What is Behaviorism?
Behaviorism is a school of thought and theory of learning that is based on the idea that all behaviors people do are conditioned responses to the environment. Individuals are conditioned to respond to a particular stimulus in a particular way, and learning is merely the result of a response to the stimuli. Ivan Pavlov, as well as John Watson and Edward Lee Thorndike, are the main influential figures who contributed to behaviorism.
Two types of conditioning: Classical conditioning and operant conditioning
Classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning, after Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. A neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell) that evokes no particular response from an individual is paired with a stimulus that evokes a reaction (e.g. food). The bell is rung before the food is presented to the individual, and once the individual associates the bell with the presentation of food (i.e. by salivating and anticipating food), the response is conditioned. Classical conditioning shows how certain stimuli, such as scents or sounds, can become associated with memories or behaviors. For example, a smell associated with a partner may cause an individual to become aroused.
In operant conditioning, behaviors are strengthened through positive responses and weakened through negative responses. New behaviors can be shaped by reinforcement through positive or negative consequences. For example, giving praise or a hug can positively reinforce a behavior and increase the rate at which that behavior is performed. Negative reinforcement, however, only increases behaviors when removed. For example, if an individual’s partner is nagging them to complete a chore, but stops nagging after the chore is completed, the removal of the nagging is the negative reinforcement. Punishment, on the other hand, is an undesirable stimulus that decreases behaviors, rather than increases them. Withholding sex from a partner to prevent them from doing an unwanted behavior is an example of a punishment.
Gender roles and expression
Individuals, especially children and adolescents, often learn about “appropriate” gender expression and roles through operant conditioning. Both positive and negative reinforcement can condition individuals to act in a particular way or express certain behaviors that are typical – or not – for someone of their (assumed) gender. For example, continued negative reactions from individuals may influence a male to stop wearing pink colored clothing. This negative reinforcement conditions the male to dress in ways the community thinks of as appropriately masculine. In another community, however, the male may receive praise for wearing the color pink, positively reinforcing this behavior. This article lists some ways in which individuals reinforce and condition children to act in gendered ways.
Classical conditioning may not be terribly useful within a traditional classroom, or for navigating most relationships, but it can be useful to help explain certain unconscious behaviors and responses within relationships. Operant conditioning, however, can be useful to reinforce sexual behaviors such as condom use, or (when used properly) to improve relationships. Additionally, some behavioral health models utilize conditioning or counter-conditioning to help alter behavior. Depending on student age and ability, operant conditioning may be more or less overt and useful in the classroom. In some education settings, it may be more appropriate to teach about operant conditioning rather than use principles of operant conditioning (condom use, for example).
Daly, E. (2009). Behaviorism: Benefits of applied behavioral analysis in education.
Kauth, M. R. (2000). True nature: A theory of sexual attraction. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
PBS. (1998). A science odyssey: Behaviorism.
Lesson Plan Ideas
Individuals with Developmental Disabilities
Sexuality education for children and adolescents with developmental disabilities: An instructional guide for educators of individuals with developmental disabilities. (Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, Inc.)
- Emphasizes the use of positive reinforcements for appropriate behaviors
- Uses positive reinforcements to build an individual’s self esteem
- Note – lessons have a suggested age range, but could be adapted and used based on cognitive development and ability instead of age
Sex Education for Adolescents
A Novel Approach to Adolescent Sex Education: Combining the Prospect Theory and Classical and Operant Conditioning. (Brickley, M. & Cangin, C.)
- Includes modified classical and operant conditioning
- Promotes “low risk” decisions, such as condom use or masturbation, with relaxation and/or orgasm as the reward, instead of “high risk” decisions, such as unprotected sex, that lead to no rewards (e.g. pregnancy, STDs)
D/s Relationships within BDSM
- Discusses how behavioral conditioning can be applied in a kink/BDSM setting or relationship
- Discusses behavioral conditioning, both positive and negative, in a BDSM relationship context
Quitting Habits (e.g. masturbation)
- Discusses using classical conditioning and reconditioning to help break an addiction