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Behaviorism (derived from the American-English word behavior "behavior") names the epistemological concept of examining and explaining the behavior of humans and animals using scientific methods - that is, without introspection or empathy. After important preparatory work by Edward Lee Thorndike, behaviorism was founded by John B. Watson at the beginning of the 20th century and popularized and radicalized in the 1950s by Burrhus Frederic Skinner in particular . Ivan Petrovich Pavlov also did important pioneering work with his experiments on the classical conditioning of behavior. Technoid social and cultural techniques were developed in behaviorism, but it offers not only classical or operant conditioning , but also a positive social utopia , as worked out, for example, by Skinner in the novel Walden Two .

In the United States, the advocates of behaviorism were for decades the most influential behavioral researchers at the universities and staunch opponents of the simultaneously emerging psychoanalytic schools. Even the comparative behavioral research emerging from animal psychology in Europe since the 1930s could not gain a foothold in the USA because of the predominance of behaviorism there.

Various behavioral approaches are based on the findings of behavioral research , including a. the so-called systematic desensitization of patients with a phobia and the treatment of early childhood autism , but also the modern training of dogs and circus animals. Even the programmed learning , language laboratories and today's popular PC programs for self-study of foreign languages is a practical application of behavioral theory.


The initial spark of behaviorism is John B. Watson's famous article “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” (1913), in which he vehemently spoke out against the method of introspection then used in psychology . Watson's aim was to re-establish psychology as a natural science, so to speak. He relied exclusively on the so-called “objective method” by breaking down all behavior into stimulus and reaction (English: stimulus response ); this form of behaviorism is therefore also known as “molecular” behaviorism. Watson understood any change in the external environment or inside the individual as a stimulus that is based on physiological processes, for example also a “lack of food”, i.e. hunger; as a reaction he took any activity , be it turning towards or away from a source of light or writing books. The form of behaviorism established by Watson is also referred to as "classical" or "methodological" behaviorism.

The behaviorist regards the physiological processes underlying observable behavior as uninteresting; from his point of view, they belong to the field of activity of physiologists. The behaviorist focuses exclusively on processes that take place between the organism and the environment. The organism itself is viewed by the classical behaviorist as a black box .

Skinner's main work Science and Human Behavior (German: Science and Human Behavior ) was published in 1953. In contrast to Watson and methodological behaviorism, Skinner did not rule out inner-psychological processes when researching behavior in so-called “radical” behaviorism. Statements about “mental” or “psychological” processes could never be made by outsiders, i.e. independent observers, but at most by the individual observing himself. For example, if a student inadvertently reacts to the teacher's question with a totally inappropriate answer, the student's “inner state” is often referred to as absent-minded . In reality, however, this ascription in no way explains the conditions inside the brain; in reality it is merely an additional, pictorial description for the erroneous utterance of the pupil, i.e. for the reaction of the pupil, which is already known to the observer.

The advocates of a behaviorist science of behavior therefore demanded that all processes that affect an organism in an experiment (i.e. the causes of behavior) should be described using strictly scientific terms; Psychology had to become an “exact science” in the sense of a natural science (Skinner was more oriented towards the scientific concept of biology than that of physics). One of the consequences of this was that non-scientific influences on behavior (for example from “social structures” or from “culture and tradition”) played no role in the behaviorists' studies, unless they were on the level of environmental influences and behavior To be defined. Laboratory studies became the most important means of their research, as only there a very extensive control of all influencing factors on the behavior of the test animals and test persons is possible, and especially the Skinner box specially developed for behavioral experiments . In addition, laboratory studies can be repeated much more easily than the field studies preferred by ethologists .

The research tradition based on Skinner's Radical Behaviorism as a philosophy of science is experimental behavior analysis .

Hiding the inner workings

The black box model

The renunciation of the use of inner-psychological processes to explain behavior that cannot be described in scientific terms has brought behaviorism persistent and violent criticism. This regards the brain as a mere black box , which automatically responds to an acting stimulus with a reaction. The exclusive analysis of the connection between input and output, however, fails to recognize that there are internal, changeable, central nervous controlled drives for behaviors that manifest themselves, for example, as sexual pleasure and a feeling of hunger .

Skinner rejects the "black box" metaphor. Mentalistic statements such as “He eats because he is hungry” are not, according to him, explanations for behavior. In Science and Human Behavior , he writes, “ He eats and he is hungry describe the same fact. (…) The habit of explaining a finding by another is dangerous in that it gives the impression that we have found the cause and therefore need not look any further. ”Skinner rejects the idea of ​​a Cartesian helmsman who, as it were, controls the person sitting inside the head; the human being as a whole individual (“organism as a whole”) behaves in a certain way (“molar behaviorism”) due to the environmental influences to which he was subjected in his current and past environment as well as due to the environmental influences to which his ancestors in the Were subject to phylogenesis .

