Behaviourism and Conditioning

Behaviourism is a school of Psychology which emerged in the 1900s. Behaviourists believe that human behaviour is a result of reinforcement and punishment of certain behaviours or it results from a response to environmental stimuli. The earliest instance of Behaviourist ideas can be traced back to Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect in 1905. The Law of Effect states that “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation are more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation”. This is the principal that conditioning relies upon.

Conditioning is the process of psychologically manipulating an animal or person so that it behaves in a particular way. Ivan Pavlov (1902) was the first person to attempt conditioning with his dogs and thus, his type of conditioning is known Pavlovian Conditioning or Classical Conditioning. Later, B.F. Skinner (1948) would expand on this idea with his work on rats and develop Operant Conditioning. It was the combination of Classical and Operant Conditioning that became the foundation of Behaviourism.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov first discovered conditioning when he was working on the gastric functioning of dogs. He collected and analysed their saliva but he noticed that the dogs would salivate before food was given to them and even when the person feeding them came close. Pavlov realised that the dogs had come to associate those who fed them with the food itself and began experiments to examine this.

Pavlov noticed that the dogs had responses to certain stimuli that were hardwired into them genetically. For example, the dogs salivation when presented with food would be an unconditioned response (UR) and the food itself would be an unconditioned stimulus (US). It would then be possible to pair a neutral stimulus (NS) with the unconditioned stimulus (US) in order to produce a conditioned response (CR). A higher frequency of neutral stimulus (NS) and unconditioned stimulus pairings (US) makes it more likely that conditioning will occur.

For example, Pavlov (1902) rang a bell (NS) just as the dogs were presented with food (US). This causes the dogs to salivate (UR). After enough of these pairings, the dogs come to associate the ringing of the bell with the presentation of the food so that the ringing of the bell was enough to produce salivation. The ringing of the bell had become a conditioned stimulus (CS) and the salivation had become a conditioned response (CR).

Extinction, Generalisation and Discrimination

Conditioning, in this way, is most effective if the neutral stimulus (NS) slightly precedes unconditioned stimulus (US). If the unconditioned stimulus (US) produces a strong reaction, conditioning will take place more rapidly. Additionally, in a process called extinction, the conditioned response (CR) caused by the conditioned stimulus (CS) will weaken over time if not strengthened by pairing the conditioned stimulus (CS) with the unconditioned stimulus (US). The conditioning may also become generalised. That means that a stimulus similar to the conditioned stimulus (CS) will produce a weaker conditioned response (CR). However, if presented with a neutral stimulus (NS) which is similar to the conditioned stimulus (CS), the dog may not react. This means that the dog has discriminated against the neutral stimulus (NS) and requires a closer related stimulus to produce the conditioned response (CR).

Emotional Conditioning

Emotional conditioning refers to instances of classical conditioning that produces an emotional response. It involves associating neutral stimuli (NS) with stimuli which naturally produce an emotional reaction. The types of conditioned responses (CR) caused by emotional conditioning include our fears and phobias, the products we buy and it can even produce drug cravings in former drug users. A phobia can be induced when a neutral stimulus (NS) precedes an averse one such as the phobia of rats that Watson and Rayner (1920) produced in Little Albert. Products are neutral stimuli (NS) which can become conditioned stimuli (CS) that illicit an emotional response. They do this by associating themselves with celebrities and desirable life situations in advertising.

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning is a type of conditioning developed by B.F. Skinner (1948) through his experiments with rats. Based on Thorndike’s (1905) Law of Effect, Operant Conditioning postulates that behaviours that are followed by a positive state of affairs are more likely to be repeated in the future. The difference is that Operant Conditioning allows the subject to operate on their environment and introduces the ideas of reinforcement and punishment into conditioning.

Reinforcers are things that create a “positive state of affairs”. Therefore, they increase the likelihood of a response to be repeated. Primary reinforcers directly serve a biological need such as comfort or food and secondary reinforcers are things that become associated with the primary reinforcer through classical conditioning. There are two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the receipt of something positive to increase the likelihood of behaviour being repeated such as being paid for working hard makes it more likely that one would work hard. Negative reinforcement is the removal of something negative to increase the repetition of behaviour. For example, if pressing a lever stops you from being electrocuted. This is also an example of escape learning.

If a subject learns to perform a behaviour in order to cease a negative experience, it is said to be engaged in escape learning. Additionally, if a subject learns to preform a behaviour to prevent a negative situation from occurring, it is said to be engaging in avoidance learning. If a subject cannot engage in behaviours that will stop or prevent negative situations, it can become depressed. It has experienced leaned helplessness which was examined by Martin Seligman (1974) and his experiments with dogs.

Schedules of Reinforcement

As with classical conditioning, a behaviour can undergo the process of extinction. Different schedules of reinforcement have a strong effect on the speed which a behaviour is adopted and the rate that the behaviour will undergo extinction. Ferster and Skinner (1957) created new schedules of reinforcement and examined their effect on the response rate, the rate at which the behaviour was repeated and the extinction rate, the rate at which the behaviour ceased. The 5 schedules of reinforcement are: continuous, fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, variable interval.

Continuous Reinforcement: Continuous reinforcement is where the behaviour is reinforced every time it is conducted. It has the slowest response rate but the quickest extinction rate.

Fixed Ratio Reinforcement: Fixed ratio reinforcement is where the behaviour is reinforced at a fixed ratio such as every 3rd or 5th time the behaviour is conducted. It has a fast response rate and a decent extinction rate.

Variable Ratio Reinforcement: Variable ratio reinforcement is where the behaviour is reinforced at varying ratios such as an average of every 5th time the behaviour is conducted. It has an average response rate is fast and extinction rate is very slow. It is the best method of conditioning behaviour.

Fixed Interval Reinforcement: Fixed interval reinforcement is where the behaviour is reinforced after a fixed time such as every 5 minutes. The response rate and extinction rate is average.

Variable Interval Reinforcement: Variable interval reinforcement is where the behaviour is reinforced at random time intervals. The response rate is fast and the extinction rate is slow.


Punishers are things that cause a negative outcome in order to decrease the frequency of the behaviour that preceded it. Punishment is most effective when it is given immediately after undesirable behaviour, when it is consistently applied, and when it is just intense enough to suppress the behaviour. Punishment generally suppresses rather than extinguishes behaviour and it does not help people develop more appropriate behaviours.

There are two types of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive punishment is the addition of something negative such as chastising someone. Negative punishment is the removal of something positive. For instance, removing someone’s freedom for committing a crime.

Positive punishment can often be confused with negative reinforcement. The distinction lies in how negative reinforcement increases the occurrence of a behaviour because it allows the subject to escape an averse situation. By contrast, positive punishment decreases the likelihood of a behaviour that causes an averse situation.


Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement.

Pavlov, I. P. (1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1974). Depression and learned helplessness. In R.J. Friedman and M.M. Katz (Eds.), The Psychology of Depression: Contemporary Theory and Research. Washington D.C.: Winston-Wiley.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.

Watson, John B. & Rayner, Rosalie. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3, 1-14.

Source by Craig Kelleher

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