Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Behaviourism is a particular approach to psychology that emphasises the stimulus and response explanation of observable animal (especially human) activity.

explanatory context

Behaviourists see action as being simply a mechanical response to external stimuli.


Behaviourist was the name given to the initial formulation by Watson in 1913. Later developments were labelled behaviourism and then neo-behaviourist. These distinctions have, however, become blurred and behaviourism and behaviourist are now usually used interchangeably.


'Stimulus and response' is a specific statement of the general view that behaviour is the result of an interaction between an organism and its environment.


Behaviourists argue that the study of human activity should be restricted to that which is determined by the environment. Intentionality and purposiveness are excluded or regarded as secondary. Skinner, for example, argued that all human activity is determined by, and is the product of, the environment. An individual's mind cannot be known and therefore cannot be shown to have an effect on what the individual does. All mental states, including beliefs, values, motives and reasons can only be defined by reference to observable behaviour. Skinner thus treats mental states as irrelevent, they are just another form of conditioned behaviour. So what is important for behaviourists is the resulting behaviour not the mental processes, intentions, or meanings that lead to the behaviour.


Behaviourism is an essentially positivist approach. Behaviourists see psychology as an 'objective' discipline using an experimental approach and as being a branch of natural science. Behaviourists argued that any data of a mental or experiential kind should be disregarded as unscientific.


Neo-behaviourists are less adamant about this exclusion provided experiemental measurement can be effected. Methodologically, the approach hinges on the notion of observable. Initially this referred to data that was objectively and physically measurable. Later neo-behaviourist approaches modified this to data that is experimentally measurable and thus permitted some mental or experiential data under conditions of controlled experimentation.


One practical effect of behaviourism can be seen in the application of the approach to child care where all aspects are rigorously scheduled to coincide with behavioural aspects of posited stages of development. This is at variance with the developmental approach of construct theory.

analytical review

McLeod (2007) wrote:

Behaviorism (also called the behavioral approach) was the primary paradigm in psychology between 1920s to 1950 and is based on a number of underlying assumptions regarding methodology and behavioral analysis:

* Psychology should be seen as a science. Theories need to be supported by empirical data obtained through careful and controlled observation and measurement of behavior. Watson stated that “psychology as a behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is … prediction and control” (1913, p. 158).

* Behaviorism is primarily concerned with observable behavior, as opposed to internal events like thinking and emotion. Observable (i.e. external) behavior can be objectively and scientifically measured. Internal events, such as thinking should be explained through behavioral terms (or eliminated altogether).

* People have no free will – a person’s environment determines their behavior

* When born our mind is 'tabula rasa' (a blank slate).

* There is little difference between the learning that takes place in humans and that in other animals. Therefore research can be carried out on animals as well as humans.

* Behavior is the result of stimulus – response (i.e. all behavior, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus – response association). Watson described the purpose of psychology as: “To predict, given the stimulus, what reaction will take place; or, given the reaction, state what the situation or stimulus is that has caused the reaction” (1930, p. 11).

* All behavior is learnt from the environment. We learn new behavior through classical or operant conditioning.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines behaviourism as:

The study, largely associated with psychology, of behavior. Behaviorism ignores consciousness and focuses on conditioning to explain individual actions.

Graham (2010) wrote:

Loosely speaking, behaviorism is an attitude. Strictly speaking, behaviorism is a doctrine.... Behaviorism, the doctrine, is committed in its fullest and most complete sense to the truth of the following three sets of claims.

Psychology is the science of behavior.

Psychology is not the science of mind.
Behavior can be described and explained without making ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. The sources of behavior are external (in the environment), not internal (in the mind, in the head).
In the course of theory development in psychology, if, somehow, mental terms or concepts are deployed in describing or explaining behavior, then either (a) these terms or concepts should be eliminated and replaced by behavioral terms or (b) they can and should be translated or paraphrased into behavioral concepts.
The three sets of claims are logically distinct. Moreover, taken independently, each helps to form a type of behaviorism. “Methodological” behaviorism is committed to the truth of (1). “Psychological” behaviorism is committed to the truth of (2). “Analytical” behaviorism (also known as “philosophical” or “logical” behaviorism) is committed to the truth of the sub-statement in (3) that mental terms or concepts can and should be translated into behavioral concepts....

