This is the first post in a series that will look at what behavioural psychology is, the research and some implications.

Behavioural psychology: A background and historical perspective. What is behavioural psychology and what does the research say?

Behaviour_Interactive_logo So what is this thing called behavioural psychology or behaviourism? Roughly it is a branch of psychology that looks at how organisms learn through interactions with their environment.

Some assumptions the discipline make are: “(1) all activity of organisms is behaviour and (2) a primary influence of behaviour is the learning of relations between environments and behaviour” (Podlesnik, C). 

The main influences on behaviour are: The evolutionary and learning history of an organism and the current environment. According to behaviourists It is the interaction of all of these that gives rise to behaviour.

Behavioural analysts study the output (behaviour) of an organism as the result of its interactions with the environment. Practitioners then use that research to help animals and humans. Dr Sarah Cowie gives a researchers view: “One of my most favourite things about this area of psychology is that understanding how things in our immediate environment affect behaviour gives us so much power to change behavior effectively”

The two main principles used in Behavioural psychology are Classical and Operant conditioning:

Classical conditPavlov's_dog_conditioning.svgioning is the process where an unconditioned stimulus (that elicits an unconditioned response) gets paired with a neutral stimulus, which then elicits that same response. Confused yet? Examples are much better so here goes: It is your first day at school, 3pm rolls around and the teacher says you can go home. You are happy. Home time is an unconditioned stimulus and your unconditioned response is happy and excited to see mum and dad. Enter the school bell. The school bell goes just before (usually) the teacher says you can go home. The bell is a neutral stimulus. When the bell and home time are paired the bell comes to predict home time and the resulting feeling of happiness. The bell on its own becomes a conditioned stimulus that elicits a happy response.

Operant Conditioning on the other hand consists of a three-term contingency: Antecedent. Behaviour. Consequence. Antecedents are just stimuli or events in the environment.

Example: Antecedent = Hunger. Behaviour = Crying. Consequence = Gets milk.

Another example is a spelling test (antecedent) a student saying they are ill (behaviour) Student misses out on test (consequence). The thing with the three -term contingency is that consequences that are favourable to the student are more likely to be repeated than an unfavourable consequences. Also how close that consequence is to the behaviour will impact on behavioural change or lack of it. The three-term contingency is really useful for understanding why our students behave the way they do, but also has another implication. It tells us that when we give feedback to students matters a great deal. The further apart we give feedback or reinforcement to students, the less likely of an impact it will have because the association between behaviour and consequence gets weaker as time goes on.


Why study behaviour?

Research from behavioural analysis has contributed widely and significantly to the area of problem behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse. The research shows it is better to extinguish an unwanted behaviour in the same context as it was learned in (which goes against the idea of rehab centers). We can also apply this area of research to other behaviours such as tantrums, lateness and truancy. Why behaviour persists and relapse occurs is massive area beyond the scope of these posts, but the crux of the findings is that changes in context play a huge role in problem behaviours. One such experiment we ran at UOA seemed to suggest that fewer context changes and slowly fading out reinforcement increases the chances of replacement behaviours persisting and reducing relapse of unwanted behaviours. An example of this might be when a student has ongoing difficulty with aggression and lashes out at others. We give the student an alternative behaviour to perform when they get angry (say squeezing a ball or going for a run) and the alternative behaviour gets reinforced. We know from the research that the alternative behaviour needs to be accessible in all contexts where aggression occurs and the reinforcement must be faded out slowly.

A lot of the research has been used to help people with learning difficulties and harmful behaviours. Typically Applied Behavioural Analysts will use Classical or Operant principals as the basis of their work. This is probably the area most educators are familiar with, working with specialists in supporting positive behaviours.

Behavioural research also gives us an insight into how we make choices. Using mathematical models we can predict a close match of rates of responding to reinforcement rates. We also use these models to look at how people reason and solve problems. Check out the Monty Hall problem and this clip on problem solving with New Caledonian crows.

Research in the area of Delay Discounting shows we often prefer smaller rewards sooner, than larger rewards later. An example of this is setting the goal of getting up early to go for a run each morning to lose some weight and get fit. Morning rolls around and we hit that snooze button repeatedly! We choose the short-term win of sleeping in over the long-term win of losing weight. The classic example of this is the Marshmallow test. Commitment strategies for larger later win can help reduce the temptation to give into that smaller, sooner reward.


Punishment is generally defined as an event that decreases behaviour. Obvious punishers are things like getting an electric shock or physical violence, but things like time out or response costs where a child might lose a sticker earned to buy a toy can also be punishers. Skinner’s (1938) research showed that punishment only temporarily decreased behaviour and he concluded that punishment only ‘suppresses behaviour’. Punishment has an array of negative effects such as freezing, increased aggression and avoidance of a punisher (kids who hide in classrooms to avoid the bully at lunchtime..) So if punishment doesn’t decrease behaviour and has lots of negative effects, why are we using it? Most often we can change behaviour using reinforcement and get the same if not better results than using aversive methods.

More recent research suggests a particular stimulus in the environment acts as a cue that something good or bad is going to happen and we behave accordingly. An example of this is when Azrin and Holz (1996), showed when a green light was paired with extinction (removal) of reinforcement, behaviour decreased dramatically and when the green light was removed behaviour increased again. The light was associated with the removal of reinforcement and acted like a punisher. The same experimenters showed that punishers can lose their effectiveness when they become associated with reinforcement. A real life example of this would be when parents put their child in time out and then feel bad so go over and give the child a hug. What we have done here is ended up reinforcing the bad behaviour and making it more likely to occur again.

I want to finish by mentioning shaping. Shaping is the process of reinforcing successive approximations to a desired behaviour. Shaping can be really useful way to get reluctant students to learn new behaviours and skills. Shaping involves breaking a large task (or what seems large to the learner) into really small steps. Say you have a child who will not join in the swimming lessons. We can start by having them sit by the pool. Then next day into togs, next day sit with feet in the water, then waist in and so on.

There are so many areas like Memory, Concept formation and problem solving that I would love to go into but am pushing word or should I say attention limit as it is! You can click here to find a summary of research, implications and examples.

Newer research and findings can be found in this post.


Azrin, N.H & Holz, W.C. (1996). Punishment. In W.K. Honig (ED). Operant behavior: Areas of research and application. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bouton, M. E., Winterbauer, N. E., & Todd, T. P. (2012). Relapse processes after the extinction of instrumental learning: Renewal, resurgence, and reacquisition. Behavioural Processes, 90, 130-141.

Hineline, P.N  & Rosales-Ruiz, J. (2013). Behavior In Relation To Aversive  Events: Punishment And Negative Reinforcement. APA Handbook of Behavior Analysis: Vol. 1.

Podlesnik, C. A., Jimenez-Gomez, C., & Shahan, T. A. (2006). Resurgence of alcohol seeking produced by discontinuing non-drug reinforcement as an animal model of drug relapse. Behavioural Pharmacology, 17, 369-374

Podlesnik, C. A.  (2015). University Of Auckland lecture slides.

Skinner, B.F. (1938). The behaviour of organisms. New York: Appleton -Century-Crofts.





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