The Behavioral Perspective: Stimulus, Response, And Behavior

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

We often develop behavioral patterns based on our prior interactions with various stimuli. If you learned to be careful around a stove after touching a hot burner, your actions can be explained, at least partially, from a behavioral perspective.

The behavioral perspective, often simply called behaviorism, is a theoretical framework through which behavior and learning are viewed and described according to stimulus-response relationships. The central assumption behind behaviorism is that an individual's actions are a result solely of their interaction with their environment.

In this article, we'll look in more depth at stimulus, response, and the corresponding behaviors as dictated by the theory of behaviorism.

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What is behaviorism?

Behaviorism is a theory of human behavior based around the idea that we act certain ways based on our prior interactions with our environment. Behaviorism is noted for its rejection of the role our thoughts and feelings play in our behaviors, focusing instead on observable actions. From the behavioral perspective, behavior is primarily learned through conditioning, which is referred to as the stimulus-response model. Behaviorism became the dominant lens through which psychology was viewed in the early 20th century, though it was eventually replaced by more comprehensive theories. 

The behavioral response is thought to occur through the two types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In classical conditioning, two coinciding stimuli—an unconditioned stimulus and a conditioned stimulus—induce a response. Take, for example, a situation in which you microwave your favorite snack each day. Over time, you may start to associate the microwave’s ding with the smell of your food being finished, causing you to salivate. In this situation, the unconditioned stimulus is the smell of the food and the conditioned stimulus is the ding.

In operant conditioning, the stimulus is typically a reward or a punishment, and it follows the response instead of preceding it. For example, if as a kid you shoveled your neighbor’s driveway as a favor, but they unexpectedly paid you, you might be tempted to shovel their driveway again or to shovel other neighbors’ driveways. Here, the stimulus is the money, and the response is you shoveling more snow. 

In both of the above examples, behavior is modified following a stimulus-response model. Below, we’re going to further discuss the stimulus-response relationship. 

What is a stimulus?

As discussed above, a primary concept within behaviorism is the stimulus-response model. A stimulus is an event that takes place or something you encounter that evokes a particular reaction.

For instance, if as a child you encountered a dog on the other side of a fence that suddenly started barking aggressively, you may have been startled, and your heart might have started beating rapidly. In this example, it is the dog that is the stimulus. 

Or consider a situation in which your parents gave you money each time you received an A on a test. In this case, the stimulus is the monetary reward.   

What is a response?

The response, from the behavioral perspective, is a direct reaction to the stimulus. To illustrate, let's return to the examples we mentioned in the previous section. When the dog startled you, your response was to jump and for your heart rate to accelerate. After you associate the dog with a strong physiological reaction, you may have developed an aversion to dogs. 

In the second example, the reward offered for good grades by your parents was the stimulus, and studying was the response. In both situations, the stimulus-response model helps explain the reasons you altered your behavior. 


Implications of behaviorism

Up until now, most of what we've been talking about is the way that the body responds involuntarily to outside stimuli that you might encounter in the world. But what about the behavior over which we seemingly exert some control? It's one thing to get goosebumps if we hear an eerie piece of music or to laugh with abandon if we find something exceedingly funny. But what about the rest of our behavior? How much control do we have over our behavior in the face of the stimuli that we regularly encounter?

Put simply, the behavioral perspective only applies to behaviors that can be observed and recorded. That might be why it lost so much prominence beginning around the 1950s. This is when many psychologists began to favor the cognitive perspective. The cognitive perspective gained popularity because it went beyond what could be seen. It has more to do with thinking, memory, decision-making abilities, and problem-solving.

Over time, the behavioral perspective hasn't held up as well as the cognitive perspective because it is limiting from a psychological standpoint. It might explain what can be seen, but a lot of human behavior has more to do with what is happening behind the scenes, so to speak, in our minds. 

The cognitive perspective

Where the behavioral perspective is lacking is where other psychological theories about human behavior are helpful. The cognitive perspective is one such approach. The cognitive theory contends that our thoughts and feelings influence the way we behave. We acquire information and then process, store, and utilize it. The older we get and the more experienced we become in various situations, the more we can draw on what we've learned to deal with what's happening around us.

The biological perspective

Another theory that goes beyond what the behavioral perspective can quantify and explain is the biological perspective. This is a theory that has to do with biological factors as well as outside stimuli. It delves into genetics, the immune system, the brain, and the nervous system. This is a perspective that has gotten a lot of attention in the past couple of decades. There are ways of measuring human behavior and explaining it via tests that can be conducted and analyzed. 

For instance, the brains of former football players have been examined using MRI scans and PET scans. Many of these players were found to have CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. This is a condition where multiple traumatic injuries to the brain have caused depression, mood swings, and aggression. 

What does all of this mean?

Behaviorism is no longer the dominant theory of human behavior. We now understand that our thoughts and feelings play a significant role in how we behave. Still, elements of behaviorism help explain different aspects of what we do and who we are. Behaviorism is crucial to our educational system, for example. It is also used in several different forms of therapy, such as exposure therapy. 

When it comes to how you conduct yourself personally, you are the one who gets the final say in what you do. There might be cultural impulses at play that you have learned, biological ones, and others as well. The older you get and the more experienced you become, though, the better control you will likely have over your actions. This affords you a great degree of freedom as well as personal responsibility. 

Understanding behavior through online therapy

Studies show that online therapy can be an effective method of providing therapy that is partially based on behavioral principles. For example, in one study, researchers found that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) led to reductions in symptoms of anxiety and depression while enhancing coping skills. Cognitive behavioral therapy—a widely utilized modality that arose out of behaviorism and cognitive therapy—focuses on how an individual’s behaviors are influenced by their thoughts and feelings.  

If problematic behaviors are negatively impacting your life, or you’d like to better understand the motivations behind your actions, consider connecting with a licensed therapist online. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can participate in therapy remotely, through video calls, voice calls, or in-app messaging. You can also reach out to your therapist outside of sessions, which can be helpful if you’d like to discuss behaviors you’ve been exhibiting between appointments. 

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Though the behavioral perspective is not a dominant theory at the moment, it still helps provide insights into our behavior—and it is still used to understand and address a variety of mental health-related challenges. If you’d like to explore the motivations behind your actions, consider getting matched with a licensed therapist online. Connecting with a mental health professional can be a productive next step toward developing a better understanding of your behavior and fostering emotional wellness.
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