The Study of Behavior Development by Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner

Updated on June 9, 2016
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Pilar has two bachelor's degrees in Science and English. She is working on her master's degree in elementary education.

Behaviorists believe that psychology should focus on measureable and observable physical behaviors and how these behaviors can be manipulated by changes in the external environment. There is no room in behaviorist theory for thoughts or emotions, a contrast to other theories of psychology.


Watson (1878-1958)

John Watson was the founder of behavorist theory. Quite innovatively for the time, he found Freudian-based explanations of behavior too theoretical and disagreed with the eugenic idea of heredity determining how one behaves.

Instead, he believed that people's reactions in various situations were determined by how their overall experiences had programmed them to react.

In experiments he performed in the early 1900s he showed that he could condition, or train, children to respond to a certain stimulus in a way that was different from what their normal response would be in the absence of such training.

For example, one infant named Albert who had previously liked and attempted to pet a white rat was later conditioned by Watson to come to fear it.

This was done by producing loud clanging noises whenever the rat was brought into Albert's line of sight; in a few weeks time, the rat alone could induce tears and an attempted flight response by the terrified baby. Because Watson repeatedly stimulated Albert to feel fear when the rat was present, the infant's experiences taught it to be afraid around rats and react accordingly.

Albert not only feared rats but had been programmed through the experiment to fear most other white and fuzzy objects as well, from coats to Santa Claus beards.


Pavlov (1849-1936)

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was the first to introduce the concept of conditioning through his experiments with animals. His conclusions directly influenced Watson and provided him with the original scientific basis for his beliefs.

In these experiments, Pavlov worked with dogs that, like most, salivated naturally in the presence of food. Because this respone is innate, the animals were displaying an unconditioned response (salivation) to an unconditioned stimulus (food). Pavlov then, for the sake of experimentation, began to produce a metronome sound at the time of each feeding. Eventually, the dogs started to drool after hearing it and in anticipation of food, even when none was present.

At the end of his experiments, Pavlov was able to condition, or teach, these dogs to salivate in unnatural situations (after hearing a sound) to stimuli which would normally not ellicit that response (sound). In essence, Pavlov had transformed salivation into a conditioned behavior and the metronome had become a conditioned stimulus.

Pavlov further discovered that conditioned behaviors of this type would disappear if they failed to deliver the expected outcome; for example, if the metronome was sounded repeatedly and no food was presented, dogs would eventually stop associating the two and their drooling response to the sound would vanish.

Thorndike (1874-1949)

Edward Thorndike came up with the concept of intrumental conditioning and, like Pavlov, reached his main conclusions using data gained through animal-based experimentation.

Such experiments included placing hungry cats in an enclosed container, which Skinner referred to as a puzzle box, from which they had to escape in order to reach food. The first time a cat was placed in this situation it escaped only after several failed attempts and a single lucky successful guess (such as pushing the right button). However, the time it took to escape decreased each time a cat was returned to the box.

This meant, first of all, that the cats remembered which behavior was necessary to escape and get the reward of food. If they had not, it would take approximately the same time for them to refigure it out and there would not be the trend of a continually faster escape. Secondly, they were clearly able to recognize their current situation (being placed in the puzzle box) was identical to the last time they were placed inside of the puzzle box, and therefore that the same successful behavior used before would achieve the same end result the next time around: freedom and a feast.


Using his data Thorndike developed two main laws concerning conditioning. The first was the law of exercise, stating simply that the repetition of a response strengthens it. Each time a cat was placed in the puzzle box it exhibited a stronger inclination to perform the behaviors required, exiting the box with increased proficiency and in a shorter time span.

The second law, the law of effect, established that behaviors were either strengthened or weakened, depending on whether they were rewarded or punished. Each time the successful behavior was repeated, it was done so more quickly because the cat no longer wasted time performing other behaviors which had proven unsuccessful and kept the animal imprisoned.


