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A Brief History of Behaviorism


Explanations > Conditioning > A Brief History of Behaviorism

Ivan Pavlov | John Watson | B. F. Skinner | Albert Bandura | Fred Luthans | So what?


Conditioning and behavior modification developed in the 20th century. Here are its major proponents (with apologies to omissions):

Ivan Pavlov

Pavlov explored automatic responses and found that stimuli could be connected to these. Notably, a formerly-neutral stimulus that had no particular effect could be made to have an effect by pairing it with a stimulus that does have an effect. In this way, even thoughts can become stimuli, for example where images of public speaking can make people sweat.

He is most famous for his work with dogs, getting them to salivate when he rang a bell, and his consequent description of classical conditioning. Interestingly, he also won a Nobel Prize for his work on the digestive system.

John Watson

Watson made great advances in social science through the rigor of his work and his concern for observable behavior rather than musing about internal mechanisms. He translated Pavlov's work with dogs into everyday life and, in particular, the field of advertising.

B. F. Skinner

From the 1940s, Skinner revised the ideas of Pavlov and Watson into what he called 'operant conditioning'. He realized that much human action could not be explained by simple conditioning that seemed to predict animal responses, although Skinner did much work with pigeons that helped explain more complex behavior.

Skinner paid particular attention to reinforcement, both positive and negative and its effects. He also noticed that the predictability and removal of a reinforcer was important.

Albert Bandura

In the 1960s Bandura added social learning to behaviorism, showing how interactions with others explains much of how we think and react.

He identified rehearsal and modeling as key learning mechanisms. He also noted that reinforcement is a two-way street ('reciprocal influence'): when you use reinforcement successfully (or not), that affects your tendency to use that method again in the future.

Fred Luthans

From the 1980s, Fred Luthans started applying behaviorism to management and business, with his Organisational Behavior Modification (or OB Mod).

So what?

Through understanding the development of any field, you can understand the thinking behind the subject and hence utilize it most effectively.

See also

Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning

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