Behavioral Theory
Conditioning Theory


Associations between identifiable environmental stimuli and observable measurable behaviors

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … repertoire of behaviors
  • Knowing is … behaving (triggered by stimuli)
  • Learner is … an organism
  • Learning is … changes in behavior (linking stimuli to responses)
  • Teaching is … training; engineering behavior (through deliberate conditioning)




Behaviorisms reject the notion that knowledge is some sort of external, stable, and context-free object that exists independently of know­ers, and they redefine personal knowledge as established and stable repertoires of behavior that are triggered by events in the world. As well, seeking to establish a scientific basis for their claims, they also rejected attempts to explain learning in terms of unobservable mental processes, opting instead for phenomena that can be observed and measured. Originally oriented by the metaphor of a telephone switchboard (and, specifically, the activity of linking nodes), learning was imagined in terms of establishing a network of causal relations between stimuli and behaviors – and so Behaviorisms are commonly described as systematic studies of how different categories of behavior (e.g., reflexes, or conscious action) can be affected by different influences (e.g., rewards, punishments, personal history, current motivational states), focusing mainly on environmental factors. Important constructs across Behaviorisms include:
  • Stimulus–Response Association (Stimulus–Response Association; S-R Bond) – strictly speaking, an association between a trigger and a behavior
  • S–S Learning (Stimulus–Stimulus Learning; Stimulus Substitution Theory) – when one stimulus comes to stand in for another (e.g., a bell standing in for food) in triggering a nonvoluntary behavior (e.g., salivation) (see Classical Conditioning)
  • S–R Learning (Stimulus–Response Learning) – the creation or bolstering of a Stimulus–Response Association (see Operant Conditioning)
  • S–R–O Learning (Stimulus–Response–Outcome Learning) – the hypothesis that an outcome (of reinforcement or punishment) is always a consequential aspect of S–R Learning (see above)
Associated discourses include:
  • Cognitive Behavior Theory (Cognitive Behaviorism) – an umbrella notion that applies to any perspective that, contrary to Descriptive Behaviorism (see above), considers mental processes as important mediators of behavior and behavior change
  • Descriptive Behaviorism (B.F. Skinner, 1930s) – both an umbrella category and an admonition, reflecting Skinner’s conviction that psychology should constrain itself to the observation and description of behaviors (i.e., religiously avoiding inferences to mental processes)
  • Neobehaviorism (various, 1940s) – More an amplification of a defining impulse that a shift or revision, Neobehaviorism emerged as a school of thought founded on an uncompromising commitment to Positivism and its narrow band of deemed-to-be rigorous research methods. Prominent neobehaviorists included B.F. Skinner and Edward Tolman.
  • Reinforcement Theory – the principle that, for learning to occur, there must be some type of reward or feedback. The notion is explicitly stated by almost all Behaviorisms and is assumed in most other discourses on learning. Two types of reinforcers were initially identified:
    • Primary Reinforcer – a reinforcer that is necessary to the survival of the organism (e.g., food)
    • Secondary Reinforcer – a neutral stimulus that gains importance when paired with a Primary Reinforcer
More recently developed principles include:
  • Contingent Reinforcement – reinforcement that is only given when a behavior occurs
  • Noncontingent Reinforcement – used mainly to gain and maintain a learner’s attention, a teaching strategy of delivering ongoing, minor reinforcement independent of the learner’s behavior
  • Relativity Theory of Reinforcement (Probability Differential Hypothesis; Premack Principle; Grandma’s Rule) (David Premack, 1970s) – the suggestion that the opportunity to engage in a frequent (i.e., more-probable) behavior can be used to reinforce a less-frequent (less-probable) behavior
  • Vicarious Reinforcement/Punishment – an increase/decrease in a specific behavior that results from observing the consequences of others’ behavior


Originally, proponents of Behaviorisms regarded the process of creating links between environmental stimuli and the individual’s responses as predictable and mechanical – manageable through well-timed rewards and punishments. While this focus affords powerful insight into a wide swath of human behavior, it has also proven inadequate to account for such defining qualities of humanity as creativity and altruism. Criticisms of Behaviorisms often revolve around perceptions that coercive agents often act with uncritical understandings of dysfunction, and are thus inappropriately seeking one or more of:
  • Behavior Control – a coercive agent endeavors to control major (or, perhaps, all) aspects of a subject’s physical existence
  • Thought Control – a coercive agent endeavors to control a subject’s thought processes
  • Emotion Control – a coercive agent endeavors to control a subject’s feelings, attitudes, and responses
Some of the assumption-rooted issues with Behaviorisms are revealed by an associated discourse:
  • Mathematical Learning Theory (Clark, L. Hull, 1930s) – Mathematical Learning Theory is not about learning mathematics, but about describing and explaining behavior in precise, quantitative terms.
Efforts have been made to apply Mathematical Learning Theory at both individual and classroom levels, often simultaneously. Somewhat ironically, although the discourse is thoroughly aligned with the sensibilities of Behaviorisms, its most prominent conclusions are better fitted to Coherence Discourses, such as Personalized Learning. For example, proponents of Mathematical Learning Theory showed that efforts to standardize learners' experiences tend to amplify differences across learnings, that each learner should be provided with a detailed model of learning specific to that person, and that sufficient time should be afforded each individual.


  • Behavior Control
  • Cognitive Behavior Theory (Cognitive Behaviorism)
  • Contingent Reinforcement
  • Descriptive Behaviorism
  • Emotion Control
  • Mathematical Learning Theory
  • Neobehaviorism
  • Noncontingent Reinforcement
  • Primary Reinforcer
  • Reinforcement Theory
  • Relativity Theory of Reinforcement (Probability Differential Hypothesis; Premack Principle; Grandma’s Rule)
  • S-R Learning (Stimulus–Response Learning)
  • S-R-O Learning (Stimulus–Response–Outcome Learning)
  • S-S Learning (Stimulus–Stimulus Learning; Stimulus Substitution Theory)
  • Secondary Reinforcer
  • Stimulus–Response Association (Stimulus–Response Association; S-R Bond)
  • Thought Control
  • Vicarious Reinforcement/Punishment

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Behaviorisms” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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