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Behaviorism: Your Complete Guide to Behavioral Learning Theory

Behaviourism or behavioural learning theory

We’ve covered a lot of learning theories on this blog. From Albert Bandura’s social learning theory to Kolb’s experiential learning theory. And today, we’ve got a new one to discuss! It’s called behaviorism (or behaviourism here in the UK) or behavioral learning theory. 

Do you remember when your teacher would promise your class a pizza party if you all behaved well? Conversely, do you remember when your teacher would threaten you with some kind of punishment if you didn’t behave well? 

This is the basis of behavioral learning theory.

The theory revolves around the notion that we display certain behaviors through conditioning. This conditioning occurs through the use of positive or negative reinforcement. As a result, the theory maintains that all behaviors are learned via interaction with the environment around you. 

This begs a question. How can we apply behaviorism in an L&D context?

In this article, we’ll tell you how! You’ll also learn about the history of behaviorism and we’ll run through some common criticisms. Let’s go!

The History of Behaviorism Learning Theory

Behaviorism has been a big part of the field of psychology for a long time. Its influence can still be seen today, as demonstrated by this article! Indeed, the theory is largely responsible for people recognising psychology as a scientific discipline.

But who do we have to thank for this? That would be John B. Watson. He’s commonly known as the father of Behaviorism. After all, the movement began in earnest with his 1913 article titled, ‘Psychology as the behaviorist views it’.

He believed that an unbiased study of the mind wasn’t possible, so he focused his efforts on behavior instead. 

Consequently, he was a key driver in the shift from the mind to behavior in the field of psychology. This approach of observing and controlling behavior is what we now refer to as Behaviorism.

Pavlov’s Experiment

Pavlov's dogs experiment helps to understand behavioural learning theory

You may be familiar with ‘Pavlov’s Dogs’. This refers to an experiment conducted by the physiologist, Ivan Pavlov. He researched a type of learning behavior called a conditioned reflex

He assumed that his dogs would salivate when food was placed in front of them. However, they would also salivate simply at the sight of Pavlov’s assistant who always brought them the food.

This is an example of classical conditioning. An unconditioned stimulus (e.g. food) naturally begins to produce a response. In this case this was the dog’s salivation. But it then becomes associated with something that has nothing to do with the food (the assistant). 

For his experiment, he then introduced a neutral stimulus. In this case it was a metronome, which produces no response on its own.

Pavlov rang the metronome and then immediately presented the food to his dogs. The combination of two unconditioned stimuli programmes (i.e. conditions) a response in the brain (e.g. salivation). 

Hence, now whenever the metronome is the sole stimulus present, the dogs will begin to salivate. Of the results, Pavlov wrote:

“We observed that, after several repetitions of the combined stimulation, the sounds of the metronome had acquired the property of stimulating salivary secretion.”

In other words, the neutral stimulus (the metronome) became what is known as a conditioned stimulus, which then provoked a conditioned response (salivation). 

Classical conditioning is an unconscious learning method and is in fact one of the easiest ways for someone to take in new information. 

Pavlov’s work is still one of the most groundbreaking discoveries for psychology and the basis of treatment for many mental health issues.

Skinner’s Box

Skinners box helps to understand behavioural learning theory

B. F. Skinner was an American psychologist and behaviorist. He found that you can shape behaviors by using proper reinforcement. Thus, Skinner spoke of reinforcement and punishment as key factors in driving the behavior of organisms. 

Back in 1948, Skinner created a chamber for studying the principles of altering behavior through reinforcement and punishment. You would call this device an operant conditioning chamber. 

Within the chamber, there is usually a lever that an animal can operate to obtain food or water. This is the reinforcer. 

In the box, there was also an electrical current that caused discomfort. As the animal moved about the box it would unintentionally knock a lever that turned off the current. 

As such, the animals learned to go straight to the lever after experiencing the experiment a few times. The electrical current is the punishment. 

Through his experiments, Skinner identified three types of responses, or operant, that follow from behavior:

  • Neutral operants: responses from the environment that don’t have an impact on the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.
  • Reinforcers: responses from the environment that increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. These can be either positive or negative. For example, you’re more likely to repeat a behavior in the workplace if your manager praises you for it in a performance review. Or, if you receive kudos and compliments from your colleagues.
  • Punishers: responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior. For example, if your behavior leads to disciplinary action, or prevents you from earning a promotion, you’re less likely to display that behavior again. 

Experiments like Pavlov’s Dogs and Skinner’s Box reveal the consequences of certain actions or behaviors. But how does this fit into our learning today? Let’s take a look!

Behavioral Learning Theory Today

Behaviorism is based on the notion that students repeat certain behaviors depending on the reinforcement they receive. If they receive a good grade on their test, it’s positive reinforcement. 

However, if they receive a bad grade, that’s negative reinforcement. As such, they now know they need to adjust their studying strategies.

Behaviorism also ties in with the consistency principle. sed by Robert Cialdini devised this and is one of six key ways to guide human behavior. This principle focuses on how humans naturally want their future behavior to mirror their past behavior. 

It’s in part due to wanting to maintain an image to our peers, but also because we like to view ourselves positively. If we perform behaviors that don’t match previously positive behaviors or our beliefs, inner tension arises.

Online Learning and Behaviorism

Gamification helps behavioural learning theory

With online learning technology, you can easily weave behavioral learning theory into your training programmes. To do this, you need to ensure the right behaviors are reinforced, whilst other behaviors (such as avoiding learning) are discouraged.

