Behavioral Perspective

What is Learning?

The behavioral perspective concerns the cognitive process of learning. According to the behavioral perspective, an individual acquires maladaptive behavior through learning.Simply, learning is any relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience and practice and has two main forms – associative learning and observational learning. First, associative learning is the linking together of information sensed from our environment. Conditioning, a type of associative learning, occurs which two events are linked and has two forms – classical conditioning, or linking together two types of stimuli, and operant conditioning, or linking together a response with its consequence. Second, observational learning occurs when we learn by observing the world around us.

We should also note the existence of non-associative learning or when there is no linking of information or observing the actions of others around you. Types include habituation, or when we simply stop responding to repetitive and harmless stimuli in our environment such as a fan running in your laptop as you work on a paper, and sensitization, or when our reactions are increased due to a strong stimulus, such as an individual who experienced a mugging and now experiences panic when someone walks up behind him/her on the street.

Little Albert | In 1920 John B. Watson (Founder of Behaviori… | Flickr

Little Albert In 1920 John B. Watson (Founder of Behaviorism). Watson’s ideas were influenced by Pavlov’s work. According to Watson, human behavior, just like animal behavior, is primarily the result of conditioned responses. Whereas Pavlov’s work with dogs involved the conditioning of reflexes, Watson believed the same principles could be extended to the conditioning of human emotions (Watson, 1919). Thus began Watson’s work with his graduate student Rosalie Rayner and a baby called Little Albert. Through their experiments with Little Albert, Watson and Rayner (1920) demonstrated how fears can be conditioned.

Behaviorism as a school of thought began in 1913 with the publication of John B. Watson’s article, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” in the journal, Psychological Review (Watson, 1913). It was Watson’s belief that the subject matter of psychology was to be observable behavior and to that end said that psychology should focus on the prediction and control of behavior. Behaviorism was dominant from 1913 to 1990 before being absorbed into mainstream psychology. It went through three major stages – behaviorism proper under Watson and lasting from 1913-1930 (respondent conditioning), neobehaviorism under Skinner and lasting from 1930-1960 (operant conditioning), and sociobehaviorism under Bandura and Rotter and lasting from 1960-1990 (the social learning theory).

Classical conditioning (also called response or Pavlovian conditioning) occurs when we link a previously neutral stimulus with a stimulus that is unlearned or inborn, called an unconditioned stimulus. In respondent conditioning, learning occurs in three phases: preconditioning, conditioning, and postconditioning.

Preconditioning. This stage of learning signifies is that some learning is already present. There is no need to learn it again as in the case of primary reinforcers and punishers in operant conditioning. In Panel A, food makes a dog salivate. This does not need to be learned and is the relationship of an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) yielding an unconditioned response (UCR). Unconditioned means unlearned.

Conditioning. Conditioning is when learning occurs.

Postconditioning. Postconditioning, or after learning has occurred, establishes a new and not naturally occurring relationship of a conditioned stimulus (CS; previously the NS) and conditioned response (CR; the same response).

One of the most famous studies in psychology was conducted by Watson and Rayner (1920). Essentially, they wanted to explore the possibility of conditioning emotional responses. In 1920, Watson was the chair of the psychology department at Johns Hopkins University. Through his position at the university he came to meet Little Albert’s mother, Arvilla Merritte, who worked at a campus hospital (DeAngelis, 2010). Watson offered her a dollar to allow her son, 9-month-old child, known as Little Albert, to be the subject of his experiments in classical conditioning. Through these experiments, Little Albert was exposed to and conditioned to fear certain things. Initially he was presented with various neutral stimuli, including a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, masks, cotton wool, and a white rat. He was not afraid of any of these things and at first, showed no response except curiosity. Then Watson, with the help of Rayner, conditioned Little Albert to associate these stimuli with an emotion—fear. For example, Watson handed Little Albert the white rat, and Little Albert enjoyed playing with it. Then Watson made a loud sound, by striking a hammer against a metal bar hanging behind Little Albert’s head, each time Little Albert touched the rat. Little Albert was frightened by the sound—demonstrating a reflexive fear of sudden loud noises—and began to cry. Watson repeatedly paired the loud sound with the white rat. Soon Little Albert responded with fear to the mere presence of the white rat. Days later, Little Albert demonstrated stimulus generalization—he became afraid of other furry things: a rabbit, a furry coat, and even a Santa Claus mask. Watson had succeeded in conditioning a fear response in Little Albert, thus demonstrating that emotions could become conditioned responses. It had been Watson’s intention to produce a phobia—a persistent, excessive fear of a specific object or situation— through conditioning alone, thus countering Freud’s view that phobias are caused by deep, hidden conflicts in the mind. However, there is no evidence that Little Albert experienced phobias in later years. Little Albert’s mother moved away, ending the experiment, and Little Albert himself died a few years later of unrelated causes. While Watson’s research provided new insight into conditioning, it would be considered unethical by today’s standards.

