What is behavioral psychology?

Wondering what is behavioral psychology, many readers have asked me for some examples of behavioral psychology. So, I thought about it a lot and found some natural, real life examples of 'behaviorism' in action.

Keep in mind that behavioural analysis is just one - hopefully scientific - way of looking at human and animal behavior. This behavioural method uses the concepts of stimulus, response and reinforcement.

Imagine for a moment that you have a well trained German shepherd dog. You whistle with a soft, subtle sound. The dog comes bounding over to you, then sits at your feet. You give the dog a small biscuit treat. With some salivation, the biscuit gets devoured.

OK. This example of behavioral psychology is nice and easy to understand. Here is the behavioural analysis:

1. The Stimulus: the soft whistle sound.

2. The Response: the behavior of running over to you. Sitting.

3. The Reinforcement: the biscuit treat. [gratification]

This is a clear chain of events that are now linked by the principle of reinforcement, as discovered by Dr BF Skinner. In this sense, 'reinforcement' means increasing the probability that the desired behavior will be repeated. The principle was found to be true with rats and pigeons in the experimental laboratory. It is then extrapolated to apply to human behaviour as well. Do you agree with that process?

You asked me, 'what is behavioral psychology?' I think the idea is to be as scientific as possible about this.. using externally observable events which are repeatable and lead to predictable outcomes. (BF Skinner's goal was the prediction and control of behavior.)

Examples of behavioral psychology tend to require some degree of control over the environment. That is why human institutions have been the testing grounds for these behavioural theories of Skinner and originally, E.L. Thorndike.

Now imagine a men's prison with its meal routines. There has to be a certain order in the mess room or cafeteria. There might be a rule or 'contingency' set up where, for example, inmates are ONLY given their tray of food IF they are quiet and lined up in an orderly manner. One inmate starts shouting and pushing people around, trying to start a fight. That behavior does not get reinforced with a food tray. Once he conforms to social expectations and lines up quietly, he will get reinforced with food. This example of behavioral psychology in a human situation is a rather good one. It shows how stimulus (situation), response (behaviors) and reinforcement (reward) can be linked in a totally fair, predictable and lawful way.

I hope these two very brief examples have helped you to grasp the Skinnerian Principle of Reinforcement and have provided an answer to your perplexing question, just what is behavioral psychology? Remember: observable, repeatable, predictable behaviors!

Geoff Dodd
Enjoying Psychology

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