Skinner (1904-1990)

B.F. Skinner developed the behavorist theory of operant conditioning. Contrary to the theories of both Watson and Pavlov, Skinner believed that it wasn't what comes before a behavior that influences it, but rather what comes directly after it.

In operant conditioning behaviors are manipulated when they are followed by either positive or negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement increases desired behaviors by following them with rewards. For example, if rat food is dispensed every time a rat pushes a pedal, it will repeatedly push that same pedal to get more edible treats. The action of pushing the pedal, the desired behavior, has been reinforced with food.

Negative reinforcement increases desired behaviors by allowing subjects to escape punishment through their performance. For example, if a rat received a painful electrical jolt that would not cease unless it pressed a pedal, it would begin to press it quickly following each initial jolt to relieve its pain. The action of pushing the pedal, the desired behavior, has again been reinforced, though by a different method then before.

Skinner also showed that behaviors can be altered through punishment or extinction. Punishing behaviors after they occur discourages them from being later repeated. For example, if a rat was jolted with electricity when it pressed a pedal, it would begin to avoid touching it, avoiding performing the undesireable behavior.

Extinction is when behaviors that were previously reinforced are later uninforced, rendering the behaviors inconsequential and causing them to decrease in frequency over time. If the rat that had been trained to push a pedal for food ceased receiving food for pressing it, eventually it would press it less and less often. In time, after it has become thoroughly discouraged by the lack of dispensed rat treats, it may stop pressing it altogether.

If the rat that was zapped with electricity stopped being zapped, it would also push the pedal to stop the voltage less frequently, as its reason for doing so would be gone. Extinction is the discontinuation of behaviors that had been encouraged by either negative or positive reinforcement.


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    • profile image

      Amy 4 weeks ago

      This has been really helpful, thanks alot :)

    • profile image

      amoc rich 2 months ago

      thannks for the good vision

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      Sophia 16 months ago

      Hello - brilliant article, would I be able to reference this for my university article regarding consumer behaviour and the development of the theories in regards to the impact it's had on current day advertising?

      What's the authors name?


    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Very well written....interesting and extremely informative! Human behavior is most intriguing!....UP++

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      Kevin 4 years ago

      Nice overviews. I would like to mention though, that while Skinner investigated punishment, he was in general opposed to it's use on the grounds that it is only effective in the short term. Moreover, Skinner asserted punishment is likely to increase aggressive tendencies. Here's a good overview:

    • Schatzie Speaks profile image

      Schatzie Speaks 5 years ago from US

      Hi Epigramman,

      Thank you for reading and commenting! I too find human behavior fascinating (including that of my fellow hubbers!) and love learning about the different theories out there. More interesting still is tying them into the overall societal beliefs of the time and various historical events. I think that’s why I can never stay focused on only one topic; my research on one thing ultimately leads to several other things that must also be explored!


    • Schatzie Speaks profile image

      Schatzie Speaks 5 years ago from US

      Hi Nellieanna,

      Sorry I didn't respond to your comment sooner, I must have not seen the notification! Unfortunately I am not the same Schatzie, I am German though! Thanks for reading! :)


    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 5 years ago

      .......Human behavior (even amongst the hub community -lol) is as deep and as dark as a bottomless well when the topic comes up I am always interested to see/read what makes people tick - and one reason why people become writers too. Love your research here and it made for an enlightening and educational read - sending you warm wishes from lake erie time ontario canada 8:50am

      p.s. - love the eclectic nature of your hubs - such wonderful work you have done here.

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 5 years ago from TEXAS

      Excellent work! BTW - have you sisters named Laura, Lisa & one other (whose name escapes me at the moment)? I ask because in the mid 60s, while involved in an NSF study grant @ the Univ. of Ariz, I knew a family of very bright parents with 4 very bright little girls, one nicknamed Schatzie - not a common nick name in the US. But she was born in Germany when her Dad was a teacher at an Air Force base there.

      Your subject here would have been right up their alley now.

      If not - no matter. But it stirred my curiosity.