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Related to behaviorism: Cognitivism, psychoanalysis


behaviorism, school of psychology which seeks to explain animal and human behavior entirely in terms of observable and measurable responses to environmental stimuli. Behaviorism was introduced (1913) by the American psychologist John B. Watson, who insisted that behavior is a physiological reaction to environmental stimuli. He rejected the exploration of mental processes as unscientific. The conditioned-reflex experiments of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and the American psychologist Edward Thorndike were central to the development of behaviorism. The American behaviorist B. F. Skinner contended that all but a few emotions were conditioned by habit, and could be learned or unlearned. The therapeutic system of behavior modification has emerged from behaviorist theory. Therapy intends to shape behavior through a variety of processes known as conditioning. Popular techniques include systematic desensitization, generally used on clients suffering from anxiety or fear of an object or situation, and aversive conditioning, employed in cases where a client wishes to be broken of an unhealthy habit (such as smoking or drug abuse). Other behavior therapies include systems of rewards or punishments, and modeling, in which the client views situations in which healthy behaviors are shown to lead to rewards.


See B. F. Skinner, Science and Human Behavior (1965); J. B. Watson, Behaviorism (1930, repr. 1970); J. O'Donell, Origins of Behaviorism (1986); K. W. Buckley, Mechanical Man: John B. Watson and the Beginning of Behaviorism (1989).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a leading school of American psychology that has exerted significant influence on all disciplines connected with the study of man. The basis of behaviorism is the conception of human and animal behavior as the aggregate of motor responses (reactions), and of verbal and emotional responses reducible to motor responses, to the effects (stimuli) of the external environment.

Behaviorism arose at the turn of the 20th century under the immediate influence of experimental research being done by animal psychologists. Since the method of self-observation, which predominated in the study of the human psyche, could not be used in animal research, an experimental methodology was devised based on a series of controlled influences on the animals and the recording of their reactions to these influences. This method was also transferred to the study of the human psyche. The general methodological premises of behaviorism were the principles of the philosophy of positivism, according to which science must describe only that which is immediately observable. Any attempts to analyze internal mechanisms that do not lend themselves to immediate observation are rejected as philosophic speculations. Hence, the fundamental thesis of behaviorism is that psychology must study behavior and not consciousness, which is in principle not immediately observable; behavior is understood as the aggregate of “stimulus-response” (S-R) bonds.

The forefather of behaviorism was E. Thorndike. The program of behaviorism and the term itself were first proposed by J. Watson (1913). The work of V. M. Bekhterev and I. P. Pavlov exerted great influence on the creation of the scientific foundations of behaviorism.

According to behaviorism, man has relatively few innate behavior patterns at birth (breathing, swallowing, and so forth); upon these are constructed more complex processes, to the point of the formation of the most complex “repertoires of behavior” (B. Skinner). A successful response is reinforced and thereafter has a tendency to be reproduced—this is known as the “law of effect.” Reinforcement of a response is subordinate to the “law of practice”—that is, the multiple repetition of the same reactions in response to the same stimuli, as a result of which these responses become automatic. In order to explain how a given reaction is selected in response to a given stimulus, Thorndike advanced the principle of “trial and error,” according to which the working out of any new response begins with blind attempts that continue until one of them produces a positive effect.

Behaviorism in its classic form attained its highest development in the 1920’s. The fundamental ideas, methods of research, and terms of behaviorism were transferred to anthropology, sociology, and pedagogy. In the USA these sciences, united in that they all study behavior, were given the general title of “behavioral sciences.” This term has been retained to this day, although in most cases it no longer expresses the immediate influence of the ideas of behaviorism. In the postwar period the traditions of behaviorism have been continued in much of the research in machine translation and also in the American concept of so-called programmed teaching (B. Skinner).

The strengths of behaviorism were the turn to objective study of the psyche that it brought about, the new experimental methodology it developed, and the broad application of mathematical methods to psychology. However, behaviorism has been subjected to serious criticism in both Soviet and foreign psychology (this began in Gestalt psychology and continued in the work of L. S. Vygotskii, S. L. Rubinshtein, J. Piaget, and others). Behaviorism was criticized for removing from psychology such fundamental concepts as consciousness, thought, will, and so forth; for ignoring the social nature of the psyche and consequently desensitizing and primitivizing human behavior; and, in the last analysis, for losing sight of the true substance of psychology. The fairness of this criticism has been confirmed by the very development of behaviorism. Its followers have introduced so-called intermediate variables in the S-R pattern—that is, they have returned to analysis of the psyche and in so doing have renounced the basic thesis of behaviorism in its classic form.


Watson, J. B. “Behaviorism.” In Bol’shaia Sovetskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 6. Moscow, 1927.
Eksperimental’naia psikhologiia, issues 1–2, chapter 1. Compiled by P. Fraisse and J. Piaget. Moscow, 1966.
Iaroshevskii, M. G. Istoriia psikhologii, chapter 12. Moscow, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A school of psychology concerned with observable, tangible, and measurable data regarding behavior and human activities, but excluding ideas and emotions as purely subjective phenomena.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


(US), behaviorism
1. a school of psychology that regards the objective observation of the behaviour of organisms (usually by means of automatic recording devices) as the only proper subject for study and that often refuses to postulate any intervening mechanisms between the stimulus and the response
2. Philosophy the doctrine that the mind has no separate existence but that statements about the mind and mental states can be analysed into statements about actual and potential behaviour
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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