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Behaviorism

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Updated July 27, 2009

Definition:

A school of psychological thought that explains human reactions in terms of learned behavior.

Behaviorism originated with Ivan Pavlov, who used classical conditioning to teach dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. B.F. Skinner later added the concepts of reinforcement and punishment in his theory of operant conditioning.

Both reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative, an idea that sometimes causes confusion. In general, positive reinforcement or punishment involves adding a consequence, while negative punishment or reinforcement removes a stimulus.

Positive reinforcement occurs when a reward is given for desired behavior. For example, someone with a driving phobia might drive to her favorite store. Shopping in the store is positive reinforcement for the act of driving.

Negative reinforcement occurs when something unpleasant is removed due to the desired behavior. For example, someone with a phobia of snakes and a job at a pet store might become an expert in birds to avoid handling the snakes.

Positive punishment can be a confusing concept. This occurs when something undesirable happens as the result of a behavior. A classic example is a child being given extra chores.

Negative punishment occurs when something desirable is taken away due to the behavior. This occurs when a teenager has her driving privileges revoked.

Pure behaviorism is not common today. However, behavioral techniques are often used in cognitive-behavioral therapy.

A common use of behaviorism in modern therapy is the behavior modification plan. This contract between client and therapist delineates several concrete goals of therapy and the rewards or punishments associated with specific behaviors. The plan must meet specific criteria in order to be effective, and may be used alone or in conjunction with other therapeutic techniques.

Also Known As: behavioral therapy
Examples:
My former professor, a behaviorism specialist, used a combination of reinforcement and punishment to improve the grades we received.
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