top of page

What Is Behavioral Psychology?

Learn more about this psychological movement and why it still matters.

Have you ever wondered whether your internal predisposition or your environment has a more significant influence on your behavioral choices? This dilemma is often called the nature vs. nurture debate and has led to different schools of thought in psychology. Hence, some psychologists explain behaviors through biological and internal underpinnings, whereas others focus on the behavioral effects of upbringing and environmental factors, and yet, many others fall somewhere in between.

On the nurture end of the nature-nurture spectrum is a branch of psychology, which was extremely popular in the first half of the 20th century, known as behavioral psychology or behaviorism. Behavioral psychology assumes that individuals acquire all behaviors through their interactions with the environment. Therefore, behavioral psychologists—also known as behaviorists— believe that our actions are shaped by external stimuli, such as laws, education, socioeconomic forces, etc., and not internal stimuli, which include thoughts, emotions, and personality, among others. For instance, in behaviorism, anxiety can be explained as a behavior acquired from the environment, such as by being around others with anxiety, and not due to internalized traumatic experience or genetic inclinations.

Behavioral Psychology Terms​

  • Stimulus: An object, factor, or event that can trigger a behavioral change.

  • Response: The reaction to or the behavioral change caused by a stimulus.

  • Classical Conditioning: A behavioral training technique that pairs a neutral stimulus with a natural stimulus. As a result, the test subject responds to the neutral stimulus the same way they would respond to the natural stimulus.

  • Operant Conditioning: A behavioral training technique that uses reinforcements (rewards) and punishments to pair a behavior with a consequence.

  • Positive Reinforcement: Addition of a stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavioral response. Note that “positive” in this context simply means adding something.

  • Negative Reinforcement: Removal of a stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavioral response. Note that “negative” in this context simply means removing something.

  • Positive Punishment: Addition of a stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a behavioral response.

  • Negative Punishment: Removal of a stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a behavioral response.

Pavlov’s Dogs

Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with dogs paved the way to one of the most important concepts in psychology: classical conditioning. Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, was actually investigating the digestive processes in dogs.

In his research, Pavlov and his assistants introduced different edible and non-edible items to dogs and then measured saliva production. Salivation occurs automatically as a result of a certain stimulus and is not under conscious control. However, Pavlov noticed that dogs would salivate even in the absence of food and smell, making him realize that dogs were responding to something else. He then realized the dogs started to associate the research assistants’ white lab coats with food, as the technicians usually fed them.

After these informal observations were designed into an experiment, Pavlov discovered that if a neutral stimulus was present in the dog’s environment when the dog received food then that stimulus could become associated with feeding and cause salivation even in the absence of food. Today, this is known as classical conditioning.

Although Pavlov discovered classical conditioning in 1897, his work still inspires research today and has important applications for psychology, including behavioral modification and treatment for phobias, anxiety, and panic disorders.

Skinner’s Pigeons

Operant conditioning, sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning, is a type of learning that uses rewards or punishments to associate a behavior with a consequence. For example, giving a dog a treat every time he raises the left paw teaches the dog that raising the paw can earn him more treats. In this case, “operant” refers to “controlled by its consequences,” meaning that an association is made between a behavior (i.e., lifting the paw) and a consequence (i.e., receiving a treat) for it (Goldman, 2012). And this is what Skinner discovered in one experiment with pigeons. He found that rewarding a bird for a specific behavior increased the frequency of that behavior (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003).

We all use operant conditioning in our daily lives, and depending on whether a reward or punishment is added or removed, there are four types of operant conditioning, which are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Here is an example of each type of operant conditioning:

  • Positive reinforcement: You train your dog to grab the newspaper by offering him a treat or a pat on the head whenever he brings the newspaper.

  • Negative reinforcement: A professor waives the final exam for any student that came to every class. In this case, students are reinforced to attend class regularly.

  • Positive punishment: Your friend drives 30 miles per hour over the speed limit and receives a hefty ticket from a police officer.

  • Negative punishment: A young boy does not clean up his toys after playing with some friends, so his parents don’t let him watch TV for two days.

In Sum

Behavioral psychology was the dominant school of psychology in the first part of the 20th century and some of its best-known studies include Pavlov’s conditioning experiments with dogs and Skinner’s pigeon studies of operant conditioning. The results of these studies and others influenced generations of psychologists and how we think about behavior. Although behaviorism is not as popular as it once was, various therapeutic techniques are based on this movement, helping people overcome their problems even today.


  • Goldman, J. (2012, Dec 13). What is operant conditioning? And how does it explain driving dogs? Scientific American.

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

5 views0 comments


bottom of page