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The Behavioralism is a strictly individualistic approach to research within the political sciences , the individual political behavior and collective political phenomena causally by the methodological individualism seeks to explain. He makes the behavior and the theory of action usable for this purpose .

The origins of behavioralism lie in psychological research in the United States in the 1940s. Important pioneers were especially Charles Merriam , Harold Lasswell ( Chicago School ), also Gabriel Almond , Herbert A. Simon and David Truman .

In empirical political science, it is currently the most important current and is conceptually and methodologically well developed. The focus lies within the analysis and comparison of political systems, attitude research , conflict research, party and association research and policy analysis.


Both behavioral and action theories record characteristics of people and develop very similar predictions from them. Behavioral theories make deterministic statements about causality (keywords: causal, external guidance, necessity), whereas theories of action have a probabilistic understanding of causality (intentional, final, free will).

Behavior theory


One of Pavlov's dogs

The initial, strict behaviorism is combined with animal behavior theory and the name Pavlov , for his famous canine experiment. Pavlov could trigger salivation in a dog just by ringing a bell, if he had only been trained beforehand by the dog having to hear the ringing several times in connection with the feeding. From this he developed the model of "classical conditioning ", also known as the "stimulus-response scheme" or " stimulus-response concept " (SR).

In modified behaviorism , not only external stimuli act, to which a certain reaction is necessary, but also mental states such as emotions and consciousness ( Edward Thorndike ). In the cognitive behavioral theories these are elaborated further and include the desires, needs, perceptions and beliefs of people. These modify the reaction and are recorded in the model of the stimulus-organism response ( SOR concept ).

Behavior as a visible or mental activity can therefore be learned through stimuli. Rewards and punishments (positive and negative sanctions ) reinforce given stimuli.


The general behavior theory makes the following statements about causality:

  1. The sooner a certain behavior is rewarded, the sooner it is shown.
  2. The higher the value of the reward, the more likely behavior is to be shown.
  3. The lower the punishment, the more often a certain behavior is shown.
  4. The higher the punishment, the less often the behavior occurs.
  5. The more regularly a certain behavior is rewarded in the same way, the more the value of a reward decreases (marginal utility: the first glass has a higher value for a thirsty person than the following, e.g. a tenth.)
  6. The more regularly a reward is given, the less often a certain behavior is shown (satiety).
  7. The more irregular the reward, the more likely it is to show behavior.
  8. If a previously rewarded behavior is no longer rewarded, the frequency of its occurrence decreases (extinction or extinction).
  9. The higher the reward (frequency, value, irregularity), the lower the deletion.

Problem of cognitive dissonance

In reality , however , a person often has contradicting experiences of the same behavior . For example, what is welcomed (and rewarded) among friends does not necessarily have to be done by parents. In the sum, the behavior is shown that brings the highest reward or the lowest punishment ("benefit maximizing").

Such an evaluation and offsetting of various sanctions against each other requires a clear hierarchy of preferences in each individual. In fact, humans do not have one, and the preferences are sometimes contradicting each other. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance ( Leon Festinger 1957), inconsistent cognitions are ignored by humans, since otherwise they lead to internal states of tension (which threaten their self-image). Dissonant experiences are suppressed.

Action theory

While behavior theory sees a strictly causal connection between stimulus, cognition and reaction, action theory relativizes this and only assumes probable connections between the person understood as a person and his or her actions . The human being as a personality not only reacts, but also consciously and creatively deals with his environment in work processes .

The focus here is on the intentional and interpretative behavior of humans. The social phenomena are explained from the intentions, situation definitions, actions and interactions of the individuals .

Basic model

A person is the result of socialization processes in which the skills and motivation to act arise. The socialization leads since childhood to internalization of behavioral expectations of the outside world. These expectations on the part of primary and secondary reference groups such as family and friends become individual motives for action. In addition, your own role, i.e. your own social position, is developed in the interaction with others. By taking on roles, one's own judgments are generalized, which becomes the basis of abstract and moral thinking. With M. Schmid one can define a person as an "active and competent acting system that gains its identity within the framework of a linguistically mediated and socially shaped socialization process."

Since in reality people always pursue several goals at the same time, it is necessary to order and hierarchize your own goals in order to select an action in a given situation. This so-called order of preference is shaped by the person, role and socialization in addition to the stimuli .

