Learn about the psychological concept of behavior. Learn how the understanding of behavior has changed with new developments in psychology and how behavioral experiments have led to breakthroughs in new psychological therapies.
Definition of Behavior
If you keep your winter coat on at your friend’s house, he or she may ask you if you’re cold and offer to turn up the thermostat.
Your friend probably would not have noticed that you were cold without your unusual behavior. Our behavior communicates valuable information that otherwise may go unknown.In psychology, behavior consists of an organism’s external reactions to its environment. Other aspects of psychology, such as emotions, thoughts, and other internal mental processes, don’t usually fall under the category of behavior. Behavior may be modified according to positive or negative reinforcements from the organism’s environment or according to self-directed intentions.
The Skinner Box
Do you remember receiving gold stars for good behavior as a child? Receiving praise and treats may have encouraged you to adjust or maintain your behavior to increase your chances of earning more rewards. This type of behavior modification was famously studied in B.F. Skinner’s Skinner Box experiments. In these experiments, the behavior of a rodent, usually a lab rat, is modified by controlling the consequences elicited by each behavior. For example, a rat may be rewarded with food every time it presses a lever. This will result in the rat pressing the lever more frequently.
Alternatively, a behavior could be punished by administering a shock or loud noise to the rat. This punishment would result in the rat’s behavior being reduced.
Human Social Norms
In human psychology, the reward or punishment of behavior is often based on social norms. Someone may be ostracized from a group or included in the group based on his or her behavior. A smile from one individual to another could indicate that he or she approves of what the other is doing or saying. In this way, human behavior is regulated, and norms are established that let us know what’s normal or abnormal behavior and what’s acceptable or unacceptable.
Meaning of Behavior
The meaning a psychologist derives from behavior is largely determined by his or her theoretical framework. Behaviorists, such as John B. Watson, are famous for seeing behavior as the ‘be all and end all’ of psychology.
Behaviorism considers behavior to be the only objective phenomenon of psychology and thus the only reliable information on which to base predictions of future behaviors. Behaviorism developed in the late 19th century as a response to the theories of introspection and psychoanalysis, which relied on the observation of internal states of mind and emotions to understand one’s conscious experience.Can you imagine basing your entire understanding of your friends and family on their behaviors alone? Most people tend to take into consideration a person’s motivations, thoughts, and feelings when interacting with each other.
Cognitive psychologists also thought that these internal mental processes were important, and so they challenged the authority of behaviorism in the mid-20th century. However, cognitive psychologists still criticized introspection for not being an objective way to study psychology and instead developed scientific methods for studying thoughts, feelings, and awareness. Cognitive psychologists generally believe that internal processes interact with behavior, rather than one being controlled by the other.
What Is Behavior Today?
The study of behavior has led to major breakthroughs such as the discoveries of classical and operant conditioning, and several modes of therapy have been developed following these discoveries in behavior. For example, systematic desensitization uses knowledge of classical conditioning to decrease behavioral responses to phobias. Contingency management is a technique that arose from operant conditioning in which patients are rewarded for modifying their behaviors.
Even though cognitive psychology was largely seen as a rejection of behaviorism, the two schools of thought have been combined in the development of cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT). CBT teaches patients to change maladaptive thinking, which in turn can lead to a change in emotions and behavior. For example, if you believe that you have control in a situation, you’ll be more likely to take actions that exhibit your control, and these actions will further cement your belief that you can control your situation and change your circumstances.
Let’s review what we’ve learned…After this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define behavior as an organism’s external reactions to its environment
- Describe the Skinner Box experiments, in which the behavior of a rodent, usually a lab rat, is modified by controlling the consequences elicited by each behavior
- Explain behavior regulation in terms of social norms
- Consider the type of meaning that a psychologist may gather from behavior, which can come from the perspective of behaviorism, which was a school of thought developed in the late 19th century that considers behavior to be the only objective phenomenon of psychology and thus the only reliable information on which to base predictions of future behaviors
- Analyze the study of behavior in the modern day, which includes several methodologies of behavior modification, including:
- Systematic desensitization, which uses knowledge of classical conditioning to decrease behavioral responses to phobias
- Contingency management, which is a technique that arose from operant conditioning in which patients are rewarded for modifying their behaviors
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT), which teaches patients to change maladaptive thinking, which in turn can lead to a change in emotions and behavior