dog, licking lips, licking

Learning Theory: Behaviorism - Historical View

While researching salivation in dogs in the 1890s, Russian Physiologist Ivan Pavlov observed increased salivation after the dogs were exposed to certain stimuli. He had placed small collection tubes in the dogs’ mouths to measure saliva when fed. Indeed, the dogs’ saliva increased when shown the food, but after several feedings the dogs began to salivate when they heard the footsteps of the worker who was bringing the bowls of food. Pavlov posited that dogs did not need to learn to salivate as it was quite natural for them (unconditioned stimulus and unconditioned response).

Pavlov continued his experiments and added a separate neutral stimulus (a metronome) and just as expected, the dogs did not show any salivation response (no conditioned response). However, he observed that the dogs began salivating when they heard the sound of the metronome when it was introduced just prior to feeding. Then, he totally removed the food and saw that just hearing the metronome clicking was enough of a stimulus to cause the dogs to salivate. Pavlov had observed a stimulus and conditioned response; i.e., a learned behavior (McLeod, 2018b). Psychologists refer to this form of learning by association as classical conditioning.

In 1913, John B. Watson, an American psychologist, published his findings after experimenting on and observing child and animal behaviors. He proposed that classical conditioning explained how humans learned (McLeod, 2018a). In his book, Behaviorism, he wrote,

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors (Watson, 1924, p. 104).

Later, American psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed that human actions were dependent on consequences of previous actions, and used the term radical behaviorism to describe his specific philosophy of behaviorism (Graham, 2019). Skinner believed that free will was an illusion and that humans responded based on consequences of previous actions. He argued that observation to stimuli built on past personal history was the only way to objectively determine what goes on within the mind (Skinner, 1976).

While classical conditioning assumes that an automatic response must previous exist, Skinner observed that organisms either behave a certain way to receive a reward or cease behaving a certain way to avoid punishment (Nebel, 2017). He called this operant conditioning; in other words, people react and behave based on either prior positive or negative reinforcement (“Behaviorism: GSI Teaching & Resource Center”, n.d.).

Behaviorism as a psychology is rooted in observing how organisms respond to stimuli. Even though some consider it to be simple and restricted to specific types of responses, it still has a number of proponents today. Its popularity may be, in part, because Behaviorism explains how we react without having to understand what is happening in our minds which makes experimentation much simpler, observable, and straightforward (Graham, 2019).

Even today, Behaviorism ideas and assumptions can be applied to learning theory. Activities and assessments that effectually impact learning can be created, using activity or instructor feedback as a “reward” or “punishment.”


This blog post is part of my Learning Theories Series, in which I will explore various ideas and concepts used in developing learning materials.