The behaviourist perspective was a dominant approach within the first half of the 20th century which has provided some useful contributions to our understanding of human behaviour. The behavioural approach assumes that all behaviour is learned and that we are all born like a blank slate, or tabula rasa. This perspective argues that experience and interactions with the environment shapes our behaviour and therefore supports the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate.

Behaviourism supports the notion that psychology should be considered a science and, in order to do this, observable behaviour should be investigated objectively rather than focusing on things like cognitive processes which can not be measured directly and thus can only be inferred.

There are two main learning theories proposed by the behaviourist perspective, these include classical conditioning (Pavlov) and operant conditioning (Skinner).

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning proposes that we learning through association. This was first discovered by Pavlov in his experiments with dogs. Pavlov first established that meat caused dogs to salivate but a neutral stimulus, such as the tone of a bell, did not cause the dog to salivate. However, when Pavlov presented several pairings of the tone and food, the dog began to salivate to the tone when it was presented alone. The dogs learnt to associate the tone with food, and responded accordingly. Within classical conditioning there are certain stimuli and responses which make up the results seen in Pavlov’s dog.These are; unconditioned stimulus, conditioned stimulus, unconditioned response and conditioned response.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning proposes that we learn through consequence. It works on the assumption of learning through reward and punishment. Behaviour which is positively reinforced tends to be repeated, whereas behaviour which is negatively reinforced tends to be avoided. This learning theory was first investigated by Skinner, who developed the “Skinner box” in which rats were placed in a box and required to press a lever for food to be dispensed (the reward). The consequence of receiving food if they pressed the lever caused the rats to repeat this behaviour again and again.

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory is an extension of behaviourism developed by Bandura. This idea argues that we learn through observation and imitation. Much behaviour (such as aggression) is learnt through the environment by observing role models and imitating their behaviour at a later date if it leads to a desirable outcome. Unlike behaviourist views, Bandura did acknowledge cognitive processes in contributing to behaviour.


  • Much of our behaviour is governed/shaped by the situation we are in
  • All Behaviour is learnt from the environment and biological factors are insignificant in influencing how people behave
  • Only observable behaviour is worthy of investigation and this should be investigated using scientific methodology

Core Studies

The following studies can be seen to reflect the behaviourist perspective:

  • Bandura, Ross & Ross (1961)
  • Milgram (1963)
  • Savage-Rumbaugh (1986)

Evaluation of the approach


+ Tends to use scientific, rigorous methodology to study human behaviour that is observable

+ Tends to collect quantitative data which allows for comparisons to be made between participants

+ Is very useful and has provided many practical applications, such as the 9pm watershed and age restrictions on aggressive films


– May breach ethical guidelines concerning consent and harm by using child participants within research

– Takes a reductionistic approach and tends to ignore other factors that can shape behaviour such as genetics and cognitive processes

– Tends to use highly-controlled laboratory experiments conducted within artificial settings to observe human behaviour which may lack ecological validity

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