The Psychology of Behaviour
Awareness Education

The Psychology of Behaviour


Have you ever wondered why you do the things that you do? Or why do other people behave the way they behave? The field of psychology tries to answer questions like these by studying the mind and behaviour. This article will explain some of the basic things psychologists have learned about why we act and feel the way we do.

What Makes Us Behave The Way We Do?

Psychologists break behaviour and mental processes down into smaller pieces to study them. Some things they study include:

  • Biological processes: How our brains, hormones, nervous system, etc. work and affect thoughts and actions.
  • Childhood experiences: How the things that happened to us when we were young still impact us.
  • Incentives or rewards: How we tend to repeat actions that lead to good results.
  • General social rules: How culture, morals, and pressure from others guide our choices.
  • Emotions: How feelings like anger, joy, fear, etc. influence behaviours.
  • Cognitive processes: How we perceive, learn, and remember information.

Read More: The Psychology Behind Emotions

The ABCs of Behavior

Human behaviour follows biological needs, childhood experiences, cultural rules, and ongoing cost/benefit calculations. Psychologists even sum up the basics using the “ABC” model which stands for:

  1. Antecedents: Situations activating behaviours
  2. Behaviours: The actions themselves
  3. Consequences: What happens after to reward or correct

For example, seeing tasty treats in the breakroom (antecedent) motivates getting a snack (behaviour) which reduces hunger but might increase guilt or weight (consequences). Sticking to or avoiding actions depends on past and expected outcomes. So psychology looks closely at both origins of behaviours and their impacts.

Influences on Behavioral Development

What exactly forms our choices and personality traits over time? The classic “nature versus nurture” debate contrasts what we inherit through biology versus what life circumstances teach us.

Nature and Nurture Debate

Two major factors that shape who we are and why we do things are nature and nurture.

“Nature” refers to our natural-born biology and genetics. So some behaviours and tendencies are just built into our genes and DNA. DNA and genetics equip us with inborn traits making certain behaviours more or less likely by setting:

  • Baseline neurotransmitter levels
  • Activity levels and mood tendencies
  • General sensitivity to different rewards
  • Number of receptors sensing threats etc.
  • Facial expressions and physical attributes

Read More: The Psychology behind Emotional sensitivity

So nature furnishes the basic biological blueprint influencing reactions.

“Nurture” refers to the environment and life experiences that also guide our growth. The nurture part includes culture, family, media, and more. The nurture side involves external forces progressively shaping individuals through cumulative interactions with environments like:

  • Family dynamics
  • Community values
  • Artistic movements
  • Economic structures
  • Technology innovations
  • Government/legal systems

Our social ecology nurtures worldviews and repertoires of habits for coping. Most experts today believe both nature and nurture combine to make us think and behave the way we do.

Read More: Psychology Meets Public Policy: Crafting a Better Tomorrow

Biological Factors

Our brains, hormones, nervous system, and even digestion process play a part in emotions and actions by:

  1. Connecting certain cues to rewards or uncomfortable feelings
  2. Releasing chemicals when faced with threats, bonding moments, stressors, etc.
  3. Activating ” involuntary reactions that we then have to deal with

Parts of our biology also predispose us towards certain personality traits or ways of thinking that become patterns.

Understanding Behaviourism

Behaviourism concentrates squarely on observable external rather than internal mental processes or theories about the unconscious. Pioneers like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner-centered experiments only on stimuli and responses. They defined all behaviours as either respondent — automatic reactions to particular inputs — or operants — intentional ongoing patterns strengthened through reinforcement.

Read More: The Unconscious Mind, and its Relation to Mental Health

1. Classical Conditioning

Behaviourism’s stimuli-response framework emerged from Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiments conditioning dogs to salivate at a bell’s ring by pairing food with bell tones. This programmed an instinctual reflex known as a conditioned response. Blinking at sudden motions or calming from favourite music shows how pairing any neutral stimulus with others’ triggering reactions can create associative links and habits.

2. Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner further explored learned behaviours voluntarily emitted and controlled by consequences called operants. His term “operant conditioning” covered training using reinforcement like praise or penalties to regulate randomized voluntary behaviours. Through careful scheduling of rewards and ignoring or punishing undesired actions, Skinner cultivated complex routines in rats and pigeons, proving environmental feedback alone sculpts behaviour. Human operant conditioning optimizes education, habit change, and skill building by tying wanted conduct to positive outcomes. Common approaches include:

  1. Discrimination: Rewarding wanted actions or equivalents, not approximations.
  2. Punishment: Suppressing actions using penalties like fines or time-outs. But punishment risks unwanted side effects.
  3. Reinforcement: Increasing behaviours by applying pleasant stimuli, whether direct natural rewards or secondary reinforcers like money.
  4. Shaping through progressive reinforcement: Using rewards to guide step-by-step skill cultivation towards final complex mastery.
  5. Extinction through negative reinforcement: Stopping reinforcement of undesired conduct causes it to fade, especially with consistency.

So behaviourism scientifically proves behaviour learns environmental input-output “rules.

Childhood and Development

Having certain experiences at young ages can shape our brains to define what seems “normal.” Childhood events also build basic expectations, assumptions, and skills we carry forever. Some key impacts include:

  • Role Modeling: Mimicking observed behaviours and attitudes.
  • Trauma: Severe stress can alter brain functioning long-term.
  • Relationships: Early social contacts prime building future bonds.
  • Attachment: Bonding with caregivers early on affects the ability to trust.

Later in life, we interpret new situations through “lenses” built in our development years.

Social Influences

A major part of psychology looks at how groups impact individuals’ thinking and actions. Key agents of influence include:

  • Roles and rules: Family structures, gender norms, and cultural defaults give us loose “scripts” for playing our various identities.
  • Peer pressure: Fitting in with certain groups often motivates choices, especially for youth.
  • Authority: We tend to obey figures of power and expertise unless conditions are extreme. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment showed people are surprisingly willing to follow orders from authority, even to the point of harming others.
  • Conformity and compliance: We adopt views and behaviours demonstrated by a majority, often without realizing it. Solomon Asch highlighted this tendency for conformity in a study where participants went along with incorrect answers just because others gave them.

So social guidelines handed down through organizations, ad campaigns, influencers, and direct contacts regulate a lot of our decision-making.

Summarising the Three Schools of Thought About Behavior

Over the last century, scientists developed different angles on how the environment trains actions.

1. Methodological Behaviourism

The founder of behaviourism, John B. Watson, first simply said psychology should only study visible stimulus and response with objective methods, avoiding any talk of inner mental states since they cannot be observed. This strict “methodological behaviourism” aimed to make animal and human psychology purely a measurable science without speculation.

2. Radical Behaviourism

B.F. Skinner later defined his “radical behaviourism” to study how consequences shape voluntary operant actions rather than just reflexes. By graphing reinforcement schedules in his animal boxes, he founded a technology of change. Skinner felt inner processes were valid but best understood via their effects on observable behaviour. So he focused squarely on environmental impacts for practical control.

3. Social Learning Theory

Expanding on stimulus-response conditioning, Albert Bandura’s social learning theory finally added to our ability to acquire behaviours by imitating influential models in our surroundings. His famous Bobo doll experiments revealed children emulate both what adults do and the positive and negative reactions they receive. So our social ecology transmits behaviours through observational as well as experiential learning.

Read More: What is Social Exchange Theory?

Timeline of Major Events in Behaviorism

  • The 1890s – Edward Thorndike studies animal learning experiments and presents the law of effect.
  • The 1913 – John Watson publishes a landmark paper spawning the behaviourist movement
  • The 1920s – Watson and Rosalie Rayner condition baby Albert’s fears
  • The 1920s – Ivan Pavlov explores classical conditioning of reflexes
  • The 1930s – B.F. Skinner invented operant conditioning chambers
  • The 1948 – Skinner publishes Walden Two, a novel first outlining the idea of operant culture
  • The 1961 – Albert Bandura debuts Bobo doll demonstration of social learning
  • The 1970s – Behaviour therapy expands treatments based on learning principles
  • The 1990s – “Behaviour analysis” catches on as an umbrella term for derived therapies

Behaviour Therapy Today

Building on core behaviourism, cognitive perspectives added focus on conscious thoughts impacting actions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy uses this knowledge to alter dysfunctional emotions, assumptions, and reactions through:

  • Systematic desensitization to fears
  • Gradual exposure combined with relaxation training
  • Reframing self-talk and irrational beliefs
  • Expanding behavioural repertoires
  • Modelling and practising socially skilled behaviours
  • Role-playing for resilience and self-efficacy

Read More: Drama Therapy: What it is & How does it work?

