Psychology is a diverse subject. It attempts to explain consciousness, behavior, mental illness, perception, learning and other areas of human behavior. As a science, psychology does not easily lend itself to double blind studies that can be repeated by other professionals. Critical thinking, observation, and the elimination of biases are often the skills plied by those trying to make sense of the convoluted and extensive subject of psychology. One exception to this situation is the study of behaviorism.
In its most simple form behaviorism says that positive reinforcement will stimulate a behavior to be repeated and negative reinforcement will reduce a selected behavior. But as a school of thought, this explanation is grotesquely oversimplified.
While Ivan Pavlov is famous in psychology circles, he had little interest in the subject. He focused on cardiac physiology, digestion, central nervous system and psychophysiology. In his pursuit to understand the digestive system, for which he won a Nobel prize, he came upon a discovery that laid the foundation for the future development of behaviorism.
The subject of his experiment was a dog. Before feeding the dog he rang a bell. As the food was placed in front of the animal, it began to salivate. This routine was repeated many times. Then Pavlov rang the bell and found that the dog would salivate without the stimulus of food. This phenomenon, discovered in 1889, was called a classical conditioning.
While Pavlov made a strong contribution, John Watson was the father of behaviorism. Watson was influenced by Pavlov's work. He was interested in bringing the scientific method to the study of psychology. Watson believed that all individuals behavior is not only predictable but controllable. This became known as the behaviorists theory.
B.F. Skinner brought many advancements in the theory. His system was described under the umbrella name of "operant conditioning". A stimulus, called a reinforcing stimulus, be it negative or positive could be applied to a behavior, known as an operant. This reinforcing stimulus will modify any future behavior of the same type. Skinner went on to show how an altered behavior could be returned to its previous condition through a process of "extinction". He also created data that predicted behavior based on "scheduled reinforcement", "fixed interval schedule" and "variable schedules". Each method produced significantly different results. Skinner even offered an explanation as to how more complex behavior came to be. The idea of "shaping" was offered. This involves an almost Darwinian formation of habits, with small changes occurring over time based on the reinforcing stimuluses.
The data created by these pioneers have filtered into general society. Applied in areas such as teaching, and parenting, children are being impacted by the data produced by the individuals that originally sparked the investigation into behaviorism. Psychology, the mind, and the human condition contains so many variables that a unified understanding is undoubtedly decades if not centuries away. However, in a small recess of psychology lies a theory that not only meets the criteria of the scientific method, but has also found its way into practical every day living.