Behaviorism, which gained more importance in North America in the 1930s, addresses a problem in the one that precedes it: psychoanalysis. Behaviorists found that the psychological knowledge of the time lacked scientific rigor. To remedy the situation, they chose to focus only on observable and quantifiable behaviors and leave out more abstract aspects of humans such as their thoughts and emotions. Then, each theory had to be tested by a precise scientific method to be considered legitimate.


Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.

– B.F. Skinner

What are the ideas at the base of behaviorism?

In behaviorism, the human at birth is like a blank page on which, through environmental influences, we write. According to them, throughout life one is conditioned by the environment to act and react in a certain way. They distinguish two types of packaging.

Classical conditioning

Pavlov was the first to realize this phenomenon. He was doing a digestion study on dogs, so a device was installed to measure their saliva levels. To his amazement, he realized that every time the dog saw the employee bringing him his food, he would salivate before he even received his food.

From this observation, a parallel was made with the human. A neutral stimulus can be combined with an unconditional stimulus to become a conditional stimulus. In other words, a stimulus that should cause no reaction, when associated with a stimulus that naturally causes a reaction, may end up causing a response on its own. For example, if every time you eat (unconditional stimulus) you hear a bell (neutral stimulus), you will salivate (conditional response) possibly only when you hear that bell.

Unconditional stimulus —– Unconditional response

Unconditional Stimulus + Neutral Stimulus —— Unconditional Response

Neutral stimulus —— Conditional response

Operant conditioning

This type of conditioning washighlighted by Skinner. It’s a little different since, unlike classic conditioning, it addresses voluntary responses and not just reflexes. It states that behaviors are determined by the consequences that have arisen as a result of those behaviors in the past. For example, if we make a joke (response) and people laugh (consequence), it increases the likelihood that this behavior will be repeated. An unpleasant consequence will on the contrary decrease this probability.

Response —— Consequence

How does this approach perceive psychopathology?

The answer to this question, as the approach in itself, is very simple. Behaviorists explain mental health problems through maladaptive response learning. For example, they say, if a child has seizures to get a game and the parent gives in, they will learn that having seizures is a good way to get what they want.

How does this approach approach treatments?

Since the pathology is the result of learning from an inappropriate response or a bad association, treatment consists of modifying this learning. Several methods have been developed to achieve this. Among other things, systematic desensitization is used for the treatment of phobias. Phobia is learned through classical conditioning. So, treatment goal is to decrease the association between the neutral stimulus and the unconditional stimulus.

Ex: Go swimming in the ocean (neutral stimulus) and drown (unconditional stimulus), can transpose fear during drowning (unconditional response) to fear of water (conditional response).

In this example, the treatment would consist of gradually putting the person in water-related situations (start by putting only the feet in the water, then up to the knees, etc.) so that the person reappears only the water. is not always associated with drowning. The other treatment methods are quite similar. In fact, the goal is to decrease the association between two stimuli or modify the consequence of a behavior.

Nowadays, pure behaviorism is no longer practiced since it turns out to be almost impossible to understand and heal humans without considering their thoughts and emotions. However, behaviorists have left as a legacy a scientific rigor that has tainted the approaches that have followed.


Wood, E. S., Wood, G. E., Boyd, D. et Hétu, F. (2015). L’univers de la psychologie. 2e édition. Édition Pearson Erpi

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