The situations in which people act change. These situations are understood as the sum of all restrictions for one's own actions, such as scarcity of money, time or space, the actions and preferences of other people as well as the existing social norms and laws . People have to define the situation themselves, i. H. they do not act on the basis of objective facts, but rather according to their subjective belief in what the situation is like. All human activity thus takes place under uncertainty.

People now align their social actions with one another, i.e. they enter into (strategic) interaction with one another . Through this dependence of each of each creates a specific social situation in which people through coordination of their actions to cooperation are through to the development of complex societies in the situation. However, this can only succeed if a parallelization of individual goals, expectations and options for action becomes possible through socialization and internalization processes. For example, certain expectations of action are linked to social roles ( role expectations ).

In action theory, rules are restrictions on action because they exclude certain actions. Due to the rules of the theory of action, only a much smaller amount than “allowed” from the vast number of possible courses of action becomes “allowed”; H. not sanctioned, selected. These include rights , i.e. freedom of action, and norms, i.e. provisions on how action should or must be, for example expressed in custom or role expectations.

As long as people have agreed on common rules, one can speak of a successful integration process. Stable societies require such integration through interaction. Only if too many people deviate do these rules of action have to be modified. For the individual, such rules are not only a disruptive obstacle, but they also offer certain guarantees as to which reactions can be expected with certain actions, and thus reduce the basic uncertainty of the action impact assessment.

Types of action theories

The different theories of action can be differentiated according to models of rationality and interaction models, whereby rationality models have tended to prevail in empirical research.

Rationality models

  1. Max Weber's types of rational action: purpose rationality (end, means, side effects) and value rationality;
  2. Rational decision theory : utilitarianism and utility maximization;
  3. Organizational sociology ( Simon , March / Olsen ): satisficing and bounded rationality

Interaction models

  1. Herbert Blumers Symbolic Interactionism : Communication , Interpretation, Situation Definition;
  2. Talcott Parsons ' Sociological Systems Theory : People as role bearers with restricted freedom of action;
  3. Jürgen Habermas ' theory of communicative action : coordination of action plans as a motive, impartiality

General characteristics of behavioral approaches in political science

The behavioralist approaches are strictly empirical-analytical , i. H. descriptive and value-neutral, oriented. They want to explain, predict and systematically analyze social phenomena based on the model of the natural sciences . To do this, one restricts oneself to phenomena that can be observed and provide data that are as quantifiable as possible . The aim is not to conduct “pure research” as much as possible, but rather applied research that aims to solve given political problems. Normative discussions are treated as not scientifically decidable.

A characteristic of behavioralism is interdisciplinary . In addition to the political science orientation, there is a close proximity to sociology and psychology (“political sociology”). What they have in common is the emphasis on survey methods such as surveys and so-called "large-N studies", i.e. statistically evaluable ( representative ) data sets with many respondents. The research focus is mostly on all forms of political behavior and political participation , especially voting behavior.

Explanatory factors of political behavior

In political science, no precise distinction is made between the concept of behavior and the concept of action. Political means that this human behavior is meant by the individual politically and also has a political effect. Basically, three explanatory factors can be used: psychological personality traits, social factors and political “stimuli”.

Psychological personality traits

The drive structure (e.g. aggression ), the motivations ( preferences , willingness to perform), but also perception, cognitive abilities and, last but not least, value convictions are the central psychological variables that were and are used to explain political behavior.

On this basis, for example, Harold Laswell has developed his model of the “democratic citizen”, who must be an open person who is characterized by tolerance, trust in others and freedom from fear. Theodor W. Adorno identified intolerance, conflict aversion, undifferentiated thinking and a lack of trust as hallmarks of the “authoritarian personality”. Adorno saw here a proximity to potentially fascist behavior. Milton Rokeach and Erwin Scheuch / Hans Dieter Klingemann were able to empirically show that these features and the emphasis on the present (ignoring the past and future) are typical of all extremist orientations.

But there is still a long way to go from a fully developed theory of political behavior. It is true, for example, that people with low self-esteem are often apolitical, as well as less flexible people. As soon as both characteristics, i.e. rigidity and low self-esteem, come together, there is no reinforcement, but on the contrary, active political behavior.

Social factors

In socialization , a distinction is made between primary (parents, family , friends) and secondary relationships ( organizations such as trade unions , churches ).

