Behaviourism and Behaviour Therapies

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Behaviourism and Behaviour Therapies

Behaviourism is indeed a kind of flat-earth view of the mind…it has substituted for the erstwhile anthropomorphic view of the rat, a ratomorphic view of man. (Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine, 1967)

Behaviourism could be accurately and briefly described as a psychology which leaves out psychology. (W.V. Quine, Psycholinguistics, 1961)

Behaviourism was a dominant force in psychology for most of the twentieth century. It could be described as the science of (only) what you can observe and reliably measure: behaviour. Behaviourism insists that we need (observable) behavioural evidence to demonstrate theories. Thus we cannot know or distinguish between two states of mind, (attitudes, beliefs, values, etc) unless we can observe and measure the specific behaviour associated with each.


The philosophic origins of behaviourism lie in various philosophic movements like Logical Positivism and British Empiricism. Behaviourists argue we can sufficiently understand psychological processes without any reference to internal mental events like beliefs or memories. All internal-state language (talk of ideas and feelings) should be totally eradicated from psychology to be replaced by strictly behavioural concepts.

There are slightly different versions. There is classical or physiological behaviourism, which is well known and associated with Pavlov. If dogs or rats are fed only after they perform a task — push a lever or move in a particular way when a sound occurs or a light gets switched on — they are likely to repeat this behaviour. So the sound or light is a discriminative stimuli, the movement or presses are responses, the food is reinforcement and the repeated actions are learning histories.

Behaviourists are less interested in physiological or evolutionary explanations of behaviour. The core concept is the operant response: the frequency and strength of a response and reaction to a particular stimuli. Using his methods (reinforcement schedules) Pavlov demonstrated his power to train animals and give a wide number of specific, often unusual, responses.

Behaviourists tend to focus on very specific identifiable behaviours which they argue can be shaped by the well-planned reinforcement schedules. But some are prepared to accept that we are more than simply products of our personal reinforcement history. We are also affected by our personal biological factors and in some instances by culture, which are in effect the common behaviours of our clan or group.


There are various important concepts in social learning theory.

The first is observational learning or modelling: we often learn by observing and then imitating others who act as models. We obtain vicarious reinforcement when we see others rewarded or punished for what they do. It can motivate people, supply them with useful information, general emotional arousal, encourage us to re-examine ourselves and change our views. Hence the power of television and films to encourage behaviour change.

Central to social learning theory is the idea of self-efficacy, which is an individual’s belief concerning their ability to cope or achieve in a particular situation or with a particular task. The theory asserts that the evaluation of self-efficacy in any situation is a function of four things: their learning history or success and failure in similar situations; salient vicarious experiences (knowledge of how others behave in similar situations); verbal/social persuasion or reinforcement (or the extent to which others have encouraged or persuaded you to act in that situation); and emotional arousal or the feelings of anxiety or distress associated with possible failure.

Self-efficacy judgements play an important role in motivation and goal setting, at school and work and in therapy. The more people believe they know what to do, have had experience of success and want to avoid failure, the more likely they aim to succeed.

People can have generalized vs. task specific self-efficacy. The former is a general confidence ability to succeed and be efficacious; the latter is about success or failure in a very specific area of life.

A final concept is self-regulation, which means using thoughts/beliefs to control behaviour. These are personal resources which are a way of self-rewarding and punishing behaviour. It results from people observing their own behaviour and judging how it occurs and how it compares to others. People react with pleasure and pride to success and pain and self-criticism to failure. Self-regulation processes mean that they tend to repeat things that increase their feelings of self-worth or self-esteem, while avoiding those that lead to self-defeat and self-loathing.


Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy designed to manage and eventually eradicate many problems by changing the way people think and behave. It is most commonly used to treat anxiety and depression.

It is based on the concept that thoughts, feelings and actions are interconnected, and that in particular negative thoughts and feelings can lead to a vicious cycle which in turn leads to long-term problems.

Unlike psychoanalysis, CBT deals with current rather than past problems and issues.

An example: You’ve had a bad day, feel fed up, so go out for a walk. As you walk down the road, someone you know well walks by and, apparently, ignores you. The unhelpful response is to assume they don’t like you (thoughts), feel sad and rejected (emotions), as well as physically sick (physical emotions) and return home feeling even worse. The more helpful response is to perhaps think the other person seemed very wrapped up in themselves (thoughts), and to feel concern for them (emotions), which suggest the best thing to do is phone them up later and see if they are OK.

It is all about re-interpreting and analysing situations which lead to thoughts, feelings and actions which are helpful and positive rather than negative.

CBT may be helpful in cases where medication alone hasn’t worked. Many find it attractive because it can be completed in a relatively short period of time compared with many other talking therapies. Moreover, the logical and structured nature of CBT means it can be provided in different formats, including in groups, self-help books and even apps. Advocates argue that it teaches useful and practical strategies that can be used in aspects of life.

But like all therapies it takes effort and commitment on the part of the client. Equally it is true that it does not always address some social problems. Nevertheless, its proven ’cheapness’ and efficacy has meant it is very popular.


Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: a theoretical analysis. Appleton-Century-Croft.

Staddon, John (2014). The New Behaviorism (2nd edition). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.