. (2000) Ivan Pavlov. Oxford University Press.


Ivan Pavlov's primary interests included the study of physiology and natural sciences. He helped found The Institute of Experimental Medicine Department of Physiology and for 45 years continued to oversee the program.

During his canine digestive function research, Pavlov noted that dogs would salivate before the delivery of food. In a series of experiments he presented a variety of stimuli before the presentation of food. Pavlov eventually found that after repeated association, a dog would salivate to the presence of a stimulus other than food. He deemed this response a conditional reflex. Additionally, Pavlov discovered that these reflexes originate in the cerebral cortex of the brain.


Pavlov received a 1901 appointment to the Russian Academy of Sciences and the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology, as well as substantial support from the Soviet government. The Soviet Union became a well-known center of physiology research.

There are two primary types of conditioning:

1. Classical conditioning - Discoverered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, a technique used in behavioral training where a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response, followed by a pairing of previously neutral stimulus with the naturally occurring stimulus. Over time the previously neutral stimulus will evoke the response devoid of the naturally occurring stimulus. The two elements are then identified as the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response. Classical conditioning can be used to increase or decrease specific behaviors.
2. Operant conditioning - Sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning is a method of learning which occurs via rewards and punishments for behavior. An association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior (*See below section).

Operant Conditioning (defined above)

 B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner introduced the concept of operant conditioning where reinforcement leads to a desired behavior. This concept continues to have an influential role in behavior analysis, behavior modification, and therapy.

"The consequences of behavior determine the probability that the behavior will occur again" --B. F. Skinner

B. F. Skinner Is Best Known For:
Burrhus Frederic Skinner

· Operant conditioning

· Schedules of Reinforcement

Birth and Death:

· B. F. Skinner was born March 20, 1904

· He died August 18, 1990

B.F. Skinner on reinforcement:
Skinner designed an operant conditioning chamber; know as the Skinner Box, which contains an animal trained through operant conditioning to perform certain tasks. When the animal performs a desired task it receives a reward, usually food. In some experiments the animal receives a punishment for a wrong response. Animal subjects are usually rodents, primates, and pigeons. In the diagram below, the rat pushes a lever when asked over the speaker or signaled with a light. When the lever is pressed at the correct moment, the rat is given the reward of the food pellet. Skinner Boxes vary in set up, design, and tasks demands, but all are used to study behaviors affected by operant conditioning.


Image from

Interview with B.F. Skinner and pigeon in a "Skinner Box"

Early Years:

B.F. Skinner was raised in Pennsylvania and described his childhood as "warm and stable." As a child, he enjoyed building and inventing things. He received a B.A. in English literature in 1926 from Hamilton College, and subsequently spent some time as a struggling writer before discovering the work of Watson and Pavlov. An inspired Skinner decided to cease his career as a novelist and began the psychology graduate program at Harvard University.


In 1945, B.F. Skinner moved to Bloomington, Indiana. He became Psychology Department Chair at the University of Indiana. In 1948 Skinner joined the psychology department at Harvard University and remained there for the rest of his life. He became one of the leaders of behaviorism and his work became a staple of experimental psychology. Additionally, he invented the 'Skinner box'.


· 1968 - National Medal of Science from President Lyndon B. Johnson

· 1971 - Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation

· 1972 - Human of the Year Award

· 1990 - Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology

Select Publications by B.F. Skinner

·Skinner, B. F. (1935) Two types of conditioned reflex and a pseudo type Journal of General Psychology, 12, 66-77.

· Skinner, B. F. (1938) 'Superstition’ in the pigeon Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

· Skinner, B. F. (1950) Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.

· Skinner, B. F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity

· Skinner, B. F. (1989) The Origins of Cognitive Thought Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior, Merrill Publishing Company.


Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a theory of learning based upon the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Psychologists such as John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner advocated behavioral psychology. Behavioral theories dominated psychology during the early half of the twentieth century and behavioral techniques are still widely used in therapeutic settings to help clients acquire new skills and replacement behaviors. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment. According to behaviorism, behavior can be studied in a systematic and observable manner without consideration of internal mental states.

