What Is Behavioral Learning?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Behaviorism is the theory that behaviors are a response to a stimulus or stimuli in the environment. It emphasizes external behaviors and responses to the outside world as opposed to internal feelings and emotions.

While those in education are likely to be familiar with behavioral learning, it is a way of learning used in many areas of life. Behavioral learning theory has a long history and is significant to learning and in the field of psychology.

John Watson and behaviorism

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Behaviorism is an approach to psychology based on studying behaviors that can be observed rather than on internal feelings, emotions, thoughts, or consciousness. Behaviorism began as a theory of psychology by the American psychologist John Watson in 1913. At the time, the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and his student Carl Jung ruled the psychological landscape.

Psychoanalysis stresses the importance of the unconscious mind, which can be interpreted through internal occurrences like dreams and past early childhood experiences. In contrast, behaviorism stresses the external—what is happening in the environment—rather than the internal—what is in mind.

Behaviorists like Watson believed that if psychology—then increasingly popular but still a fairly new science—were to be taken seriously, it would need to emphasize the study of observable behaviors and information.

Pavlov, classical conditioning, and behavioral learning

Behavioral learning is a school of study that focuses on how individuals learn and how an individual’s learning can be measured. One of Watson’s early tenets of behaviorism was that humans learn in the same way animals do. This opened the door to some of the earliest animal studies and animal experiments in psychology.

“Pavlov’s dogs” and “Pavlovian response” are terms that may sound familiar. Pavlov’s dogs were the subjects of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s famous behavioral experiments. Pavlov found that he could train dogs to associate sounds with feeding. He calculated the degree to which dogs associated food with the sound of a bell based on the volume of saliva that dogs produced when they heard the sound. This satisfied the behaviorism priority of measuring the response through observation rather than through a hypothesis or theory.

Associating a concept (like, in the case of Pavlov’s dogs, food, or being fed) with repeated exposure to a stimulus (like the sound of the bell, for instance) is called “classical conditioning.” Classical conditioning is one of the main concepts in the theory of behavioral learning.

B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning, and behavioral learning

Another early contributor to behavioral learning theory was B.F. Skinner. While his term “operant conditioning” may not sound familiar, positive and negative reinforcement components may be. Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are sometimes confused with “rewards” or “punishments.” While positive reinforcement involves someone receiving something in response to a behavior, negative reinforcement involves taking something away in response to a behavior. Both types of reinforcement can strengthen or encourage behaviors.

A practical example of negative reinforcement involves seat belt warnings in cars. Once you buckle your seat belt, the loud and bothersome beeping noise stops or is taken away. As a result, positive behavior (wearing a seatbelt for safety) is reinforced. In the future, the behavior of putting on the seatbelt may become more regular because of the motivation to avoid hearing the beeping.

Another example of negative reinforcement is that a child might be reprimanded for not doing their homework. When they do their homework, the reprimands are taken away, which reinforces the behavior of doing their homework. On the other hand, positive reinforcement would involve offering verbal praise to a child for doing their homework, increasing the likelihood of positive behavior in the future.

Albert Bandura and observational learning

Classical and operant conditioning are forms of associative learning, which involve a response associated with an outside stimulus. Associative learning involves the direct experiences of the subject. However, a later psychologist, Albert Bandura, proposed that a subject doesn’t need to experience a stimulus to learn a behavior directly. According to Albert Bandura psychology and his theory, a subject can learn behavior by watching someone else perform that behavior. This process is called “social learning” or “observational learning.”

Observational learning is not completely different from associative learning. The behavior that a subject learns by observing someone else (whether in person or in the media, for instance) can serve as a model for behavior. That behavior may then be encouraged or discouraged in ways that are similar to classical or operant conditioning. This may sound not very easy, but it happens in everyday life. For example, a child may learn behavior from watching a certain tv show or observing someone else. This is an example of observational learning. Let’s say a young child observes a tv character being silly and throwing food, which prompts the young observer to laugh. Through observation, the laughter may reinforce or encourage the child’s behavior. The child may decide to throw food at dinner to make the family laugh. If the family does laugh, the behavior may be reinforced further. However, if praise for the child is removed temporarily, this negative reinforcement may strengthen or reinforce the child’s motivation to refrain from throwing food. If the child does not throw food the next night, praise from the parents may further positively reinforce the child’s more appropriate dinnertime behavior. If siblings see the behavior and the positive and negative reinforcements, they may learn about behavior and consequences from their observations, another example of social or observational learning.

Behavioral learning as an educational tool—in and out of the classroom


In several areas of life, behavioral learning is used:

Behavioral learning at school

Behavioral learning has been influential in education, especially in early childhood education. Positive and negative reinforcement are often used to teach children how to behave and encourage modification of behaviors. Schools may also utilize observational learning; for instance, a student’s success, other behaviors, and the subsequent consequences, whether negative or positive, are often used as examples for other students.

Behavioral learning in person and virtually

Of course, behavioral learning isn’t’ only used in the classroom. Behaviors and social norms can result from observing others throughout life. Behaviors may be observed in person or, in our increasingly connected world, maybe observed virtually. For example, consider the number of people whose behavior may be influenced by watching how-to videos or following “influencers” on social media.

Behavioral learning and criminal justice

Behavioral learning is employed in the criminal justice system, where undesirable actions earn undesirable consequences. This is an example of operant conditioning. Prisons are also often used for social learning. Legal consequences given to a criminal can serve the purpose of discouraging illegal actions by the public and giving the offender a legal punishment or penalty.

The twentieth-century philosopher Michel Foucault turned the idea of observational learning in criminal justice on its head with his “panopticon” theory. This theory suggests that the average person is so afraid of being observed doing something undesirable that creating the illusion that being observed is enough to prevent that behavior.

Behavioral learning and biology

Operant conditioning is often used to teach lessons, but it is also used in animal experiments about topics like memory and learning. The idea is that if a subject can perform an action that results in an award, it’s’ probably safe to assume that the subject has learned that it can get a reward by performing that action. If the subject doesn’t respond to rewards, it is often assumed that the subject is cognitively incapable of forming connections between the action and the reward.

Behavioral learning and psychology

Behaviorism has contributed to understanding how we and other living beings on earth learn, but it isn’t limited to educational psychology. Behaviorists have also contributed to understanding how the mind works, why we do what we do, and adjusting our behaviors. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most common kinds of talk therapy. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, the patient or client understands the internal and external motivations that drive their behavior, feelings, and thoughts. This can be helpful to them as they strive to develop positive behaviors, thoughts, and feelings and work on stopping or coping with the negative in their lives.

Is behavioral learning affecting your actions?

Discuss behavioral learning in online therapy

For help learning to manage behaviors or if you or a loved one has a mental health concern, please reach out for support. Licensed mental health professionals are available to connect with you online through BetterHelp. Online cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as other types of therapy, are very effective. A recent publication looked at more than 350 peer-reviewed studies. Through BetterHelp, you can connect with a counselor wherever you’re comfortable. 


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