Episode #7 of the course “Major Schools of Thought in Psychology”
Behaviorism was the predominant approach to psychology between about 1920 and 1950, and as its namesake suggests, it focused on the study of behavior instead of attempting to study thoughts. A lot of its development had to do with the fact that it was (and continues to be) much easier to study behavior than it is to study inner mental processes.
Behaviorism is based on a number of underlying assumptions. First, psychologists realized that in order for psychology to have any weight as a science, researchers must have an empirical way to study processes. Behaviorism attempted to satisfy this requirement by conducting behavior-related experiments. Behaviorists argued that internal events like thinking should be explained in a behavioral way for them to be considered valid, or they should be ignored altogether. Many of their experiments focused on animals because they believed (and most still continue to believe) that thought processes in animals are very similar to those in humans. One of the goals of behaviorism is to be able to predict human behavior by using these experiments.
They also assumed that people have no free will and that a person’s environment will determine his or her behavior. On top of that, behaviorists assume that humans are born with their minds like a blank slate (“tabula rasa”), and the environment begins to add to the mind the second that we are born. We also learn behavior from the environment, and all behavior is the result of some kind of external stimulus.
The most famous behaviorists are probably Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. Both men experimented with animals, but Pavlov was really interested in studying digestion when he made his discovery regarding conditioning. He discovered he could “train” dogs to salivate on command by pairing their food with a neutral stimulus like a bell noise. Skinner’s experiments related to training by using techniques like reinforcement and punishment.
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