What Is Behavioral Psychology? Definition And Applications

By Nicole Beasley

Updated May 23, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

Behavioral psychology isn't as popular as it once was, but it is still used quite a bit today by parents, teachers, animal trainers, and psychologists. Behavioral psychology, also called behaviorism, is the study of human behavior. Its study and applications have shaped how our school system works, how parents teach their children, and how companies develop and market their products. Although the study of behaviorism has waned since the 1950s, the basic principles from the research that was done for over 40 years still have a basis in today's society.

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Behavioral Psychology Definition

Behavioral psychology is the study of human behavior. The researchers who believed in behaviorism observed and measured human behavior in various settings and circumstances. The results that they found to be true have shaped our society. Behavioral psychology does not take into consideration subjective influences such as mood, feelings, or cognition. Instead, it focuses solely on environmental influences and conditioning.

Famous Behaviorists

Several famous behaviorists founded the study of behavioral psychology. The first mention of behaviorism that brought the study to light was a publication called "Psychology as the Behaviorist View It" which was published by John B. Watson in 1913. Additional famous behaviorists included B. F. Skinner, who developed the theory of operant conditioning. Other notable behaviorists included Edwin Ray Guthrie, Edward C. Tollman, Clark L. Hull, and Kenneth Spence.

Behavioral Psychology Theory

The theory of behavioral psychology is that one's environment directly shapes their behavior. By studying an individual's environment and controlling it, behavior can be successfully measured and modified. As John B. Watson stated in his 1913 paper, behaviorists believe that if you take 20 infants and raise them in a specified environment, you could turn them into adults with the behaviors of your choosing.

Conditioning

One of the most important things to come out of the study of behavioral psychology is the theory, concept, and applications of conditioning. There are two types of conditioning: operant conditioning and classical conditioning. When studying these two different types of conditioning, you will quickly recognize the similarities between these theories and how both teachers and parents teach children.

Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a neutral stimulus to create a response. Eventually, the neutral stimulus will create the response even though the natural stimulus is no longer present. For example, let's say you want to teach a child to immediately get dressed and come down to the kitchen when their alarm goes off on a school day. The alarm is the naturally occurring stimulus, and getting dressed would be the neutral stimulus. Eventually, the child would be so used to getting dressed immediately after rising that they will do so even if the alarm doesn't go off. This is called a conditioned response.

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This type of conditioning is most frequently used to build new habits or break bad habits and is largely built on associations. Ivan Pavlov, another famous behaviorist, proved the effectiveness of classical conditioning with dogs. Dogs salivate when presented with food. Pavlov associated the food with a bell, then a lab coat. Eventually, just the site of the lab coat made the dogs salivate.

Classical conditioning is not foolproof. There is a phenomenon called extinction in which the association that created the conditioned response disappears. How quickly this might occur depends on several factors, such as the strength of the stimulus in the first stages of conditioning, and how long the conditioning lasts.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is the most frequently used application of behavioral psychology. It is used by parents, teachers, and even employers. With operant conditioning, the behavior is either rewarded or punished. Sound familiar? Each behavior has a consequence. If that consequence is consistently bad, the subject will stop the behavior. If the consequence is good, they will repeat the behavior. This is the foundation for how we teach children in our society. It is also frequently used in training animals.

Operant conditioning is also based mostly on associations. In this case, associations are built based on the consequences of behaviors. When a certain behavior is associated with a particular consequence, the behavior will either be reinforced or eliminated.

One of the most important things to understand about operant conditioning is that the consequence must be the same every time for the association to be built. This is why parents are frequently told to be consistent in their punishments and rewards. It is important that for operant conditioning to work the consequence each time the target behavior is presented is the same or extremely similar.

After a behavior is learned, partial reinforcement can be applied. For example, you might reward your child every time they do the dishes when you are building the habit, but after the habit is built, you might only reward the child every week with an allowance or some type of treat. Partial reinforcement should not be used during the beginning stages of operant conditioning, because consistent reinforcement is necessary to build the associations.

Common Applications

Although the study of behaviorism has steeply declined since the 1950s, some definite applications are still in use today. Some of these applications will seem very familiar, especially to parents or pet owners.

Therapeutic Behavioral Psychology

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Behavioral psychology is used in therapeutic applications in many situations. The most common way for behaviorism to be used is in the treatment of autistic or troubled children. The behavioral analysis combined with conditioning can help autistic, and other mentally disabled children learn new skills and techniques. Other ways that behavioral psychology is applied to therapeutic practices include aversion therapy, contingency management, and systematic desensitization.

Building And Breaking Habits

Adults will also benefit from some behavioral psychology applications. It is behavioral psychology that shapes how people break bad habits or create new healthy habits. Every book, article, tip, and trick that you will read about making or breaking habits is based on behavioral psychology. Habits are typically formed through classical conditioning, while bad habits are broken through operant conditioning.

Teaching Children

Behavioral psychology has shaped how we teach our children in today's society. The entire public school system is based on behaviorism. Children are rewarded for learning, and associations are built to help them learn new skills, information, and behaviors. Parents use operant conditioning to teach their children right from wrong and to teach them the rules of the household and society. Without the studies in behavioral psychology that occurred between 1910 and 1950, the way we raise our children could look very different.

Strengths And Weaknesses

There are some strengths and weaknesses to consider when it comes to behavioral psychology. The weaknesses of behaviorism are the reason that it is no longer studied in earnest. In recent years, psychologists have focused more on biological psychology and the way that our brain and emotions play a role in our behavior.

Strengths

One of the major strengths of behaviorism is that behavior is an observable, measurable thing. Unlike emotions, thoughts, and moods, behavior can be seen and measured. This makes it easier to define and to collect research than with other types of psychology. These strengths have helped behaviorism to be used to develop several therapies that help both children and adults.

Weaknesses

Most psychologists today claim that behaviorism is a one-sided way to look at behavior. It doesn't take into account the moods, thoughts, and feelings of an individual, which play a role in human behavior. Some psychologists also argue that behaviorism doesn't take into account free will. There are also other types of learning that do not involve reinforcement or punishment, and behaviorism doesn't take these methods into account. People can also adapt their behavior based on new information, even if that information was not presented through conditioning or goes against a previously conditioned response.

Getting Help With Behavioral Psychology

If you are struggling with breaking habits, building new healthier habits, teaching your children right from wrong, or managing your employees through behaviorism theories, the best thing you can do is get more information about this field of psychology. You can find many books and articles on the subject, particularly for building and breaking habits.

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If you are having a particularly difficult time breaking a bad habit, behavioral psychology applications could help. A therapist can help you break habits, especially addictions, through behaviorism techniques. Addictions such as those to nicotine, alcohol, opioids, and other drugs can often be broken using conditioning techniques discovered through the study of behavioral psychology.

If you are fighting addiction and need help, contact a therapist today. Even if you are unable to find or afford a psychologist near you, you still have options. Organizations such as BetterHelp are here to provide you with round the clock access to therapists to help you through your addiction and on to a better life. Contact us today to learn more or to get started with therapy.


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