Overview & Objectives

In this lesson you will be introduced to the antecedents and scope of Radical Behaviorism. The objectives for this lesson are these:

  • Identify important antecedents to radical behaviorism, including theorists, concepts, and principles, particularly Pavlov & Thorndike
  • Understand the origins, concepts, and principles of classical conditioning
  • Understand and analyze Skinner’s operant conditioning principle
  • Identify and define applications of operant conditioning
  • Articulate applications of behaviorism to instruction and learning
  • Specify the epistemological tradition that informs Radical Behaviorism

Required Readings

Textbook: Driscoll (2005), Chapter 2
Available through course website:
Beatty, B.  (1998).  From laws of learning to a science of values: Efficiency and morality in Thorndike’s educational psychology. American Psychologist, 53(10), 1145-1152.
Burton, J. K., Moore, D. M. & Magliaro, S. G. (2004). Behaviorism and instructional technology.
Magliaro, S. G., Lockee, B. B. & Burton, J. K. (2005). Direct instruction revisited: A key model for instructional technology. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(4), 41-56.
Munson, K. J. & Crosbie, J. (1998). Effects of response cost on computerized program instruction. Psychological Record, Spring 98, Vol. 48, Issue 2.  
Windholz, G. (1997). Ivan P. Pavlov: An overview of his life and psychological work. AmericanPsychologist, 52, 941-946.

Instructor notes

The purpose of these notes is to provide a general orientation to the topics covered in this lesson. While an overview is provided, it will be up to you to cover assigned readings and complete all assignments to thoroughly understand what is being conveyed.

Antecedents to Skinner & Radical Behaviorism
From the 1950s through the 1970s Radical Behaviorism, as espoused by B. F. Skinner, dominated theories of learning and instruction. Since that time, Skinner’s ideas have been supplanted almost entirely by approaches grounded in Cognitivism and Constructivism. Almost but not quite entirely so. It is still possible to see vestiges of the behaviorist approach to instruction in some forms of computer-based learning and elsewhere, particularly in the domain of human performance technology. The greatest stronghold of behaviorism in education is probably in classroom management. Many classroom teachers are familiar with using reward systems, time-out, and other behaviorist approaches to encourage students to pay attention, stay in their seats, and so on. Human performance technologists likewise will be familiar with the formulation of learning objectives and the designation of conditions for learning. Finally, the process of conducting a task analysis is inherently derived from the behaviorist tradition.

Thus to begin to understand behaviorism, it is important to understand its antecedents. From the perspective of taking a scientific approach to understanding instruction and learning, this is important for at least two reasons. First, it is important to understand that theories are often evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary. That is, antecedents (both persons and ideas) often have tremendous influence on theorists and their theories – either as sources of inspiration or objection. Second, if you pay close attention, you’ll notice as you progress through the course that ideas from Ebbinghaus, Thorndike, and Pavlov will be readdressed in subsequent theories, examining similar problems from different foci, emphasis, or scope. The important ideas you should keep in mind are these.

  • Associationism, and Ebbinghaus' experiments with memorizing lists of nonsense syllables. Why did Ebbinghaus conduct his learning experiments with nonsense syllables? And, in retrospect, why was that perhaps not such a great idea?
  • Thorndike's interest in the association between the environment and action (or behavior), rather than just the association between ideas. Importantly, Thorndike’s “Law of Effect” is a critical antecedent to operant conditioning (see below) and should be marked for future reference.
  • Pavlov's "discovery" of classical conditioning: where a previously "neutral" event (e.g., ringing a bell), when paired with a biological stimulus (e.g., food) can come to elicit the same physiological response (e.g., salivation).

