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Psychological Perspectives of Behaviorism

Psychological perspectives have been changing as the psychological field progresses, however, few perspectives are integral to the field of psychology and they have therefore remained relevant even in modern psychological theory. John Watson, B.F. Skinner and Edward Tolman are psychological theorists whose theories continue to provide foundations for the development of modern psychological schools of thought and this paper will give a background of these theories as it compares and contrasts them but if will first analyze their theories.

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The three scientists were largely involved in the development of the psychological perspective called behaviorism. Behaviorism or the psychological learning perspective is based on the premise that every function of a living thing can be referred to as behavior. This perspective maintains that these behaviors are scientifically describable without any reference to inner physiology or other hypothetical constructs like the mind and the position taken by this theory is that every theory about behavior should have observational correlates though there is no big difference between the concrete and the abstract actions.

John B Watson was a student of John Dewey and was so dissatisfied with his teachings that he shifted from his class to the class managed by James Rowland Angell and Henry Donaldson. Using the lessons he learned from the latter, he started formulating his theories about behavior and this theory finally came to be known as behaviorism (Cameron, 2005). This means that Watson is the father of the psychological theory of behaviorism. What is behaviorism according to Watson? This is a learning perspective that is also known as the philosophy of psychology and it is based on the assumption that everything that is done by living organisms falls under behavior. His theory came to be known as classical conditioning because his view on behavior was that behavior is something that is elicited meaning that every behavior is a response to stimuli. Watson believed that experiences and emotions are responses to certain stimuli and this implies that there is something behind any behavior exhibited by a living organism. In behaviorism, there are two major types of behavioral conditioning and the two are classical conditioning that deals with natural stimuli, and operant conditioning that deals with instrumental stimuli. In the former, proposed by Watson, a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response, then a neutral stimulus is paired with the natural stimuli and the two are referred to as conditioned stimulus and response respectively. Notably, classical conditioning is the most commonly used aspect of behaviorism.

The second scientist is B.F. skinner who was a literature graduate but enrolled for further studies in psychology after reading the works of Bertrand Russell. As a psychology student, he invented the operant conditioning chamber and the cumulative recorder and after attaining his doctorate in psychology, then formulated his psychological school of thought known as radical behaviorism. According to his theory of radical behaviorism, behaviors are determined by the environment meaning that most, if not all behaviors are results of the adjacent environment occupied by a living thing. According to skinner, behavior has causes and effects which may be positive or negative and these causes and effects determine whether that behavior can be reproduced or not (Pierce, 1998).

Radical behaviorism as a theory paid a lot of attention to the element of reinforcement and the reinforcement schedule that Skinner suggested asserts that rewarding a behavior boosts its chances of being reproduced while the absence of rewards compromises the probability. Radical behaviorism proposed by Skinner is commonly known as operant conditioning ( also known as instrumental conditioning) is a behavioral learning method that’s effected artificially through the use of rewards and punishments where a link is made between a behavior and the outcome of that behavior (Ferster, 1957). The behaviorism theory fronted by skinner is almost similar to Watson’s though there is a significant difference where Watson does not recommend the use or reference to mental states but Skinner does not have a problem with the psychology of mental states. Watson insisted that behavior should be studied directly and scientifically but Skinner rejected that position by asserting that everything including feelings, thoughts, and inner behaviors and they should also be considered in any study.

The third psychological theorist under study in this paper is Edward Tolman. Tolman in his behaviorist perspective was not as radical as Skinner because he believed that learning could take place without a negative or positive reinforcing agent, meaning that rewards and punishments are not important in the determination of behavior. He also believed that learned behavior is not restricted in the environment they were learned and that it can be used in other environments. Tolman also disputed Watson’s proposition that behavior was a plain response to stimuli saying that there is more to behavior than just a response to stimuli. Tolman formulated the cognitive theory of learning where he viewed learning as a development from bits of knowledge, environmental cognition, and how organisms relate to the environment and though he used lab rats for experiments just like Watson and Skinner, his experiments did not focus on stimuli and rewards. After performing these experiments while shying away from the focus on stimuli and rewards, he developed the latent learning theory where he postulated that learning can occur in the absence of rewards and stimuli. According to Tolman, human beings learn subconsciously and they only become aware of the learning when that information is needed.

