Psychological Behaviorism


Associations between identifiable environmental stimuli and observable measurable behaviors

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … one’s sensory-motor, language-cognitive, and emotional-motivational repertoires
  • Learner is … a reward-driven agent
  • Learning is … additions to one’s repertoires
  • Teaching is … conditioning (increasing or decreasing the probability of specific behaviors)




Psychological Behaviorism embraces the insights of most Behaviorisms, but it is critical of the narrow focus on the learner’s sensory-motor repertoire. Seeking to understand more complex learnings – specifically, the learner’s language-cognitive and emotional-motivational repertoires – Psychological Behaviorism blends Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. It links them with the observation that, in each case, the same stimulus can both elicit an emotional response and strengthen a motor behavior. This observation is offered as a means to explain how complex, new behaviors can emerge – which, in turn, links Psychological Behaviorism to Developmental Discourses.


On the surface, it would seem that Psychological Behaviorism addresses educationists’ most frequent criticism of Behaviorisms, namely the inability to account for personality, creativity, and other complex human phenomena. A close examination of the theory’s vocabulary, however, reveals that it embraces without criticism the cause–effect, object-based, measurement-focused notions of most Behaviorisms. This limiting vocabulary is especially evident in the theory’s frequent assertion that learning is “cumulative” – a descriptor it positions as a new insight, but that is as ancient as (and relies on the same metaphors as) Acquisition Metaphor and many other Correspondence Discourses. (An alternative, which is invoked by most Coherence Discourses is to regard learning as “recursively elaborative.”)

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Arthur W. Staats

Status as a Theory of Learning

Psychological Behaviorism can be classified as a theory of learning, because it offers insights into the complex dynamics of learning that are not offered by its near relatives.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Arguably, Psychological Behaviorism is better categorized as a theory of teaching than a theory of learning, given that its two foundational frames, Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning, are principally concerned with applying principles of Behaviorisms to manage learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Psychological Behaviorism is explicit about its foci, its unit of analysis, and its construct of “learner.” Further, proponents of the theory have amassed a significant base of empirical evidence. However, supporters have not been especially attentive to its grounding metaphors, and they thus have a tendency to invoke notions associated with Folk Theories. That tendency means that Psychological Behaviorism does not meet all our criteria of a scientific theory of learning.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2019). “Psychological Behaviorism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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