Link to Learning

View scenes from John Watson’s experiment in which Little Albert was conditioned to respond in fear to furry objects.

As you watch the video, look closely at Little Albert’s reactions and the manner in which Watson and Rayner present the stimuli before and after conditioning.

As fears can be learned, so too they can be unlearned. Considered the follow-up to Watson and Rayner (1920), Jones (1924) wanted to see if a child (named Peter) who learned to be afraid of white rabbits could be conditioned to become unafraid of them. Simply, she placed Peter in one end of a room and then brought in the rabbit. The rabbit was far enough away so as to not cause distress. Then, Jones gave Peter some pleasant food (i.e., something sweet such as cookies; remember the response to the food is unlearned). She continued this procedure with the rabbit being brought in a bit closer each time until eventually, Peter did not respond with distress to the rabbit. This process is called counterconditioning or extinction, or the reversal of previous learning.

Another way to unlearn a fear is called flooding or exposing the person to the maximum level of stimulus and as nothing aversive occurs, the link between CS and UCS producing the CR of fear should break, leaving the person unafraid. This type of treatment is rather extreme and is not typically practiced by psychologists.

Aversive conditioning uses an unpleasant stimulus to stop an undesirable behavior. Behavioral clinicians and Therapists apply this technique to eliminate addictive behaviors, such as smoking, nail biting, and drinking. The individual associates a maladaptive response with a stimulus that could not by itself cause harm. In aversion therapy, clients will typically engage in a specific behavior (such as nail biting) and at the same time are exposed to something unpleasant, such as a mild electric shock or a bad taste. After repeated associations between the unpleasant stimulus and the behavior, the client can learn to stop the unwanted behavior.

Aversion therapy has been used effectively for years in the treatment of alcoholism (Davidson, 1974; Elkins, 1991; Streeton & Whelan, 2001). One common way this occurs is through a chemically based substance known as Antabuse. When a person takes Antabuse and then consumes alcohol, uncomfortable side effects result including nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate, heart palpitations, severe headache, and shortness of breath. Antabuse is repeatedly paired with alcohol until the client associates alcohol with unpleasant feelings, which decreases the client’s desire to consume alcohol. Antabuse creates a conditioned aversion to alcohol because it replaces the original pleasure response with an unpleasant one.

Operant conditioning is a type of associate learning which focuses on consequences that follow a response or behavior that we make (anything we do, say, or think/feel) and whether it makes a behavior more or less likely to occur.  Skinner talked about contingencies or when one thing occurs due to another. Think of it as an If-Then statement. If I do X then Y will happen. For operant conditioning, this means that if I make a behavior, then a specific consequence will follow. The events (response and consequence) are linked in time.

What form do these consequences take? There are two main ways they can present themselves.

  • Reinforcement – Due to the consequence, a behavior/response is more likely to occur in the future. It is strengthened.
  • Punishment – Due to the consequence, a behavior/response is less likely to occur in the future. It is weakened.

Contingency management (CM) is the application of operant conditioning, which uses stimulus control and consequences to change behavior, and originally derived from the science of applied behavior analysis (ABA), but it is sometimes implemented from a cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) framework as well (such as in dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT), that we discuss at the end of this module.

Incentive-based contingency management is well-established when used as a clinical behavior analysis (CBA) treatment for substance abuse, which entails that patients’ earn money (vouchers) or other incentives (i.e., prizes) as a reward to reinforce drug abstinence (and, less often, punishment if they fail to adhere to program rules and regulations or their treatment plan). By most evaluations, its procedures produces one of the largest effect sizes out of all mental health and educational interventions.

One form of contingency management is the token economy system, where tokens are earned and later exchanged fro tangible benefits. Token systems can be used in an individual or group format.Token systems have been shown to be successful with a diverse array of populations including those suffering from addiction, those with special needs, and those experiencing delinquency. However, recent research questions the use of token systems with very young children. The exception to the last would be the treatment of stuttering. The goal of such systems is to gradually thin out and to help the person begin to access the natural community of reinforcement (the reinforcement typically received in the world for performing the behavior).

Observational Learning

There are times when we learn by simply watching others. This is called observational learning and is contrasted with enactive learning, which is learning by doing. There is no firsthand experience by the learner in observational learning. You can learn desirable behaviors such as exercising because your mother engaged in exercise every day and you can learn undesirable ones too. If your parents resort to alcohol consumption to deal with the stressors life presents, then you too might do the same. What is critical is what happens to the model in all of these cases. If my mother seems genuinely happy and pleased with herself after exercising, then I will be more likely to adopt this behavior. If my mother or father consumes alcohol to feel better when things are tough, and it works, then I might do the same. On the other hand, if we see a sibling constantly getting in trouble with the law then we may not model this behavior due to the negative consequences.

