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

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.

Operant conditioning

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.

Within Education

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).

Further References

 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

The psychology of conditioning in a D/s relationship.  (maymay)

  • Discusses how behavioral conditioning can be applied in a kink/BDSM setting or relationship

Training: Reinforcement types & Punishment types.  (StarmasterX)

  • Discusses behavioral conditioning, both positive and negative, in a BDSM relationship context 

Quitting Habits (e.g. masturbation)

Quit masturbation from a recovered serious porn addict and med student.  (John Smith)

  • Discusses using classical conditioning and reconditioning to help break an addiction

14 responses to “Behaviorism

  1. Pingback: Behaviorism | Elliot K. Love·

  2. It’s interesting how powerful behaviorism can be in sexuality. I went to a workshop lead by Sherri Winston on the topic of oral pleasure. She taught us how performing oral sex on a partner in combination with self stimulation can lead to a person having orgasms when they perform oral sex on their partner after repeated attempts. The point was that eventually the stimulus of performing oral sex would lead to the reaction of an organism. Perfect example of classical conditioning.

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  5. this was a great read! The difference between the two (classical and operant) was illustrated really well. I am curious–how can one have discussed behaviorism and not mentioned Skinner? It is quite possible that I have only been conditioned to think that when discussing behaviorism, one must always mention Skinner.

    That being said, the lesson plan ideas were very clear and concise. I was thinking of examples while reading. I was soon pleasantly surprised that you had touched on all of my thoughts and then some! Great article.

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  7. This is a model I particularly like. I discussed many times with parents about how the way they perceive sexuality and the way they interact intimately with each other in front of their children help to mold their children´s view of sexuality. I think many times this is a forgotten topic: unaware/unconcious modeling in the family. Great article!!!

  8. This is really interesting, and I appreciate the links to lesson plans using behaviorism, because as I was reading the first part of the article, I had a really hard time imagining how this would fit in with sexuality education. I have always secretly hated behaviorism because it’s so black and white…you have a “good behavior” and a “bad behavior”, and are effecitvely choosinig which one to promote and which to suppress. To me, sexuality is a grey area – what is good for some is bad for others – and I am hesitant to decide which behaviors should be suppressed…who am I to choose that? However, I can see the usefulness when applied as a more neutral tool, such as the adolescent behavior examples where the attempt is not to stifle a behavior, but to encourage the use of safe sex methods when engaging in the behavior. It still represents a commitment (on the part of the educator) to decide which behaviors are good or bad, but seems less judgy.
    I guess my conclusion is that it is an effective tool in some situations, and as educators, we have to use our powers for good! Otherwise, behaviorism becomes a very slippery slope.

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