A tenet of behavioral research is that a large part of both human and lower-animal behavior is learned. A principle associated with behavioral research is that the mechanisms involved in learning apply to humans and non-human animals. Behavioral researchers have developed a treatment known as behavior modification, which is used to help individuals replace undesirable behaviors with desirable ones.
Early behavioral researchers studied stimulus–response pairings, now known as classical conditioning. They demonstrated that when a biologically potent stimulus (e.g., food that elicits salivation) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g., a bell) over several learning trials, the neutral stimulus by itself can come to elicit the response the biologically potent stimulus elicits. Ivan Pavlov—known best for inducing dogs to salivate in the presence of a stimulus previously linked with food—became a leading figure in the Soviet Union and inspired followers to use his methods on humans. In the United States, Edward Lee Thorndike initiated “connectionist” studies by trapping animals in “puzzle boxes” and rewarding them for escaping. Thorndike wrote in 1911, “There can be no moral warrant for studying man’s nature unless the study will enable us to control his acts.” From 1910 to 1913 the American Psychological Association went through a sea change of opinion, away from mentalism and towards “behavioralism.” In 1913 John B. Watson coined the term behaviorism for this school of thought. Watson’s famous Little Albert experiment in 1920 was at first thought to demonstrate that repeated use of upsetting loud noises could instill phobias (aversions to other stimuli) in an infant human, although such a conclusion was likely an exaggeration. Karl Lashley, a close collaborator with Watson, examined biological manifestations of learning in the brain.
Clark L. Hull, Edwin Guthrie, and others did much to help behaviorism become a widely used paradigm. A new method of “instrumental” or “operant” conditioning added the concepts of reinforcement and punishment to the model of behavior change. Radical behaviorists avoided discussing the inner workings of the mind, especially the unconscious mind, which they considered impossible to assess scientifically. Operant conditioning was first described by Miller and Kanorski and popularized in the U.S. by B.F. Skinner, who emerged as a leading intellectual of the behaviorist movement.
Noam Chomsky published an influential critique of radical behaviorism on the grounds that behaviorist principles could not adequately explain the complex mental process of language acquisition and language use. The review, which was scathing, did much to reduce the status of behaviorism within psychology. Martin Seligman and his colleagues discovered that they could condition “learned helplessness” in dogs, a state that was not predicted by the behaviorist approach to psychology. Edward C. Tolman advanced a hybrid “cognitive behavioral” model, most notably with his 1948 publication discussing the cognitive maps used by rats to guess at the location of food at the end of a maze. Skinner’s behaviorism did not die, in part because it generated successful practical applications.
The Association for Behavior Analysis International was founded in 1974 and by 2003 had members from 42 countries. The field has gained a foothold in Latin America and Japan. Applied behavior analysis is the term used for the application of the principles of operant conditioning to change socially significant behavior (it supersedes the term behavior modification).