But keep in mind that we do not model everything we see. Why? First, we cannot pay attention to everything going on around us. We are more likely to model behaviors by someone who commands our attention. Second, we must remember what a model does in order to imitate it. If a behavior is not memorable, it will not be imitated. Finally, we must try to convert what we see into action. If we are not motivated to perform an observed behavior, we probably will not show what we have learned.

Vicarious reinforcement can occur when you imitate the behavior of someone who has been reinforced for that behavior, as when avoiding hot water having seen another person burned by it. Behavioral treatments can also involve this principle, in which the therapist shoes models of people receiving rewards fro demonstrating the desired behavior. Participant modeling is a behavior therapy technique in which the therapist models a problematic situation and then guides the patient through steps to cope with it unassisted.

A concept that was first introduced by Albert Bandura (the social learning theory) in 1977, self-efficacy refers to a person’s beliefs that he or she is able to effectively perform the tasks needed to attain a valued goal (Bandura, 1977). Since then, self-efficacy has become one of the most thoroughly researched concepts in psychology. Just about every important domain of human behavior has been investigated using self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1997; Maddux, 1995; Maddux & Gosselin, 2011, 2012).  Again, self-efficacy does not refer to your abilities but rather to your beliefs about what you can do with your abilities. Also, self-efficacy is not a trait—there are not certain types of people with high self-efficacies and others with low self-efficacies (Stajkovic & Luthans, 1998). Rather, people have self-efficacy beliefs about specific goals and life domains. For example, if you believe that you have the skills necessary to do well in school and believe you can use those skills to excel, then you have high academic self-efficacy.

Evaluating the Behavioral Model

Within the context of abnormal behavior or psychopathology, the behavioral perspective is useful because it suggests that maladaptive behavior occurs when learning goes awry. The good thing is that what is learned can be unlearned or relearned using behavior modification which refers to the process of changing behavior. To begin, an applied behavior analyst will identify a target behavior, or behavior to be changed, define it, work with the client to develop goals, conduct a functional assessment to understand what the undesirable behavior is, what causes it, and what maintains it. Armed with this knowledge, a plan is developed and consists of numerous strategies to act on one or all of these elements – antecedent, behavior, and/or consequence.

The greatest strength or appeal of the behavioral model is that its tenets are easily tested in the laboratory unlike those of the psychodynamic model. Also, a large number of treatment techniques have been developed and proven to be effective over the years. For example, desensitization (Wolpe, 1997) teaches clients to respond calmly to fear-producing stimuli. It begins with the individual learning a relaxation technique such as diaphragmatic breathing. Next, a fear hierarchy, or list of feared objects and situations, is constructed in which the individual moves from least to most feared. Finally, the individual either imagines (systematic) or experiences in real life (in-vivo) each object or scenario from the hierarchy and uses the relaxation technique while doing so. This represents individual pairings of feared object or situation and relaxation and so if there are 10 objects/situations in the list, the client will experience ten such pairings and eventually be able to face each without fear. Outside of phobias, desensitization has been shown to be effective in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder symptoms (Hakimian and D’Souza, 2016) and limitedly with the treatment of depression that is co-morbid with OCD (Masoumeh and Lancy, 2016).

Critics of the behavioral perspective point out that it oversimplifies behavior and often ignores inner determinants of behavior. Behaviorism has also been accused of being mechanistic and seeing people as machines. Watson and Skinner defined behavior as what we do or say, but later, behaviorists added what we think or feel. Behavior therapy is a broad term referring to psychotherapy in which the methods focus on either just behaviors or in combination with thoughts and feelings that might be causing them. In terms of the latter, cognitive behavior modification procedures arose after the 1960s along with the rise of cognitive psychology. This lead to a cognitive-behavioral perspective which combines concepts from the behavioral and cognitive perspectives, the latter is discussed in the next section.

Key Takeaways

Behavior modification

Refers to the process of changing behavior

Behavior therapy 

Psychotherapy in which the methods focus on either just behaviors or in combination with thoughts and feelings that might be causing them.


When one thing occurs due to another.

Contingency management (CM)

The application of operant conditioning, which uses stimulus control and consequences to change behavior


A treatment technique that teaches clients to respond calmly to fear-producing stimuli.

Enactive learning

Learning by doing.

Fear hierarchy

A list of feared objects and situations, is constructed in which the individual moves from least to most feared.

Observational learning

When we learn by simply watching others.

Participant modeling 

A behavior therapy technique in which the therapist models a problematic situation and then guides the patient through steps to cope with it unassisted.


Due to the consequence, a behavior/response is less likely to occur in the future. It is weakened.


Due to the consequence, a behavior/response is more likely to occur in the future. It is strengthened.


Refers to a person’s beliefs that he or she is able to effectively perform the tasks needed to attain a valued goal

Target behavior

A behavior to be changed

Token economy 

Tokens are earned and later exchanged fro tangible benefits.

Vicarious reinforcement

When you imitate the behavior of someone who has been reinforced for that behavior