Important Events in Behaviorism

· 1863 - Ivan Sechenov's Reflexes of the Brain was published. Sechenov introduced the concept of inhibitory responses in the central nervous system.

· 1900 - Ivan Pavlov began studying the salivary response and other reflexes.

· 1913 - John Watson's Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It was published. The article outlined the many of the main points of behaviorism.

· 1920 - Watson and assistant Rosalie Rayner conducted the famous "Little Albert" experiment.

· 1943 - Clark Hull's Principles of Behavior was published.

· 1948 - B.F. Skinner published Walden II in which he described a utopian society founded upon behaviorist principles.

· 1959 - Noam Chomsky published his criticism of Skinner's behaviorism, "Review of Verbal Behavior."

· 1971 - B.F. Skinner published his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, where he argues that free will is an illusion.

Three Recognized types of Behaviorism:

Methodological Behaviorism: Behavior is studied without regard to an organism’s mental state, beliefs, and desires. This theory, supported by the work of John Watson, considers mental thought and behavior as not related.

Psychological Behaviorism: Behavior is an organism’s response to external stimuli, responses, educational past, and types of reinforcements. One’s behavior is affected by previously exposed stimuli. This is supported by Ivan Pavlov and evident in B.F. Skinner’s schedules of reinforcement.

Analytical/Logical Behaviorism: A person’s beliefs and thoughts are directly related to stimuli that he/she encounters in a lifetime. Behavioral dispositions or tendencies affect how one behaves in certain situations. This theory is supported by Gilbert Ryle, British philosopher and author of The Concept of Mind.

Information from: "Behaviorism" by George Graham


Many criticize that behaviorism is a one-dimensional approach to behavior and that free will, internal influences such as moods, thoughts, and feelings are not accounted for. Another criticism is that behaviorism does not account for other types of learning, such as learning which occurs without the use of reinforcements or punishments. Human beings and animals are all able to adapt their behavior when they encounter new information or surroundings, even when a previous behavior pattern was established through reinforcement.


Due to the fact that behaviorism is based on observable behaviors, it’s easier to calculate and collect data/information when conducting research.

From Behaviorism Came...

Effective therapeutic techniques such as intensive behavioral intervention, discrete trial training, and token economies all have roots in behaviorism each is often very useful in changing maladaptive or harmful behaviors.

Behaviorism – The school of thought rooted in psychology which assumes that learning occurs through interactions with the environment. Other assumptions of this theory include that the environment shapes behavior, as well as that taking internal mental states such as thoughts, feelings, and emotions into consideration is futile in explaining behavior.

The Unconditioned Stimulus

The unconditioned stimulus is one that unconditionally, naturally, and automatically triggers a response. An example can be explained as when you smell one of your favorite foods you immediately crave the item/feel hungry. The smell of the food is the unconditioned stimulus.

The Unconditioned Response

The unconditioned response is the unlearned response that occurs naturally in response to the unconditioned stimulus. The feeling of hunger in response to the smell of food is an example of an unconditioned response.

The Conditioned Stimulus

The conditioned stimulus can be defined as a neutral stimulus which eventually comes to trigger a conditioned response after becoming associated with the unconditioned stimulus. When a person smells their favorite food, paired with the sound of a whistle multiple times (such as the lunch bell in school), the sound of the whistle or bell would eventually trigger the conditioned response. The sound of the whistle or bell is the conditioned stimulus.

The Conditioned Response

The conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. The conditioned response would be feeling hungry when the whistle or bell sounds.

Operant Conditioning

Operant or instrumental conditioning is a method of learning which occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. An association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning was created by B.F. Skinner, which explains why it is commonly referred to as Skinnerian conditioning. Skinner felt internal thoughts and motivations could not be used to explain behavior, but rather the external, observable causes of human behavior should be examined. Skinner’s theory explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviors we exhibit on a daily basis.

Components of Operant Conditioning

Reinforcer (the behavior increases)- Any event that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows.

There are positive and negative reinforcers.

Primary reinforcers - Desirable consequences that satisfy basic needs, such as food, water, and comfort.

