Article 3: Behaviourism

Written by Dr Hannes Nel, D. Com; D. Phil

Behaviourism is a set of doctrines that argues that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learned histories and reinforcement of knowledge and understanding. Reinforcement of knowledge and understanding can increase (positive reinforcement) or decrease (negative reinforcement) desired behaviour.

According to behaviourism all human behaviour can be understood in terms of cause and effect. Behaviourists, therefore, argue that research should focus on that which is determined by, and is the product of, the environment. This implies that research should focus on observable behaviour which can be objectively measured rather than on things like cognitive processes which can only be inferred.[1] Intentionality and purposiveness are excluded or regarded as less important. Behaviourists, furthermore, argue that the human mind cannot be known and, therefore, cannot be shown to influence the individual’s behaviour. All mental states, including beliefs, values, motives and reasons can only be described, defined and explained in terms of observable behaviour. Any data of a mental kind should be regarded as unscientific.

Behaviourism is related to positivism, because positivism believes that understanding of human behaviour can be gained through observation and reason. Behaviourism can also be associated with empiricism because both make use of experimentation, specifically experience and the simulation of experience.

As in the case of behaviourism, symbolic interactionism and hermeneutics also believe that learning takes place through interaction between human beings, i.e. external stimuli. All three paradigms strongly depend on language to convey and share research findings and, consequently, the accuracy and validity of findings through behaviourism and symbolic interactionism depend on the ability of the researcher to use language. 

Behaviourism disagrees with phenomenology because phenomenology considers experience through direct interaction while behaviourism takes external stimuli into consideration.

Behaviourism disagrees with constructivism because constructivism claims that understanding is gained through experience and reflection while behaviourism neglects the cognitive processes, i.e. reflection. The same applies to pragmatism because pragmatism postulates that knowledge is gained through observation and interpretation. There is, however, a link between positivism and constructivism with “reason” requiring “reflection”. This, however, can hardly be establishing a positive link between behaviourism and constructivism because of other elements which we will discuss under constructivism, which happens to be the next paradigm that we will discuss.

In closing, the problem with behaviourism as a research paradigm is that changes in behaviour without taking cognitive processes into consideration are often only temporary. Consequently, it does not deal with subjective human meaning-making. Some behaviourists, however, do recognise the fact that cognitive thinking and the accompanying emotions can influence behaviour, a philosophy that is popularly called ‘radical behaviourism’. A second criticism against behaviourism is that its explanation of the reason for, or what causes behaviour, is not always scientifically corroborated.

[1] Accessed on 23/11/2017.

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