What Is Human Behavior? Theories And Types

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Human behavior is an inherently complex subject matter which pertains to the manner and reasons behind people’s actions. There are countless theories associated with human behavior and various types of conduct. Understanding human behavior can be crucial in society; this knowledge often sheds light on patterns, the reasons people make certain decisions, and much more. The more one understands human behavior, the more effectively they can position themselves and comprehend how others see, interpret, and adapt to their various environments. Keep reading to learn more about human behavior, including its various theories and types.  

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Theories of human behavior

Of all the theories about human behavior, one of the most prevalent is that of conditioning – an unconscious learning process that links a stimulus to a response or elicits a behavior through reinforcement. There are two main types of conditioning, and different people may be more impacted by one form over the other. 

The APA defines conditioning as “the process by which certain kinds of experience make particular actions more or less likely”.  Naturally, conditioning human beings to behave in certain ways can prompt ethical or moral debates, especially when someone is conditioned to act in a manner that fails to suit their best interests. Still, others maintain that human beings are all inherently programmed to behave in one way or another. Let’s explore the two types of conditioning in more detail: 

Classical conditioning 

Classical conditioning occurs when someone comes to associate specific stimuli with a certain outcome. This manner of conditioning often encourages people to behave in ways that will bring them joy and pleasure. For instance, if someone finds that they tend to do well when they follow their instincts as opposed to following the rules, they are likelier to be a nonconformist and take risks. Classical conditioning does not always have to occur from the actions or manipulations of a specific individual. Sometimes, it naturally happens from the environment to which someone is routinely exposed.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning controls human behavior via positive and negative reinforcement. For example, a person who finds themselves constantly in trouble with the law when they break certain rules typically learns to associate rule-breaking with legal issues. Likewise, someone who regularly studies for exams and aces them starts to associate studying with positive grades. When it comes to human behavior, people tend to steer clear of what causes them pain and gravitate toward pleasure and personal satisfaction. 


Another theory in the realm of human behavior is known as cognition. This prevalent theory maintains that human behavior is determined by an individual’s thoughts, inner judgments, personal motivations, etc. This theory places an emphasis on people’s hidden states and argues that what a person is feeling, thinking, or battling will eventually impact the behavior that the world sees. Cognitive theories that pertain to human behavior are heavily supported by mental health studies, psychological studies, and more. Much of what exists within the tangible, external world today originally existed within an individual’s mind.

Types of human behavior

Many theories of human behavior are widely used and accepted in today’s world. Understanding these theories can make a difference, but so can learning more about the types of human behavior and the factors which drive them. As a unique species, human beings will collectively and individually fall into different or even multiple categories. Certain people may be more inclined in one direction, whereas others might be driven by something else entirely. The following offer explanations for different types of human behavior


How people behave can largely be impacted by their personality. Some individuals may be patient and easygoing, while others are impatient and hot-headed. In many cases, it can be difficult to gauge someone’s personality right off the bat. Usually, it takes some time to get to know them, interact with them, and gain an understanding of what type of person they are. Some personalities are friendlier than others, and there are a series of factors that can shape or alter someone’s personality, such as culture, environment, and peers. 


A person’s level of interest in other people or subjects can significantly influence their behavior. Interest can determine whether someone behaves in a way that is consistent with who they are and may also predict whether they will take risks or pursue a goal. Often, when someone is interested in a person or subject, they are more likely to devote attention to it than if they were not interested. Gauging a person’s interest in something can be an effective way of predicting or theorizing forthcoming human behavior.


Like personality and interest, individual attitudes can also deeply affect human behavior. Attitudes can be considered negative or positive, stemming from one’s development or outside influences. Nevertheless, a person’s attitude can still determine the choices they make, the way they interact with others, and their general day-to-day behavior. A positive attitude can make someone more open and receptive to certain people or situations while a negative attitude tends to cause individuals to avoid or shut out anything they view unfavorably.


Emotions are often deeply relevant when it pertains to human behavior. Many actions and decisions in life are emotionally charged, even when the emotional background may not be apparent on the surface. A positive emotional state can cause someone to be open-minded, a risk-taker, and more likely to engage in certain behaviors. Likewise, a negative emotional state can lead to isolation, or a person’s decision to withdraw from others. Many manners of human behavior can be traced back to emotions of some sort, even if additional factors are involved.

Human behavior and self-control

Despite the theories and factors of human behavior, self-control remains relevant. Self-control has been defined as the ability to be in command of one’s behavior and inhibit one’s impulses. This form of self-discipline will direct a person to choose long-term outcomes over short-term gains. How someone chooses to behave makes a difference because, at the end of the day, each person is responsible for their own actions. While it can be easy to control yourself and your actions when life is going well, behavior in the face of stress, worries, and challenges is often what turns out to be the most defining. Even if someone takes certain actions under stress, they will still be held accountable for them.

Self-control determines whether you stay grounded even in the face of adversity or tough times. Someone who lacks self-control may have a significantly harder time staying out of trouble than someone who knows how to manage themselves. Exercising self-control does not mean that you are immune to negative emotions or that your personality, interest levels, and attitudes do not affect you. However, when you have self-control, you can manage these factors instead of allowing them to manage you.

Consequences, whether positive or negative, can be inevitable factors when it comes to human behavior. The choices you make and how you choose to behave determine whether you experience desirable or undesirable outcomes. The more self-control you develop, the more likely you are to be able to manage your behaviors and experience interpersonal success.

Want to understand more about why people act in certain ways?

Online therapy for behavioral concerns

If you find yourself unable to manage your behaviors, this may be a symptom of an underlying issue that needs to be addressed with a professional. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform that can match you with a licensed, qualified professional who has experience and training in the field of human behavior. Working with an online therapist, you can learn how to practice self-control and effectively manage the choices you make and how you interact with others. Having a support system that you can turn to at any time can be helpful, especially during times when you need some encouragement. With the ability to talk to your provider through video chats, phone calls, or a messaging feature, they’re always just a click away.

The efficacy of online therapy 

Evidence from research has shown that the effectiveness of CBT can be similar regardless of whether it is delivered online or in person. In a 2021 study, researchers compared an online positive psychotherapy intervention to an online cognitive behavior therapy program and found that both were equally effective in reducing anxiety symptoms associated with pre-test anxiety. CBT is a type of therapy that recognizes the link between a person’s thoughts and subsequent behaviors. By recognizing and learning how to change one’s negative or otherwise unhelpful thoughts, individuals can learn how to shift their unwanted behaviors and responses to life. 


The subject of human behavior can be complex and vast, seeping into other areas of study and frequently becoming a subject of debate. Though many researchers have studied human behavior and created their own theories about it, we still have a lot more to learn. Understanding why people act as they do is just one part of the puzzle, as learning how to control these behaviors can often be just as difficult to figure out. Regardless of who you are or what you may be going through, it can be important to understand the thoughts behind your actions and know how to practice self-control. If you are looking for support in either of these areas, online therapy can provide a safe, space in which to discuss your concerns and find solutions alongside a professional.
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