Secondary reinforcers - Desirable consequences, such as money, that an individual must learn to

associate with primary reinforcers.

Positive reinforcers - Favorable events or outcomes presented after the behavior. A response or

behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or reward.

Negative reinforcers – The removal of unfavorable events or outcomes after the presentation of a

behavior. In these situations, a response is strengthened by the removal of something considered


Intrinsic reinforcers - Pleasurable activities that an individual enjoys doing for their own sake, without seeking

a reward.

Extrinsic reinforcers - Something favorable that comes from an outside source, such as money or rewards.

Punishment (the behavior decreases), is defined as the presentation of an

adverse event or outcome which causes a decrease in the behavior it follows.

Positive punishment or punishment by application occurs when the presentation of an unfavorable

event/outcome in order to weaken the response it follows.

Negative punishment or punishment by removal occurs when a favorable event or outcome is removed

after a behavior occurs.

There are two types of reinforcement schedules:

1. Continuous Reinforcement

The desired behavior is reinforced each time it occurs. Generally speaking, this schedule is best used during

the primary stages of learning as a means of creating a strong association between the behavior and

response. After the response if firmly attached, reinforcement is typically switched to a partial reinforcement


2. Partial Reinforcement

The response is reinforced only a portion of the time. Learned behaviors are acquired more slowly with

partial reinforcement, but the response is more resistant to extinction.

There are four schedules of partial reinforcement:

1. Fixed-ratio schedules - a response is reinforced only after a specified number of responses. This schedule produces a high and steady rate of responding with only a brief pause following the delivery of the reinforcer.

2. Variable-ratio schedules - when a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule creates a high steady rate of responding. Some examples include gambling and lottery games (a reward based on a variable ratio schedule).

3. Fixed-interval schedules - the first response is rewarded only after a specified amount of time has passed. This schedule causes high amounts of responding near the end of the interval, but much slower responses immediately after the reinforcer is delivered.

4. Variable-interval schedules - when a response is rewarded after an unpredictable amount of time has passed. This schedule yields a slow and, steady rate of response.

More about Skinner

Read more about Skinner and Operant Conditioning on the B.F. Skinner Foundation page.

Skinner in the Classroom

Teaching the Skinner Way

John Watson

John B. Watson
John B. Watson

Famous Quote by John Watson:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select--doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years." –John B. Watson, Behaviorism, 1930

John B. Watson Is Best Known For:

· Behaviorism

· Little Albert Experiment

Born: January 9, 1878.

Died: September 25, 1958.

University: MA, Furman University (1899)

University: PhD Psychology, University of Chicago (1903)

Professor: Psychology, Johns Hopkins University (1908-20)

Author of books:

Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1914)

Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919)

Behaviorism (1925)

Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928)

John B. Watson grew up in South Carolina and entered Furman University at the age of 16. After graduating five years later with a master’s degree at the age of 21, he began studying psychology at the University of Chicago. Watson earned his Ph.D. in psychology in 1903. Watson began teaching psychology at JHU in 1908. In 1913 he gave a lecture at Columbia University on the behaviorist's view of psychology.

1915 – Served as the President of the American Psychological Association (APA)
· 1919 – Published Psychology From the Standpoint of a Behaviorist
· 1925 – Published Behaviorism
· 1928 – Published Psychological Care of Infant and Child
· 1957 – Received the APA’s award for contributions to psychology


Stages of Change Model:
external image change3.jpg

  • Precontemplation (Not yet acknowledging that there is a problem behavior that needs to be changed)
Characterized by denial and ignorance of the problem
  • Contemplation (Acknowledging that there is a problem but not yet ready or sure of wanting to make a change)
Characterized by ambivalence and conflicted emotions
  • Preparation/Determination (Getting ready to change)
Characterized by experimenting with small changes and collecting information about change
  • Action/Willpower (Changing behavior)
Characterized by taking direct action toward achieving a goal
  • Maintenance (Maintaining the behavior change)
Characterized by maintaining a new behavior and avoiding temptation
  • Relapse (Returning to older behaviors and abandoning the new changes)
Characterized by feelings of disappointment, failure, and frustration