Behavioural Concepts in Action

Behaviour-analytic applications flourish today in homes, schools, clinics, courtrooms, and businesses for pragmatic outcomes, using principles like:

  1. Token economies: Systems giving symbolic coins etc. in return for positive actions. Effective across settings like schools, psychiatric wards, shelters, and even gambling sites leveraging points rewards.
  2. Behavioural contracting: Formally negotiated agreements on goals and accountability conditions. Used for purposes like employee performance to problematic addictions.
  3. Desensitization and exposure: Gradually introducing feared triggers like spiders or social situations in controlled doses to overcome anxiety via habituation.
  4. Contingency management: Strategically adjusting rules, activities, or access in response to conjugate desired conduct. Schools implement levels, discipline, and privileges.
  5. Self-management: Individuals voluntarily self-monitor, reinforce, and correct actions through timed checks and privileges. Useful for health behaviours or focus.
  6. Behavioural activation: Slowly increasing pleasant activities to improve moods and reverse withdrawal from rewarding situations often associated with depression.
  7. Parent training: Social learning programs build caregiver skills for positive disciplinary tactics improving compliance and cooperation.

Read More: Psychology Behind Goal-Setting

Mastering one’s behaviour requires knowledge of its causes. Psychology will keep investigating how biology encodes instincts, while situations spark impressions unlocking reactions – helpful or harmful. But by dissecting behavioural origins, we gain the power to envision and engineer intentional change.

Summing Up

While this covers some basics, psychology contains endless layers. Researchers continue studying interactions between social settings, traumas, memories, beliefs, feelings, and biology shaping people’s choices from moment to moment. As they reveal more connections, the mysteries of why we do what we do unravel that much further. And by understanding our programming, we gain the power to potentially “rewire” ourselves toward more purposeful behaviours.

Read More Articles on Psychologs

  1. Psychology of Assertiveness
  2. Psychology Behind Relationships
  3. Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development
  4. How Can Be an Expert With Social-Emotional Learning?
  5. Social Psychology: The Landscape of Human Interaction
  6. Emotional Attachment with School Memories at Adult Age
  7. Exploring Human Connection: A Look at Attachment Theory
  8. How To Set Your Goal, Know About the Goal Setting Theory
References +
  • Milgram, Stanley. “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 67, 1963, pp. 371–378.  
  • Asch, Solomon. “Opinions and Social Pressure.” Scientific American, vol. 193, no. 5, 1955, pp. 31–35. 
  • Plutchik, Robert. “A General Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion.” in Theories of Emotion. Academic Press, 1980. pp. 3-33.
  • McLeod, Saul. “Nature vs Nurture in Psychology.” Simply Psychology, 2018,
  • Schacter, Daniel L. and Elaine Scarry. “Memory, Brain, and Belief.” Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Watson, John B. “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” Psychological Review 20 (1913): 158-177.
  • Skinner, B.F. The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. Appleton-Century, 1938.
  • Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. Hackett Publishing Company, 1948.
  • Bandura, Albert, Dorothea Ross and Sheila A. Ross. “Transmission of Aggression through Imitation of Aggressive Models.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63 (1961): 575-582.  
  • Thorndike, Edward L. Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals. The Psychological Review, Series of Monograph Supplements, II (4), 1898.
  • Watson, John B. “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It.” Psychological Review 20 (1913): 158-177.  
  • Pavlov, Ivan P. Conditioned Reflexes. Oxford University Press, 1927.
  • Skinner, B. F. The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. Appleton-Century, 1938.
  • Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. Hackett Publishing Company”. 1948.
  • Bandura, Albert, Dorothea Ross and Sheila A. Ross. “Transmission of Aggression through Imitation of Aggressive Models.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 63 (1961): 575-582.

Leave feedback about this

  • Rating