An Overview to the Behavioral Perspective

Citation: Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (2006). An overview of the behavioral perspective. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date], from

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According to the behaviorists, learning can be defined as the relatively permanent change in behavior brought about as a result of experience or practice. [Note: an internal event displayed by overt behavior; contrasted with biological maturation or genetics as an explanation for relatively permanent change.] In fact, the term "learning theory" is often associated with the behavioral view. Researchers who affiliate with this position do not generally look with favor on the term "behavior potential" (i.e., may be capable of performing but did not for some reason such as illness, situation, etc.) that was included in a definition accepted by those with a cognitive or humanistic viewpoint. The focus of the behavioral approach is on how the environment impacts overt behavior. The psychomotor domain is associated with overt behavior when writing instructional objectives. Cunia (2005) provides an excellent overview of the behavioral approach applied to learning. Behavior analysis is the term used to describe the scientific study of behavior and behavior modification is the term used to describe the application of behavior analysis concepts and principles for the systematic or programatic changing of behavior.

As we discuss the behavioral approach, for the most part we will assume that the mind is a "black box" that we cannot see into. The only way we know what is going on in the mind, according to most behaviorists, is to look at overt behavior. The feedback loop that connects overt behavior to stimuli that activate the senses has been studied extensively from this perspective.

There are three types of behaviorial learning theories:

  1. Contiguity -- any stimulus and response connected in time and/or space will tend to be associated (a baseball player wearing a certain pair of socks on the day he hits three home runs; a student making a good grade on a test after trying several different study techniques)


    1. stimulus = environmental event
    2. response = action = behavior = overt behavior
  2. Classical (Respondent) Conditioning -- association of stimuli (an antecedent stimulus will reflexively elicit an innate emotional or physiological response; another stimulus will elicit an orienting response)


    1. conditioning = learning
    2. antecedent = a stimulus occuring "before" a response
    3. reflexive = involuntary (e.g., involuntary responses cannot be consciously stopped once they start)
    4. innate = inborn
    5. elicits = causes (to bring forth)
  3. Operant (Instrumental) Conditioning -- connection of emitted behavior and its consequences (reinforcement and punishment)


    1. emitted = voluntary (e.g., voluntary responses can be consciously stopped)
    2. consequent or consequences = a stimulus occuring "after" a response that changes the probability the response will occur again

Note: Observational (Social) learning (learning through observing and modeling) is sometimes considered a behavioral learning theory but is covered with social cognition in these pages

Additional Terminology: Return to Top

There are several terms associated with the behavioral approach that deserve further explanation.

Extinction -- the breaking of the stimulus-stimulus or stimulus-response connection

  1. contiguity theory -- if the stimulus is no longer paired with the response, the association will be discontinued.
  2. classical conditioning -- if the conditioned stimulus (CS) is repeatedly presented by itself (without pairing with the unconditioned stimulus [US]) the conditioning / association process is reversed, and the CS will become an NS.
  3. operant conditioning -- if the response is no longer followed by a consequence (it is not reinforced or punished), it will cease to be emitted.
  4. social learning theory -- if the observed response is no longer followed by a consequence (it is not reinforced or punished), or if the model begins to display an incompatible behavior, the response will cease to be emitted.

Spontaneous recovery: Sometimes, after extinction in classical conditioning, if the conditioned stimulus (CS) is again presented, it will "spontaneously" elicit the conditioned response (CR).

Higher (or second) order conditioning: Classical conditioning does not have to involve pairing an neutral stimulus (NS) with an unconditioned stimulu (US). If an NS is paired with an existing conditioned stimulus (CS), the NS will also become a CS.

Stimulus generalization and discrimination


There are a variety of principles for applying a behavior modification program in a classroom.

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