Concepts associated with Pavlov’s classical conditioning paradigm
You should take note of the following concepts from Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning as they will provide a foundation for better appreciating Skinner’s interpretation in the form of operant conditioning:
  • Higher-order conditioning: when a conditioned stimulus is paired with another previously neutral stimulus, it too can acquire the ability to elicit a response. So, if Pavlov's dogs were conditioned to salivate when he rang a bell, then he began flashing a bright light at the same time, eventually the light alone might come to elicit the same response.
  • Extinction: when the conditioned stimulus is presented over a sufficient period of time without the unconditioned stimulus, the conditioned stimulus eventually loses its ability to elicit the response (i.e., ring that bell enough times without presenting food, and the dog will stop salivating in response.)
  • Counter-conditioning: changing the response to a conditioned stimulus by pairing it with a different stimulus. In the case of Baby Albert, you might pair a pleasant stimulus with the white rat, just in case extinction alone doesn't work. Or, in the case of Pavlov's dogs, you might pair an appetite-suppressing stimulus with the conditioned stimulus.
Skinner's operant conditioning
John B. Watson (1913) introduced the notion of behaviorism by stating that psychology should be concerned only with the objective data of behavior since scientists can't reasonably know what's going on in the mind of humans. B. F. Skinner followed Watson's lead in emphasizing behavior, rather than thoughts, feelings, attitudes, etc., as the "proper" subject matter of psychology. The interesting difference in Skinner's view is that he was less concerned with the relationship between environmental stimuli and responses. Rather, Skinner was interested in behavior (or a response) and its consequences. Attempts by psychologists to link all behaviors to stimuli from the environment had become very cumbersome, and required postulating many intervening mental processes. Imagine starting only with stimuli that elicit physiological responses (heat, loud noises, hunger, etc.), and trying to account for complex human behavior such as building a cathedral or writing a poem!

Skinner claimed that the environment provided "cues" that serve as antecedents to behavior, i.e., they set the conditions for behavior to occur. Most importantly, it is the results or consequences of our behavior that make that behavior more or less likely to occur in the future, and so it was these results that were more interesting. From this paragraph, one can begin to understand how instructional (or performance) technologists began to find behaviorism attractive as a theory to inform the field. As you progress through this course, and if your chosen discipline is instructional design and technology (or performance technology), you will come to understand that behaviorism is an inescapable foundation of these fields. Consequently, it would be a serious error to disregard behaviorism as merely an historical artifact.

Consequently, Skinner distinguished two classes of behavior:  respondent and operant. Respondent behavior is performed automatically in the presence of a stimulus from the environment. For example, you may very likely recoil in response to an unexpected clap of thunder in anticipation of an approaching storm over the horizon. Operant behavior is "emitted" without necessarily following any immediately identifiable stimulus. For example, babies grasp at things and babble because that's what babies do. To Skinner, it would be the consequences of their grasping or babbling behavior that are important in the analysis of behavior.
According to Skinner, the basic "unit" of behavior analysis is a discriminative stimulus, followed by an operant response, followed by a contingent stimulus. This is commonly diagrammed as follows:

S (discriminative stimulus) --> R (operant response)--> S (contingent stimulus)
This diagram is referred to commonly as the “S-R-S chain.”
In this diagram, remember that the discriminative stimulus sets the stage for the response, but does not automatically elicit it in the way that an object moving toward your eye can elicit a blink. For example, robins peck for worms when they're on the ground, but not when they're flying. So, the ground is a discriminative stimulus for pecking behavior. The pecking behavior (the R in our diagram) may be followed by getting a worm. If so, the worm is a new stimulus, which is contingent on the pecking behavior, and which may serve to reinforce that behavior.
Humans, too, are very sensitive to discriminative stimuli. We know that very different sets of behaviors are appropriate for different settings. For example, the behaviors that are appropriate at a football game are quite different from those that would be appropriate at an opera. While Skinner had some interest in the role of discriminative stimuli in setting the stage for behavior, he was more interested in the consequences of behavior; that is, in the contingent stimulus that follows a response. This interest was motivated by a desire to control behavior.

