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Emma Vandyk

on 13 September 2015

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behaviourist theory
is a well-known learning philosophy, with the fundamental principle that knowledge is acquired through the cause-and-effect relationship between a learner’s environment and subsequent reinforcement or punishment of behaviour (Kearns, 2010).

The behaviourist theory incorporates elements such as classical and operant conditioning, modelling and imitating, and contiguity.

Conditioning is defined as “the process of modifying a person or animals behaviour” (Boundless, n.d., para. 1).

In the mid-twentieth century, Ivan Pavlov used conditioning to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell. This famous experiment had a profound impact on the study of human behaviour, and formed the foundations of the behaviourist theory.

Classical conditioning was the first type of learning to be discovered, and is a theory used to describe the process of recalling an inherent behaviour by associating a stimulus to this response (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015a).
As McLeod (2014) advises, there are three stages of classical conditioning.

For example:

Stage 1) Before conditioning:
An unconditioned stimulus (beer) produces an unconditioned response (Amy salivates).

Stage 2) During conditioning:
A neutral stimulus (bell) is associated with the unconditioned stimulus (beer), where it becomes a conditioned stimulus (bell).

Stage 3) After conditioning:
The conditioned stimulus (bell) is associated with the unconditioned stimulus (beer) to become a conditioned response (Amy salivates).

During the same time of Pavlov’s experimentation, John Watson controversially consolidated the theory of classical conditioning using a nine-month-old infant as his human subject. Watson declared that the process of classical conditioning was the exclusive basis of all aspects of human psychology (McLeod, 2014). McLeod (2014) also suggests that this is significant to the belief that the response factor in classical conditioning uses reflexive responses over voluntary behaviour, and stresses the importance of the environmental factors.

Furthermore, the key element of
plays a major role in classical conditioning.

E.R. Guthrie (1952) referred to contiguity as associated learning; "Whenever two or more stimuli occur together often enough, they will become associated" (Woolfolk & Margetts, 2007, p. 222).

As cited in Woolfolk & Margetts (2007), Rachlin (1991), Wasserman and Miller (1997) believed that contiguity is the association of two events, sensations or stimuli, due to being paired together repeatedly. Subsequently, when one of these stimuli or sensations occurs in isolation, it will conjure a memory of the other.
A great example of this is when an individual is learning to read. A picture accompanying a word helps them to understand what the word says. Similarly, when teaching a literate individual what a particular object is, the word is placed next to it so that the reader can make the association, and identify the object. This example is supported by Woolfolk and Margetts (2007) statement above.

However some stimuli and responses are occasionally randomly paired. For example, a song may trigger an association or memory of a person, place, event or time in life just because it happened to be playing at the time of the experience. Huitt (2012) and his overview of the Behavioural theory, is supportive of this.

Operant conditioning
, is a learning process where behaviour is controlled by a set of consequences.

Learning through operant conditioning has become for some, a natural parenting technique. Using both positive and negative reinforcement as a behavioural modification process.

If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance that the action will not be repeated; however if the consequences are good, the actions that led to it will become more probable (Schacter and Gilbert, 2011).

For example, a child can learn not to touch a hot tap, because the first experience of touching it was painful.
Edward. L. Thorndike (1898) first observed the behaviour when experimenting with cats. Thorndike (1898) witnessed cats trying to escape from homemade puzzle boxes. At first the cats took a long time to escape; with experience, the cats learned how to free themselves from the puzzle box sooner. Thorndike (1898) theorized that behaviours followed by satisfying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.

It was B. F. Skinner who named the use of reinforcement to strengthen behaviour as
operant conditioning
. The focus of Skinner's study was behaviours that could be observed and were caused by external factors.

“Skinner opposed punitive and coercive practices. Instead of sanctions to control misbehaviour, he recommended shaping alternative behaviour through positive reinforcement” (B. F. Skinner Foundation, 2014).

He did not consider that an individual’s thoughts or emotions could affect behaviours.
Imitation is the act or an instance of using someone or something as a model (Oxford Dictionaries, 2015b).

According to the behaviourist theory, learning can take place through the process of imitation, practice and praise; resulting in the individual or learner receiving a positive association, and being more likely to repeat the behaviour (Fellowes & Oakley, 2011).

This requires the learner to watch what the teacher (model) is doing, then imitating this behaviour. Positive or negative reinforcement is needed to ensure that correct behaviours are continued (Fellowes & Oakley, 2011).
The four stages of imitation and modelling include stimulus, response, feedback and reinforcement.

For example:
Stimulus - Adult Pam drinking a glass of wine displaying positive pleasurable reactions

Response – Mini Pam drinking glass of wine

Feedback – Adult Pam giving positive verbal and non-verbal responses to Mini Pam

Reinforcement - Adult Pam drinking wine with mini Pam socially resulting in positive peer engagement

This scenario would support the view that the learner is a passive, blank slate, responding to their environmental stimuli.

Behaviourists believe that language is learnt through imitation. The theory, however, does not provide an explanation as to why errors are made when learning a language and trying to grasp the concept of paste tense. An example would be ‘We wented to the movies’ It is also does not account for other forms of learning that do not provide feedback and reinforcement (Kearns, 2010).

As discussed, the behaviourist learning theory encapsulates several key elements.

Classical conditioning occurs when a relationship is formed between two separate stimuli, and once combined, results in a particular behaviour.

Contiguity relates to creating meaning through the association of two stimuli, events or sensations, and is closely related to classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning focuses on the positive and negative reinforcement of behaviour through corresponding reward or punishment.

Imitation and modelling refers to the learner copying the behaviour of a model; if the learner receives praise for their imitated behaviour, then they are likely to continue and develop the conduct.
In conclusion, the key elements of the behaviourist theory all relate to the fundamental idea, that behaviour, learning and knowledge acquisition is consequential, based on a cause-and-effect relationship that is influenced by the learner’s environment.


B. F. Skinner Foundation. (2014).
Skinner’s Impact
. Retrieved from http://www.bfskinner.org/

Boundless. (n.d.).
. Retrieved from https://www.boundless.com/psychology/definition/conditioning/

edpsychinteractive. (2012, July 14).
BH01 Behavioral theory overview
. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Fellowes, J., & Oakley, G. (2011).
Language, literacy and early childhood education
. Melbourne: Oxford.

Harzem, P., & Zeiler, M. D. (1981).
Predictability, correlation, and contiguity
. John Wiley & Sons LTD.

Kearns, K. (2010).
Frameworks for learning and development
(2nd ed.). Sydney: Pearson.

McLeod, S. (2014).
Classical Conditioning
. Retrieved from http://simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning.html

Oxford Dictionaries. (2015a).
classical conditioning
. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/

Oxford Dictionaries. (2015b).
. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/imitation

Schacter, Daniel L., & Gilbert Daniel.
. (2 ed.). New York, 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.

TeachingBizVids. (2012, October 29).
Big Bang Theory-operant conditioning
[Video file]. Retrieved from https://

Thorndike, E. (1898).
Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals
. The
Psychological Review: Monograph Supplements Vol 2(4), i-109. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/

Woolfolk, A. & Margetts, K. (2007). Educational Psychology. Pearson Education Australia.
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