Historical background

Classical behaviorism

The forerunners of behaviorism are the rather unknown “objective psychology”, which could not establish itself in the German research community at the end of the 19th century, as well as German experimental psychology and the scientific work of McDougall and Iwan Petrovich Pavlov during the same period . The term behaviorism was first introduced into psychology by John B. Watson in 1913 in a technical article that was also a kind of manifesto . At the same time as Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Watson had experimented with reflexes and tied in with its “ reflexology ”, with the help of which Pavlov had already developed a hypothetical physiological explanation for the construction of complex behavioral patterns.

Watson was of the opinion that an organism can only learn something about its environment through stimuli acting on it. The possibility of "innate experience" or innate knowledge (as explored by classical comparative behavioral research) has therefore long been neglected in behavioral research. The term environment is stretched extremely broadly by Watson, to an almost magical concept, since heartbeat, stomach growling, the expansion of the filling urinary bladder and similar internal changes of state are expressly defined as environment. This concept of the environment also gives rise to the idea that all behavior - including every behavioral disorder - is environmental.

An early critique of the behaviorist reflex arc theory can be found in the neurologist and gestalt theorist Kurt Goldstein . Through his work with brain-damaged soldiers from the First World War ( The Structure of the Organism , 1934), he comes among other things. a. to the result that there are no isolated stimulus-reaction processes in the organism, but that the organism always reacts as a whole. A similar criticism was anticipated in 1896 by John Dewey in his famous essay on the reflex arc.


Classical behaviorism lost its importance in the late 1920s / early 1930s as the explanations of behavior it made turned out to be too simple. The first crisis of behaviorism that this triggered, however, was overcome by the work of Clark L. Hull of Yale University . The neo-behaviorism founded by Hull was based, like Watson's Classical Behaviorism, on stimulus-reaction relationships, but it contained a refined theory of stimulus-reaction chains that arise through classical conditioning (so-called SR psychology ). The theory founded by Hull is called systemic behavior theory and also contained assumptions about not directly observable hypothetical constructs such as B. a general drive in which all energies present in the organism at a certain point in time were combined. Hull's most notable students included Kenneth W. Spence , John Dollard, and Neal E. Miller , the inventor of biofeedback .

Radical behaviorism

Despite the remarkable achievements of the Hull School - its research methodology has remained the root of the methodology of scientific psychology to this day - this form of behaviorism was quickly replaced from the 1950s by the radical behaviorism of Burrhus Frederic Skinner . One reason for this is that Hull's reasoning for the effect of reinforcements - the satisfaction of physiological needs - had proven too narrow. In addition, the principle of stimulus-response linkage based on classical conditioning was not sufficient to fully explain the diversity of behavior. Radical behaviorism forms the epistemological basis of behavior analysis .

It was Skinner's merit to steer the research interest away from stimulus-response chains in the sense of the stimulus-response model and towards operant behavior . The focus of interest was no longer the behavior called respondent based on classical conditioning, but rather the operant behavior with which an organism succeeds in influencing and changing its environment. For the Skinnerian, behavior is therefore not mainly a passive reaction to stimuli, but behavior is spontaneously emitted and then shaped by its consequences (“selection by consequences”). Since Skinner sees this principle equally at work both in the biological evolution of the species and in the learning history of individuals, the distinction between “innate” and “acquired” plays a subordinate role for him. But he by no means denies that both types of behavior exist. Skinner also did not exclude thoughts and feelings, what behaviorists call private events , from scientific consideration. On the contrary, the radical thing about radical behaviorism is to view private events as covert behavior and thus to subject them to scientific analysis. In this context, Skinner sees that he extrapolates from the behavioral laws, which are derived from observable behavior, to behavior that is not directly observable, but he declares this extrapolation to be more useful than the reverse, traditional way in which thoughts and feelings are used to infer behavior .

Another important innovation proposed by Skinner is the differentiation between rule-based and contingency-shaped behavior . While in contingency-shaped behavior the behavior is primarily shaped directly by its immediate consequences, rule-based behavior occurs when a person follows a rule. In this way, people can expand their behavioral repertoire without being directly exposed to the respective consequences. However, people must first learn through reinforcement that the implementation of rules leads to the consequences they want. An example of the difference between rule-based and contingency-shaped behavior is how to use a new cell phone. If you follow the manual to learn the functions, you will see rule-based behavior. If, on the other hand, one tries to understand the operation by “trial and error”, then there is a case of contingency-shaped behavior.

Skinner's most important research method innovation was the introduction of an apparatus for the quantitative recording of reactions with the help of the Skinner box developed by him : the cumulative record . This recorded both the frequency of the reaction that an organism shows as well as the frequency and times of reinforcements. This method directs the behavioral researchers' attention to the precise analysis of those reinforcers on which behavior, according to the radical behaviorist view, depends: Today it is a commonplace that behavior occurs more frequently when a positively reinforcing event (colloquial, but not quite correctly also referred to as a reward) follows; every dog ​​school and every horse training is based on these findings today. The aim of the experimental behavior analysis founded by Skinner ( Experimental Analysis of Behavior or Behavior Analysis , see web links) is precisely to find such elementary but also the more complex laws of behavior and to use them to predict and modify behavior. One of the better-known behavioral laws from Skinner's behaviorist school is the Matching Law , which his student and successor Richard Herrnstein first formulated in 1961 and developed into a behavior theory.


