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by Vira Gryaznova, May 03, 2021


Behaviorism is rooted in the famous experiments of Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov with dogs, while he discovered the phenomenon of classical conditioning, also known as stimulus-response. The main idea of his experiments was in the fact that under certain conditions it is possible to repeatedly get a biological response on the formerly neutral stimulus.

The works of Ivan Pavlov inspired John B. Watson to make the experiment with baby Albert, and receive the confirmation of this phenomenon also for humans and the response, which was not genetically programmed (please don’t try to repeat it!). John B. Watson is also the father of the term behaviorism itself. He stated that our reactions can be explained and grounded not only in biological evidence, but also in our individual experiences (as, for example, with poor baby Albert and his fear of furry objects).

Another interesting idea was proposed by Edward L. Thorndike. As a result of the experiment with cats and puzzle box, he described the so-called Law of Effect, which affirms that, besides stimuli, the behavior can be influenced by satisfying and dissatisfying consequences. B. F. Skinner, in its turn, used and popularized this theory, developing more complicated experiments with rats and pigeons. B. F. Skinner also proposed the terms “operant conditioning”, “reinforcement” (satisfying consequence), and “punishment” (dissatisfying consequence), diversifying positive and negative reinforcements and punishments.

Behaviorism is trying to explain behavior only by environment and external stimuli, not taking into account the inner motivation and reflections of a human being. Obviously, this fact imposes great limitations on this learning theory, making it almost senseless for the subjects with a significant creative and/or critical component. Nevertheless, exactly this theory can be considered as the foundation of reinforcement learning, one of the three main paradigms of machine learning.


Instructional design also undoubtedly cannot do without behavioristic tools. Marks, progress indicators, tests, badges, at last, certificates, and diplomas – all of them are the signs of behaviorism. It is very natural for a human being to want a reward for some action, as it’s an integral part of our essence, conditioned by our biology. All the tasks which have only one right answer ideally combine with the behavioristic approach. But behaviorism certainly cannot be the only learning theory used for developing learning materials in general, because, fortunately or unfortunately, we certainly have to learn also the matters much more complicated and undetermined to be described only in terms of reinforcements and punishments.

Credits for icons

Dog by Daniel Ducrocq from the Noun Project
Cat by Hea Poh Lin from the Noun Project
Baby by Ayub Irawan from the Noun Project
Rat by Victoruler from the Noun Project
Pigeon by Juan Pablo Bravo from the Noun Project

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