Three Types of Behaviorism

Methodological behaviorism is a normative theory about the scientific conduct of psychology. It claims that psychology should concern itself with the behavior of organisms (human and nonhuman animals). Psychology should not concern itself with mental states or events or with constructing internal information processing accounts of behavior. According to methodological behaviorism, reference to mental states, such as an animal's beliefs or desires, adds nothing to what psychology can and should understand about the sources of behavior. Mental states are private entities which, given the necessary publicity of science, do not form proper objects of empirical study. Methodological behaviorism is a dominant theme in the writings of John Watson (1878–1958).

Psychological behaviorism is a research program within psychology. It purports to explain human and animal behavior in terms of external physical stimuli, responses, learning histories, and (for certain types of behavior) reinforcements. Psychological behaviorism is present in the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), as well as Watson. Its fullest and most influential expression is B. F. Skinner's work on schedules of reinforcement.To illustrate, consider a food-deprived rat in an experimental chamber. If a particular movement, such as pressing a lever when a light is on, is followed by the presentation of food, then the likelihood of the rat's pressing the lever when hungry, again, and the light is on, is increased. Such presentations are reinforcements, such lights are (discriminative) stimuli, such lever pressings are responses, and such trials or associations are learning histories.

Analytical or logical behaviorism is a theory within philosophy about the meaning or semantics of mental terms or concepts. It says that the very idea of a mental state or condition is the idea of a behavioral disposition or family of behavioral tendencies, evident in how a person behaves in one situation rather than another. When we attribute a belief, for example, to someone, we are not saying that he or she is in a particular internal state or condition. Instead, we are characterizing the person in terms of what he or she might do in particular situations or environmental interactions. Analytical behaviorism may be found in the work of Gilbert Ryle (1900–76) and the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–51) (if perhaps not without controversy in interpretation, in Wittgenstein's case). More recently, the philosopher-psychologist U. T. Place (1924-2000) advocated a brand of analytical behaviorism restricted to intentional or representational states of mind, such as beliefs, which Place took to constitute a type, although not the only type, of mentality (see Graham and Valentine 2004). Arguably, a version of analytical or logical behaviorism may also be found in the work of Daniel Dennett on the ascription of states of consciousness via a method he calls ‘heterophenomenology’ (Dennett 2005, pp. 25–56).

Oxford Index (2011) defines behaviourism as:

n. an approach to psychology postulating that only observable behaviour need be studied, thus denying any importance to unconscious processes. Behaviourists are concerned with the laws regulating the occurrence of behaviour (see conditioning)

Psychology Glossary (undated) defines behaviourism as

The school of thought that stresses the need for psychology to be an objective science. In other words, that psychology should be a science based on observable (and only observable) events, not the unconscious or conscious mind. This perspective was first suggested and propagated by John Watson in 1913, who wanted psychology to study only observable behaviors and get away from the study of the conscious mind completely. Watson's primary rationale was that only observable events are verifiable and thus, are the only events that can be proven false. This is an extremely important concept for science; without it, how can you ever find out what is true, false, real, or fake.

One of the resultant approaches derived from beahviourist principles is the technique called 'behaviour modification', which is supposed to correct undesirable behaviour. Psychology Glossary (undated) defines it as:

Behavior Modification: A type of behavioral therapy in which the principles of Operant Conditioning (reinforcement, punishments, etc.) are used to eliminate some type of unwanted, maladaptive, behavior. For example, a person may feel that they no longer want to smoke (the maladaptive behavior) and so the person is given a favorite piece of candy every time a cigarette is desired but refused. So, when the person wants a cigarette but does not have one, they get a piece of their favorite candy as a reward.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Dennett, D., 2005, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical obstacles to a science of consciousness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Graham, G., 2010, 'Behaviorism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published 26 May 2000;revised 2010 (this entry dates from then) substantive revision 11 March 2015, available at , accessed originally 25 January 2013; updated version accessed 14 December 2016 but not added to the glossary.

Graham, G. and Valentine, E., 2004. Identifying the Mind: Selected Papers of U. T. Place, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLeod, S., 2007, 'Behaviorist Approach' available at, accessed 12 April 2013. Original updated 2016 and accessed 14 December 2016 ; updated version not added to glossary.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013.

Oxford Index, 2011, 'Behaviourism' available at, accessed 16 March 2013 and 14 December 2016 (change to c. 2016 but content same).

Psychology Glossary, undated, 'Behavior modification' available at, accessed 1 February 2013 still available unchanged 14 December 2016.

Psychology Glossary, undated, 'Behaviorism' available at, accessed 1 February 2013 still available unchanged 14 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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