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Behavioral Psychology Basics

Understanding Behavioral Psychology in 10 Easy Steps

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Behavioral psychology is one of the major topics taught in every introductory psychology course, yet many concepts that lie at the heart of this subject can be confusing for students. If you've ever found yourself confusing the unconditioned stimulus with the conditioned stimulus, this basic tutorial is for you.

1. What Is Behavioral Psychology?

Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a perspective that became dominant during the early half of the 20th century thanks to prominent thinkers such as B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson. The basis of behavioral psychology suggests that all behaviors are learned.

2. Learning Can Occur Through Associations

Have you ever heard someone compare something to "Pavlov's dogs" and wondered exactly what the reference means? The phrase refers to an accidental discovery by physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who found that dogs could be conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell. This process, known as classical conditioning, became a fundamental part of behavioral psychology.

3. Phenomena in Classical Conditioning

There are a number of different phenomena that impact classical conditioning. These factors can impact how quickly a behavior is acquired and the strength of that association. For example, a process known as extinction occurs when an association disappears; this causes the behavior to gradually weaken or vanish.

4. Learning Can Occur Through Rewards and Punishments

In addition to conditioning natural responses through association, behaviorist B.F. Skinner described a process in which learning could occur through reinforcement and punishment. This process, known as operant conditioning, functions by forming an association between a behavior and the consequences of the behavior.

5. Reinforcement Schedules Are Important

At first glance, the operant conditioning process seems fairly straight forward. Simply observe a behavior and then offer a reward or punishment. However, B.F. Skinner discovered that the timing of these rewards and punishments has an important influence on how quickly a new behavior is acquired and the strength of the response.

6. A Who's Who in Behavioral Psychology

Behavioral psychology has been influenced by a number of prominent thinkers. Part of understanding the history and background of these behavioral principles involves learning more about the individuals who first discovered and advocated these theories.
  • Ivan Pavlov: The Russian physiologist who discovered classical conditioning.

  • John B. Watson: An American psychologist who believed that psychology should be the science of observable behavior.

  • B.F. Skinner: One of the best-known behavioral thinkers; best known for his theory of operant conditioning.

7. Behavioral Analysis

While the dominance of behavioral psychology eroded after 1950, behavioral principles remain important today. Today, behavior analysis is often used as a therapeutic technique to help children with autism and developmental delays acquire new skills.

8. Change Isn't Always Easy

Making a lasting change in behavior can be incredibly difficult, whether you're trying to lose weight, stop smoking or improve your study habits. However, by combining your understanding of behavioral psychology with other proven psychological techniques, you can learn how to effectively change a behavior.

10. Take the Behavioral and Learning Psychology Quiz

Now that you've reviewed some of the most important elements of behavioral psychology, it's time to put your understanding to the test.

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