Consequences of a response
Skinner noted that the consequences of a response (the contingent stimulus) can be either satisfying or unsatisfying to the person or organism making the response. When the consequence is satisfying, it is said to reinforce the behavior; that is, to make it more likely to occur in the future. When the response is not satisfying, or aversive, it is said to punish the behavior; that is, to make it less likely to occur in the future. It's important to remember that we can't always guess what consequence will be satisfying to someone. The final test of whether a consequence is reinforcing to someone is whether or not it increases the behavior of interest. Suppose, for example, that we try to get a child to go to bed on time by reading to her for half an hour each night. No matter how much we believe that the child enjoys being read to, if this does not increase her going-to-bed-on-time behavior, then, in Skinnerian terms, we must conclude that this was not a sufficient reinforcer. Or (and this may be the case), that our reading reinforces several delay tactics and makes them more likely to occur again. Thus, the success of a reinforcer can only be determined by the observed behavior.

Operant conditioning would be a fairly simple concept if it were concerned only with positive and negative consequences of a behavior or response. But it's a little more complicated than that. Skinner reasoned that we could think not only about situations in which a satisfying or aversive outcome was presented following a response, but also about situations in which it was removed following the response.

Suppose, for example, that every time your dog sniffs around on top of the kitchen stove, he finds a chicken leg or something equally tasty to eat. It is likely that his stove-sniffing behavior would increase, because it has been reinforced by finding food there. Now suppose that you get tired of this and you stop leaving food on top of the stove where the dog can reach it. This is a situation where a satisfying outcome is removed, rather than presented, following the response. And the likely consequence (you hope) is that the stove-sniffing behavior would decrease, through the process of extinction.

Here's another example. Suppose every time a student asks a question in class, the teacher responds in a curt or abrupt way. This may function as a punishing consequence which decreases the question-asking behavior. Then, a new teacher who is more open to questions takes over the class. The punishing or aversive consequence has been removed, so the student may increase the question-asking behavior.

If we "cross" the two possible functions of a contingent stimulus (satisfying or aversive) with the two possible conditions of presenting or removing the stimulus after the response, then we get the table with four cells presented in Chapter 2 of the Driscoll text.

To analyze behavior a la Skinner, it is important to understand these four possible situations. In particular, note that both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement (the upper left and lower right cells in Driscoll's table) serve to increase or strengthen behavior. Positive reinforcement does so by presenting a satisfying outcome after the response; negative reinforcement does so by removing an aversive outcome after the response. On the other hand punishment, response cost, timeout, and extinction (the upper right and lower left cells) serve to decrease or weaken behavior. Punishment does so by presenting an aversive consequence following the behavior. Reinforcement removal does so by removing a satisfying consequence following the behavior. The table below should provide a helpful schematic.

Learning new behaviors and maintaining established ones
So far, we've considered only behaviors that the person (or animal or organism) already knew how to perform. The only issue was whether the frequency of the behavior would be increased or decreased. But how does behaviorism account for learning to perform new behaviors?
In your textbook, four processes are suggested:
  • Shaping involves the reinforcement of successively closer approximations of a target behavior. For example, if you want to teach your dog to fetch the newspaper, you might begin by rewarding him when he approaches the door, then only when he goes out onto the sidewalk, then only when he approaches the newspaper, then only when he picks it up, then, finally, only when he performs the target behavior of bringing the paper to you.
  • Chaining teaches complex behavior by reinforcing the performance of simpler behaviors which are then strung together in the proper sequence to make up the more complex behavior. For example, if one wants to teach someone to assemble an electronic component from a kit, one might first teach the individual steps of assembly (with appropriate reinforcement after the completion of each task), then reinforce the learner only when she can assemble a particular module, then finally only when she can assemble the entire component. Notice here where the practice of task analysis may have emerged or at least been strongly informed by principles of Radical Behaviorism.
  • Discrimination learning is the process of learning to discriminate between settings in which a particular behavior will or will not be reinforced. For example, if I'm learning to work simple arithmetic problems, I must know to add in the presence of a plus sign (a discriminative stimulus), but not to add in the presence of a minus sign.
  • Fading is the gradual withdrawal of prompts or cues (discriminative stimuli) that guide the performance of a complex behavior. For example, when my friend was first learning to play chords on a guitar, he needed lots of prompts, such as diagrams of the chord, a picture of someone with their fingers in the proper position, and a teacher who actually placed his fingers in the proper position. Later, he needed fewer and fewer prompts to be able to form the chord correctly.
To this point, we have assumed that a behavior is reinforced every time it is performed. However, behaviorists found that this need not be the case. Once a behavior has been established, reinforcement schedules other than, “Introduce one reinforcement for every single  elicitation,” turn out to be more effective at maintaining high response rates. Be certain you are familiar with fixed/variable ratio and interval schedules by referring to the textbook.

