The Tenets of Behaviorism

Published 15 Mar 2017

Behaviorism is an approach which is often attributed to John Watson (Green, 2001). The said school dominated much of Northern American psychology during the 1920s until the 1960s (Green, 2001).

Behaviorism can be viewed as a reaction to the prevailing views in psychology in 1913. During that time, psychology was regarded as the study of the mind. The method of introspection by a trained observer under controlled conditions was employed in order to study consciousness – then defined as the core phenomena of mind (Wozniak, 1997). Almost 25 years later, psychology shifted its focus: from being confined to the study of mental phenomena, it moved towards the study of behavior. Methods of analysis typically involved objective observations of behavioral data which varied as a result of experimental manipulation of stimulus conditions. Indeed, learning and memory were considered as the core phenomena of behavior (Woodworth, 1938 as cited from Wozniak, 1997).

Although it has been instructive to view behaviorism as a singular school, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, behaviorism consists of different approaches. For instance, Ivan Pavlov paved the way for the development of classical conditioning while B. F. Skinner, introduced operant conditioning. These approaches provide different explanations behind the processes which account for learning (Ormrod, 2004).

Despite the different approaches within the paradigm; different behaviorists agree on the following tenets behind it. First, the principles behind learning should equally operate on different animal species and on different behaviors. Using the assumption that all humans and animals learn alike; behaviorist apply to human learning the principles which they have derived from their study of nonhuman species. Second, the learning process can be studied most effectively when one focuses on the stimuli and responses involved (Ormrod, 2004). Third, mental phenomena are excluded from psychological study because they could not be objectively measured (Mayer, 2007). Fourth, learning must involve a behavior change. Indeed, some behaviorists believe that learning could only be inferred if it involved a behavior change. Fifth, behaviorists believe that organisms are born as blank slates. Different environmental experiences account for the individual differences in organisms. Sixth, learning is largely a function of environmental factors. Most learning is therefore assumed to occur beyond the individual’s control. Lastly, behaviorists emphasize the value of parsimonious theories. Parsimonious theories account for simple as well as complex behaviors using the fewest learning principles (Ormrod, 2004).

The said tenets thus provide the best contrasts between the behaviorist and functionalist schools of psychology. While behaviorism focuses on overt behaviors and emphasizes the use of objective methods in measuring learning and memory; functionalism focuses on mental processes and their relation to behavior. Introspection was the primary method used in order to study mental processes and the focus was shifted in examining how the systems within the mind interacted while it was functioning (Gordon, 1995).

In essence, the behaviorist and functionalist paradigms provide two ways to understand psychology. While the behaviorists are right to point out that psychology should focus on behavior and should use scientific methods in its study; it should take into consideration that mental processes within the individual are also significant avenues of study as well. For instance, the functionalist paradigm is still prevalent in mainstream psychology in that modern psychology acknowledges the importance of looking at the process rather than the structure (Gordon, 1995).
In fact, no argument is better to point out that both paradigms are valid approaches to the field other than the definition of psychology itself. After all, psychology is now defined as the scientific study of mental processes and behavior (Zimmer, 1999).


  • Gordon, Oakley. (1995). William James and Functionalism. A Brief History of Psychology.
  • Green, Christopher (2001).Introduction to: “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it.” John B. Watson (1913). Classics in the History of Psychology. Retrieved December 8, 2007,
  • Mayer, Ronald. (2007). Unit 7 Behaviorism. Psychology 601: Theoretical Backgrounds in Psychology Homepage. Retrieved December 8, 2007,
  • Ormrod, Jeanne. (2004). Human Learning, 4th Edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education,Inc.
  • Wozniak, Robert. (1997). Commentary on “Psychology as the Behaviorist View It” John B. Watson (1913). Originally published as “Behaviorism,” In Bringmann, W.G., Luck, H.E., Miller, R., & Early, C.E. (Eds.). A Pictorial History of Psychology. Chicago: Quintessence, 1997.
  • Zimmer, Gene. (1999). The Definition of “Psychology”. Foundation for Truth in Reality.
Did it help you?