From the 1960s and 1970s, behaviorism was increasingly replaced by cognitivism as the predominant research paradigm in psychology. In addition, u. a. the development of the digital computer and its use as a model for the human brain ; and findings from ethology , according to which heredity has a greater explanatory value for present behavior. Harry Harlow's studies also showed that pure feed training cannot be transferred to all higher living beings (although this does not contradict radical behaviorism). The devastating review of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior by Noam Chomsky , in which Skinner had applied the radical behaviorist approach to speaking behavior, represents the beginning of the doubt (among psychologists and linguists) about the viability of behaviorism and the turn to cognitivism ( see cognitive turn ). The emerging cognitivism describes in its simplest form internal psychic processes as a chain of internal stimuli and reactions, without requiring that all of these processes must be directly observable. Interestingly, even during the heyday of behaviorism, there had been representatives of a cognitively oriented school among its followers. This cognitive-neo-behaviorist school is primarily associated with the name Edward C. Tolman .

Even today there are still behaviorist-oriented currents within psychology. In addition to Skinner's radical behaviorism, there are several new approaches that have also taken up various aspects of older behavioristic directions, B. Howard C. Rachlin's Teleological Behaviorism and John ER Staddon's Theoretical Behaviorism. On the other hand, methodological behaviorism was absorbed in the research program of scientific psychology: Psychologists still research almost exclusively the objectively observable behavior of others (which, however, largely consists of answering behavior when filling out questionnaires and tests) and on this basis infer unobservable hypothetical constructs such as e.g. B. extraversion or neuroticism (from Eysenck's personality theory ). In addition, many parts of modern psychology and psychotherapy , especially behavior therapy , use findings from behavioral research.

See also


  • John B. Watson : Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It . In: Psychological Review . No. 20 , 1913, pp. 158–177 ( full text in English ). (Also contained in: John B. Watson: Behaviorism. Cologne 1968 and Frankfurt am Main 1976)
  • Burrhus Frederic Skinner: Science and Human Behavior . Kindler, Munich 1973, ISBN 3-463-00562-X ( full text in English [PDF; 4.0 MB ; accessed on July 9, 2017] English: Science and Human Behavior .).
  • Burrhus Frederic Skinner: Beyond Freedom and Dignity . Rowohlt, Reinbek 1982, ISBN 3-498-06101-1 (English: Beyond Freedom and Dignity .).
  • Burrhus Frederic Skinner: Verbal Behavior . Copley Publishing Group, Acton 1992, ISBN 0-87411-591-4 (first edition: 1957).
  • Burrhus Frederic Skinner: What is Behaviorism? Rowohlt, Reinbek 1978, ISBN 3-498-06124-0 (English: About Behaviorism .).
  • Burrhus Frederic Skinner: The Function of Reinforcement in Behavioral Science . Kindler, Munich 1974, ISBN 3-463-00587-5 (English: Contingenies of Reinforcement .).
  • Klaus-Jürgen Bruder: Psychology without consciousness. The birth of behaviorist social technology . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1982, ISBN 3-518-28015-5 .
  • William O'Donohue (Ed.): Handbook of Behaviorism . Academic Press, San Diego 1998, ISBN 0-12-524190-9 .
  • John A. Mills: Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology . New York University Press, New York 2000, ISBN 0-8147-5612-3 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Behaviorism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ BF Skinner: Futurum Zwei "Walden Two". The vision of a non-aggressive society. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1972. ISBN 3-499-16791-3 . English 1948.
  2. ^ Burrhus Frederic Skinner: What is the experimental analysis of behavior? In: Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior . tape 9 , no. 3 , May 1, 1966, ISSN  0022-5002 , p. 213-218 , doi : 10.1901 / jeab.1966.9-213 , PMID 16811287 , PMC 1338181 (free full text).
  3. ^ Burrhus Frederic Skinner: What is Behaviorism? Rowohlt, Reinbek 1978, ISBN 3-498-06124-0 , p. 239 : "An organism is of course not empty and consequently cannot be viewed as a black box"
  4. ^ John Dewey: The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology . 1896 ( full text ).
  5. Edward K. Morris Junelyn F. Lazo, Nathaniel G. Smith: Whether, When, and why Skinner published on biological participation in behavior . In: The Behavior Analyst . tape 27 , no. 2 . The Association for Behavior Analysis International, 2004, ISSN  0738-6729 , p. 153-169 , PMC 2755402 (free full text).
  6. ^ Burrhus Frederic Skinner: About behaviorism . Knopf, New York 1974, p. 211–212 (English): “The question, then, is this: What is inside the skin, and how do we know about it? The answer is, I believe, the heart of radical behaviorism. "
  7. ^ William M. Baum: Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture, and Evolution . 2nd Edition. Blackwell, Oxford, ISBN 1-4051-1261-1 , pp. 312 .