Behaviorism and education
One of the most lasting influences of behaviorism in education is the use of principles of behavior management. Teachers (and parents, we might add) continue to use principles such as time out and token economies to reward on-task behaviors and discourage disruptive behaviors.
Behaviorism also had a pervasive influence on instruction and instructional design. Contemporary computer-assisted instruction is a direct descendant of teaching machines and programmed instruction, both of which were attempts to create a technology of teaching in accordance with behaviorist learning principles. Instruction created according to behaviorist principles (especially programmed instruction, early computer-based instruction, and some contemporary computer-based tutorials and drill-and-practice) typically emphasized these characteristics:
  • Emphasis on specific, observable learning outcomes. The target behaviors needed to be specified so that the instructor or designer could provide appropriate reinforcement when they were achieved.
  • Individualized learning. Each learner worked independently, at his/her own pace. This permitted "reinforcement" to occur at the moment the learner completed a particular objective.
  • Frequent reinforcement. The material to be learned was broken into very small "chunks", usually somewhere between a paragraph and a page of text. This was so that the learner could be reinforced frequently while working through the material.
  • "Knowledge of correct results" as a reinforcer. The usual pattern of this kind of instruction was to present a small amount of reading or a problem, then to pose a question. In behaviorist terms, the reading or problem was a discriminative stimulus; when the student answered the question, they were emitting a response; and reinforcement that followed the response was finding out whether they had answered the question properly. Typically, these should be administered frequently and should cover little new content so that the odds of producing an incorrect answer to the discriminative stimulus (the Q) would be decreased (that would reinforce the wrong answer).
  • Fading of prompts. In more sophisticated behaviorist instruction, the learner would be provided with less and less guidance or prompting as he/she proceeded through the material.
One of the reasons that this kind of instruction has largely disappeared is that it emphasized lower-order skills such as memorization. It is very difficult to teach higher thinking skills such as synthesis and evaluation in this instructional format.
In conclusion, it is critical as an instructional or performance technologist that you understand and appreciate the importance of Radical Behaviorism to the field. It is a foundation to keep in mind as we progress through subsequent theories in this course. Readings for this lesson will emphasize the continued place of behaviorism in research and practice.

Assignments & Deliverables

lesson 2 summary & analysis
Concisely summarize what you have read and learned in this lesson. Below are help and directions for completing this assignment.
Guiding Questions:

  • How does learning occur according to “Radical Behaviorism”?
  • What is the purpose of using “reinforcement” and how does it affect on behavior management?
  • What is the relationship between “feedback” and “reinforcement”?
  • What are principles of teaching new behaviors?
  • How should one maintain behavior by using reinforcers?   

Additional directions:
  • Convey your knowledge of information found in readings and critically analyze in terms of personal position and larger issues at hand; you must cite at least one additional reading found in the syllabus or an education database.
  • The summary and analysis will not exceed 500 words and must be single-spaced.
  • You are required to use concepts and principles from textbook and readings, citing sources in APA format.  

Learning activity #1
Identify at least two specific instances of educational practices that you have experienced that seem to be consistent with behaviorist learning principles. These can be either from the behavior management side (e.g., reinforcement, extinction, time out, token economies) or from the instructional side (e.g., behavioral objectives, self-paced learning). They can be practices you have used yourself as a teacher or trainer, or that you have observed in other teachers or instructional settings. Briefly describe these instances and comment on their effectiveness and appropriateness (in your judgment). Post your response under the appropriate entry in the course discussion board.