Behaviorism: Producing behavior change
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Dismissed by many educators as archaic and dehumanizing, behaviorism seems anathematic in the post-modern world. However, after generations of Dr. Spock parenting and self-esteem school have directly contributed to high depression rates, low resilience, and falling performance among American youth, popular television shows like The Nanny and The Dog Whisperer are influencing rediscovery of shaping as a tool for increasing learner focus and achievement. In addition to being a useful tool for training animals and children, conditioning is widely applied to modify behavior in clinical and correctional settings, classroom management in schools, recruit training in military, and organizational learning and development practices in business. Emerging applications of conditioning include training individuals suffering from bipolar disorder, autism, and Alzheimer's to be functional without medication. This section will review the modern history and controversies of behaviorism to conclude that, alone as a philosophy, behaviorism may be archaic and dehumanizing, but used as a tool in the right situations can be effective for producing behavior change.
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist in the 1890s, observed that he could cause a dog to salivate by training the dog to associate a ringing bell with food. Pavlov had scientifically demonstrated classical conditioning, which is "a basic form of learning in which a stimulus that usually brings forth a given response is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus. Eventually the neutral stimulus will bring forth the response when presented by itself" (DuBrin, 2000, p. 33). American Psychologist John B. Watson would use Pavlov's work on classical conditioning to pioneer a natural science of psychology called behaviorism, which dominated American education in the first half of the 20th century.