Popularity of Behaviorism in Psychology


The field of counseling psychology has experienced numerous shifts of emphasis during its evolution throughout the 20th century. Behaviorism was one of the earliest theories tested though Freud’s introspective theme flavored the birth of the counseling movement.

Ivan Pavlov and other experimented with the idea that behavior can be controlled and learned through the use of rewards and punishment. These two themes would merge into “cognitive behavioral” theory in the mid twentieth century.


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy identifies three types of behaviorism. Methodological behaviorism is the belief that science should only study the instinctual behavior of organisms to stimuli rather than making assumptions about the mental states or beliefs behind behavior. 

Psychological behaviorism emphasizes the role of external stimuli and the learning processes including such as through the use of punishment or reinforcement. The work of Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner focuses on learned or conditioned behavior through the introduction of rewards and punishment.

This approach to behaviorism is the foundation for behavioral programs that provide rewards for desired behavior and various forms of punishment for undesired behavior. The goal is to achieve compliance. 

Analytical or logical behaviorism emphasizes the role of mental states or beliefs as an influence on behavior. This approach to behaviorism is the foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT presumes that all behavior is the product of choices and cognitions that seek to achieve goals with minimal costs.

The exploration of mental states and beliefs can identify how people interpret stimuli and why they respond in the healthy or destructive ways that they respond. CBT is popular in across therapeutic settings because it is action-oriented and goal-directed.


Why is behaviorism attractive? Three reasons standout in explaining the popularity of behaviorism. All of the reasons for the popularity of behaviorism point to its innately scientific nature.


Behaviorism assumes that psychological distress is due to unhealthy or dysfunctional behavior. Behavior can be symptomatic of psychological problems. Psychological problems can be identified through diagnostic methods such as the DSM-IV.

Perspectives on the influence of cognitions, mental states, or beliefs on behavior vary with the theory from little influence under B.F. Skinner’s Positive Behaviorism to the syncretic theories of people like William Glasser’s Reality Therapy and Choice Theory. 


Therapeutic dialogue is important in revealing the problem but therapy ultimately guides the client towards a treatment plan. Treatment plans incorporate small steps of behavioral change towards mental health.

Simply choosing to believe a certain way or creating one’s own perception of stimuli does not impact one’s quality of life until beliefs or perceptions are acted upon. 


A strong advocate for behaviorism is the ability to measure progress. Behaviorism offers behavioral markers that allow the client and everyone to know if the client is making progress.

Progress in behaviorism can be measured through success in accomplishing the different steps of the treatment plan. 

For example, William Glasser’s Reality Therapy is a cognitive-behavioral theory. Part of the treatment plan process is the client generates much of the plan and contracts with the therapist to achieve certain predetermined goals by a set time or the client experiences self-identified consequences. All of this is part of the contract between client and counselor. 


The role of behavior in shaping one’s life should not be discounted. Much of what a person experiences in life is a product of his or her behavior. However, pure behaviorism tends to discount the role of beliefs or modeling by others and this appears to be a weakness of the theory.

In other words, creating the perfect situation in terms of rewards does not guarantee an organism will demonstrate desired behavior.