Paul Lazarsfeld was able to prove that the "main determinants of party success are the party attachments of small nonpolitical groups", i.e. the primary relationships. Politically, children are therefore usually very similar to their parents (socialization hypothesis). In order to strengthen one's own position, politically (unconsciously) friends who are politically alike / similarly minded are usually selected (selection hypothesis). Secondary relationships to organizations, on the other hand, are only relevant for political behavior if these institutions also represent political positions.

Social indicators such as class affiliation, income, education, occupation, residential area, etc. create common ground in terms of values ​​and convictions, which have an indirect effect on political behavior.

Political stimuli

Among the political determinants of political behavior are in addition to the institutional constraints (eg. As suffrage , party system , Participation opportunities) particularly or the political culture and ideology . The decisive factor for the decision to act is not the objective, but the subjectively experienced and interpreted situation. The political culture, as the sum of the individual political attitudes prevailing in a society ( feelings , evaluations and knowledge ), is an independent explanatory variable, since people are generally reluctant to be outsiders. Ideologies as an expression of solidified political norms, which have a political-normative design claim, form a further basis of motivation by influencing the assessment of the situation.

Objects of application in political science

Political participation

For political participation u. a. participation in elections, party membership, attending political events, filling political offices, activity in citizens' groups or NGOs . The aim is to exert influence on political decisions.

Verba and Nye were able to show that willingness to participate depends on socio-economic status . The higher the status, the higher the participation. It is also known from empirical studies that economically well-off citizens often have different and clearer political attitudes in addition to this greater willingness. This has consequences for democratic theory : Meeting the need for more citizen participation through direct democratic elements should therefore lead to an improvement in the position of these people, if possible accompanied by educational offers.

Well-educated citizens in particular are also the bearers of the change in values ​​diagnosed by Ronald Inglehart . In Western societies, a reorientation towards “ post-material values ” such as self-determination, environmental protection, peace, etc. can then be observed. This group of people in particular also has a significantly increased willingness to participate. This increased willingness to participate was interpreted by an allegedly widespread dissatisfaction with the political system . Empirically, however, one finds that citizens definitely differentiate between their attitudes towards concrete politics , those towards the political system itself and the principles behind it. Increased participation intentions are mostly caused by dissatisfaction with the specific policy.

Voting behavior

Many theories and studies have dealt with elections as the most important legitimation mechanism in democracies . The most important behavioral explanations are:

  1. Sociological approach ( Paul Lazarsfeld ): The individual chooses just like his social environment.
  2. Social psychological approach ( Ann Arbor model ): The voting decision is brought about by the degree of party identification. Identification breaks down into candidate orientation and factual question orientation. Philip E. Converse develops the thesis of the normal choice versus exceptional situations in which this approach no longer applies (e.g. first choice in reunified Germany).
  3. Cleavage ” dependency ( Seymour Lipset , Stein Rokkan ): social lines of conflict such as denomination or social class also determine voting behavior.
  4. Rationalist theory of voting behavior ( Anthony Downs : An Economic Theory of Democracy , 1957): The voting decision results from a rational cost-benefit analysis. The order of the parties according to one's own advantage (party differential) leads to abstention from voting in the event of an indifferent result or to the election of the party that promises the greatest individual benefit.
  5. Change in values / lifestyle approach (e.g. Ronald Inglehart ): The change in values ​​and lifestyles are increasingly leading to more flexible choices, e.g. B. to increase the alternating voter.


Various points were raised as criticisms of behavioral approaches:

  1. The political science substance must remain more important than the sometimes very mathematical research technique;
  2. The special terminology used remains partially at a high level of abstraction ;
  3. Without standards of value , the technocratic practical reference stabilizes the prevailing conditions;
  4. Despite a vast number of research approaches and detailed investigations, the lack of coherent overviews and syntheses is criticized ( Klaus von Beyme );
  5. The selection of (too) narrow research excerpts is often determined less by the interest in knowledge than by the available data;
  6. The survey methods mainly used harbor specific problems, such as high costs, the risk of leading questions , only work for individuals, uncertainty as to whether primarily an opinion analysis or behavioral prognosis, static considerations with too few longitudinal studies;
  7. The predominantly applied models of rationality also have their own problems: often human actions and choices are more routine than real rational, and the demands on rationality are often too high for the average person.

See also


Web links

("Presentation at the XVIIth World Congress of the International Political Science Association in Seoul 1997")

Individual evidence

  1. after Druwe 1995
  2. cit. after Druwe 1995: p. 294.