He also asserted that motives drive behavior and behavior can only be disturbed by the shift in motives. Tolman, therefore, came up with chart cognitions where he introduced the concept of cognitive maps which are used to structure and store knowledge in a way that reduces cognitive overload, enhancing more learning and remembrance of information. Tolman’s theory has been labeled as purposive behaviorism because it is a bridge between behaviorism and cognitive theory of behavior. According to Tolman organisms are not necessarily controlled by rewards and stimuli to learn; they are often controlled by goals and life pursuits. This means that learning is acquired through meaningful behaviors and that the organized aspect of learning is more important in the determination of behavior. According to Tolman, there are five types of learning. The five approaches are an escape, avoidance, choose a point, and latent and they depend on a goal-oriented behavior, mediated by expectations, perceptions, and other external and internal variables. Unlike skinner and Watson, his version of behaviorism focused on the links between stimuli rather than a response to a stimulating agent. He formulated a series of pairings where a new stimulus associates itself with an existing, meaningful stimulus and he overlooked response to reinforcing agents in this association of stimuli.

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The three psychologists were behaviorists and they all agreed that behavior determines the functioning of an organism. However, they all differed in some details and the last part of this paper will focus on the differences between these theories and how they are applicable in modern psychology. Of the three theories, Watson’s theory is the most commonly used in contemporary psychology especially in health care circles. When psychologists spot behavioral difficulties, they try to use Watson’s theory of classical conditioning by reversing the behavior with some modifications. This theory has been used by psychologists to cure various phobias that abound in society. For example, if someone has fear of heights, a psychologist can start by exposing the person to pictures of a high building, the next day, they take the person to a place with high buildings, followed by entry into the building, and maybe on the second entry to the building, the persons can be taken several floors higher and all the aforementioned exercises will reduce the fear of heights and the behavior of that person will have changed after the removal of the fear. The main difference between the behavioral approach adopted by skinner and the approach adopted by Watson is that Skinner rejected the idea that behavior is consequential and he also disagreed with the inner causes of behavior as postulated by Watson.

Skinner emphasized behavior that could be observed because Watson’s focus on inner intangible behaviors was quite theoretical because it was based on unverifiable evidence. Skinner, unlike Watson, focused on the reappearance of behavior where he asserted that reappearance was based on temporal consequences. His theory also differed from Watson’s because he focused on rewards while Watson focused on stimuli. His schedule of reinforcement remains the most important aspect of his theory which is still practiced in modern psychology.However, this theory is not commonly used with human beings; it is common among animal trainers who use operant conditioning to elicit responses from the animals they are training (Baum, 2005). Using operant conditioning, trainers take a natural behavior and turn it into a solicited behavior to produce a behavior that is motivated by rewards. Tolman also formulated a behavioral theory that had some significant differences from the theories postulated by skinner. The major difference is that Tolman downplayed the relevance of stimuli and rewards in the determination of behavior and maintained that learning behavior could occur in the absence of the two aforementioned factors. One of the most commonly used artifacts from his theory of behavior in modern psychology is the cognitive map and this made him the father of the cognitive theory of behavior

In conclusion, the three psychologists analyzed above contributed immensely towards the development of the psychological perspective of behaviorism. Their approaches to behaviorism had a lot of similarities though there were some radical differences between the three perspectives. They differed in principle but agreed on a methodology and that is why their theories continue to form a basis for the development of modern psychological thought. Though the three behavioral theories fronted by the three fathers of behaviorism are still applied in modern psychology, Watson’s classical conditioning is the most commonly used by psychologists dealing with human beings. Skinners’ approach is applied more by animal psychologists while Tolman’s view is used in general applications.


Baum, W.M. (2005). Understanding behaviorism: Behavior, Culture, and Evolution. London: Blackwell.

Cameron, J. P. (2005). Achievement-based rewards and intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive mediators. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 641-655.

Ferster, C.B. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Pierce, W. D. (2002). A summary of the effects of reward contingencies on interest and performance. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3, 222-22.

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