Behaviorismalbert Bandurajohn b Watsonskinneropernat Conditioningconditioningtabula Rasa

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The way we learn and behave throughout our lives is determined by many life experiences, the environment we live in, and an abundance of internal variables such as self-efficacy. Therefore, to raise a healthy new generation, it is beneficial for us to fully understand the concepts of behaviorism and the different ways we are able to learn new things.

John B. Watson founded the concept of behaviorism in the early years of the 20th century. The principles of behaviorism have been an influential force on many theories of psychology which were later developed. Behaviorism attempts to explain the influence the environment has in the development of a person's behavior. Many believe that the environment is largely responsible for shaping us into the people we become. An example of this train of thought belonged to B.F. Skinner, when wrote a novel about a civilization of harmonious human beings, who lived and worked peacefully together and had few problems to contend with.

Skinner's novel, Walden Two, presented a theory which Watson strongly believed, that any person could be manipulated to behave in a certain way, if the environment they resided in was conducive to such behavior. Another philosopher before Watson, John Locke (1690) had previously developed the doctrine, known as the tabula rasa.

What is Tabula Rasa?

The tabula rasa refers to the idea that a person is a blank slate, and therefore, is able to be molded into a being with positive purpose and appropriate behaviors, based on their life experiences. In a perfect world, this may be the case, and theorists today do indeed, believe that our environments play a major role in the way we develop; particularly from a social perspective. Utilitarians Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) put it clearly, agreeing that "the good society should make for the greatest happiness or pleasure for the greatest number of people"(para.1).

Classical Conditioning

The utilitarians believed that people were able to learn through the process of association. In Pavlov's well known example, the dog learned to salivate when he heard a tone, because he associated that with a piece of meat which it was given shortly after hearing the sound. The tone, a neutral stimulus, the meat was the unconditioned stimulus, and the salivation was the unconditioned response. After a period of repetitions, the tone became a conditioned stimulus, which prompted the conditioned response, salivation, whether the meat (unconditioned stimulus) was offered to the dog or not (para.4).

Classical and Operant Conditioning.

It is said that classical conditioning can also provide a negative outcome under certain circumstances, such as the development of phobias. An example of this would be when a situation is associated with something unpleasant, and thereafter a person may react negatively because they remember the previous incident as being stressful.

Operant conditioning is another learning concept. It has its basis is association, but focuses on consequences as the means to fostering new and more positive behavior.


In Skinner's book, the primary method of maintaining a contented society with well mannered citizens was by positive reinforcement; "by rewarding socially desirable behavior, the educational system at Walden Two gently and gradually instilled behaviors compatible with a good life for all its citizens"(para.1). Research has shown that partial reinforcement can produce a more consistent outcome, than continuous reinforcement. as confusing as this may sound, it makes sense that if a lapse occurs and reinforcement is not given as regularly as it once had, the positive behavior ay cease. Conversely, by offering partial reinforcement periodically, the learner is more likely to continue with good behaviors and not deviate from the norm.

Behaviorism has left an undeniable influence on modern psychology. Behavior modification therapies which are practiced by psychologists today, can trace their roots to the early theory of behaviorism developed by John B. Watson. Reinforcement is an effective way to promote continued respectable behavior, and has a success rate higher than punishments, which merely point out unwanted traits.

Albert Bandura. Observational Learning

Psychologist Albert Bandura makes a clear point, when he says that "The traditional principles of learning that are derived from behaviorism such as the laws of reinforcement and punishment have more to do with performance than with learning per se. Rewards and punishments directly shape what people will do, Bandura argues, but they may not always be implicated in what people learn"(para.1). Bandura's concept seems simple in one sense, by insisting that people learn by observing the behaviors of those around them.

The basis of Bandura's Social Learning Theory is that people will not only learn by observation, by will assess their own abilities before attempting to mimic a given behavior. There are variables though, and self-efficacy can also be a motivator for the learner to mimic the behavior.

Bandura's Four Steps of Observational Learning.

In Bandura's (1971-1977) For Steps of Observational Learning, the subject first observes a particular event or behavior. The learner then encodes the demonstration and organizes it into a manner he can comprehend. In the third step, the learner decides if he is physically capable of reproducing the behavior, and this is ultimately determined by his own expectancy of the outcome. In simple terms, a learner's self-efficacy can be a great predictor of his performance. If he has doubts about the intended outcome, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is an important lesson why parents should always encourage their children, and praise them for their achievements!


McAdams, D. (2006). The person: A new introduction to personality psychology. (4th ed.).

Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

More about this author: K. L. Hosking

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