For example, on Growth Engineering LMS, you can use gamification to reinforce the right behaviors. We define gamification as ‘the application of gaming mechanics to non-gaming environments to make difficult tasks more palatable’.

It’s a great example of a positive reinforcer, as learners receive rewards for completing actions on the platform. Incentive-based programmes often cause a 22% increase in workplace performance. 

Additionally, positive reinforcement encourages repeated behaviors. Thus, it makes learners returning to the platform much more likely.

Examples of game mechanics include:



Learners receive these for actions such as logging into the platform a record number of times or completing a new module. They work well as a form of positive reinforcement because they fuel a sense of achievement

This creates an emotional bond with the action of earning Badges, which encourages further learning and platform interaction.

Knowledge Battles 

These put learners head-to-head against each other to find out who can answer the most questions correctly. Battles create positive reinforcement for the winner and negative reinforcement for the loser.

As a result, they are now intrinsically motivated by a desire to win. That makes them more likely to go over their learning again and come back for victory!

Experience Points (XP) 

Gaining experience points helps behavioural learning theory

Learners earn a certain amount of points for performing actions on your learning platform. This could range from using social learning features like posting on a social feed or reading some newly assigned materials. 

Learners can see their XP rising, which creates the sense that their knowledge is increasing too. 

Feeling more intelligent has mental benefits such as a reduction in stress and improvement in productivity. But it also has physical benefits like improved sleep and better cardiovascular health.


These allow you to see the top performers on a learning platform. They usually display those with the most XP won, or whoever’s won the most Badges. 

Leaderboards are a great way to positively recognise those working hard at their training. A recent survey revealed that 91% of HR employees agree that recognition at work significantly reduces staff turnover.

On the other hand, you could also use negative reinforcement to help shape learner behavior. 

However, you should do this with great caution. You can’t form a genuine learning culture (fuelled by a love of learning) if you’re coercing your learners into action. Nobody wants to be the dog in Pavlov’s experiment, or a rat in Skinner’s box.

That said, you could use FOMO to prompt your learners into action. With Growth Engineering Learning App, learners are able to access the platform via mobile devices. As such, you can make use of push notifications that remind them they haven’t logged into the platform for a few days or have failed to complete training.  

Additionally, you can use the platform to schedule meetings with your colleagues. With this, supervisors will be able to discuss reasons for inconsistent training completion or reveal the cause of consistent poor performance. 

Feedback is generally found to be more effective when given in real time, which an LMS allows for. Furthermore, while negative feedback is thought to have a detrimental impact, it actually gives room for employees to grow and improve

Speaking of detrimental impact, let’s delve into why behaviorism has its fair share of critics.

The Problem with Behavioral Learning Theory 

As with any learning theory, there are a few things to be cautious of when integrating a behaviorism-backed approach into your training programmes.

With a view of learning informed by behaviorism theory, the teacher or instructor exercises a great deal of control. In the world of online learning, this gives platform admins, instructional designers and tutors a lot of power. 

After all, they design your training paths, monitor your learning and provide you with feedback. They use positive and negative reinforcement to drive the experience, effectively removing agency from your learners.

Autonomy can work against behavioural learning theory

The problem here is that learners aren’t given any space to evaluate their learning themselves. Someone else informs them what’s correct and what isn’t. This lack of autonomy can be damaging.

According to Self-determination theory, autonomy is one of three psychological needs that motivate human action. If learners feel they don’t have any control over their own lives, they’re more likely to become disengaged. 

Gallup found that disengaged employees have ‘miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues’. In addition, it’s estimated that disengaged employees cost the UK economy £340 billion every year in lost training and recruitment costs.

Additionally, using this approach to learn could be superficial. This is because the focus is often on surface-level changes in behavior, rather than the internal processes of learning. 

Changing the behavior, rather than changing the internal motivation often results in short-term solutions that can easily come undone over time. 

How to Combat the Problem

To combat the issues with behavioral learning theory, we recommend imbuing your training programmes with Epic Meaning. This means creating a sense of purpose within the workplace and making employees feel like their work/training matters. 

Epic meaning helps behavioural learning theory

McKinsey found that a staggering 70% of employees say that their work defines their sense of purpose. In addition, 70% of business executives say that when employees embrace the company mission it boosts productivity ‘to a great extent’. Coincidence? We think not!

With software like Growth Engineering Authoring Tool, you can create your own learning content. This means you can ensure you link your content to your company’s mission, goals and values. 

Be sure to come up with an engaging storyline and tie your employees’ training goals to company-wide goals. It’s vital that employees feel there’s a point to them specifically working through the programme. If your values are aligned, then they’ll feel less like they’re being forced down a particular learning pathway.

As a result, employees will feel more of a personal stake in the training. This increases their sense of autonomy thereby helping to increase engagement levels! And did you know that highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability?

Final Words

Behaviorism can be a powerful tool for you to use in your learning programmes. Through the use of positive reinforcement via game mechanics or feedback, your learners won’t be able to get enough of their learning platform. 

While you can sprinkle in negative reinforcement from time-to-time, remember it often makes for a bitter ingredient! Here at Growth Engineering, we believe that learning should be a sweet experience.

It’s also important to remember that there’s more than one way to change behavior. Behavioral learning theory is a good place to start. However, there’s a multitude of learning theories, models, incentives and more. Your learning audience is a unique blend and what works for them may not work for others.

Growth Engineering have been experts in helping companies tailor training programmes for their audience since 2004. We’ve collected all our knowledge and transformed it into a whitepaper for you! 

Download Using Learning Theories & Models To Improve Your Training Initiatives today!

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