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Radical behaviorism: theoretical principles and applications

Radical behaviorism: theoretical principles and applications

May 10, 2021

Human behavior is a phenomenon that since ancient times has tried to explain in many different ways. What is behind our behavior? Why do we behave as we do? Psychology has often tried to answer these questions from different points of view.

One of the paradigms that has tried to explain it is behaviorism. And within this current, one of the best known approaches is Skinner's radical behaviorism .

  • Related article: "Behaviorism: history, concepts and main authors"

Behaviorism: basic premises of the paradigm

Behaviorism is a paradigm of psychology whose objective is to study behavior and the processes that elicit it, from an empirical and objective perspective. It starts from the premise that the mind and mental processes are not very objectivable concepts and it is not possible to study them in a scientific way, being the only visible correlate of the behavior that we carry out.


Be part of a mechanistic conception of behavior in which it is stipulated that it is the properties of the stimuli that make the subject, which is a passive being and reactive to said properties, respond in a certain way.

In addition, it is considered that the acquisition of behaviors and learning in general is carried out thanks to the ability to link and associate stimuli under certain circumstances that allow such association.

Is about Conditioning processes in which exposure to stimuli occurs that generate a positive or negative response in the organism and other neutrals, relating the subject both stimuli in such a way that it responds in the same way to the conditioned stimulus (the neutral that ends up acquiring positive or negative characteristics due to its association with the initial stimulus) than before the appetitive or aversive element. Through different processes, it is possible to associate stimuli or dissociate them, something that has been used, for example, in the treatment of phobias.


Concepts such as the will or other mental aspects and even the mind itself are not denied but are considered rather a consequence of stimulation and behavioral reaction instead of its cause. For the most part, then, it is considered that the cause of the behavior is external.

Since the birth of behaviorism this paradigm has been evolving, arising different types of behaviorism. But one of the most interesting and important has had, along with the classic, is radical behaviorism.

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Skinner's perspective: radical behaviorism

Radical behaviorism is one of the main theoretical developments of behaviorism, from which different neo-behavioral currents have emerged . Radical behaviorism considers that, although classical conditioning (also called respondent) is a valid explanation for understanding reactions to a specific stimulus, it is not sufficient to explain our behavior with respect to it.


That is why BF Skinner, the main author and developer of this type of behaviorism, considered and argued that human behavior was not caused only by the stimulus-response association but that the root of the behavior lies in the effect or consequences that the acts themselves have on ourselves. The mind and the intellectual processes are considered as existing elements, but they are not explanatory of the behavior and their study is unproductive. In any case, thought could be defined as verbal behavior derived from the same principles of conditioning.

For Skinner and radical behaviorism, behavior and its persistence or modification depend on what it may cause. If a behavior has favorable consequences for us, we tend to repeat it often so that we obtain the benefit in question more frequently. If, on the contrary, the conduct has the consequence that we suffer damage, we will do it less frequently or we will inhibit it.

The association between the behavior and the consequences of these is what is called operant conditioning, and the stimuli that cause us to repeat the behavior or not, the reinforcers (which may be of different types). It is in this type of thinking that concepts such as reinforcement and punishment arise, which would subsequently be applied in different techniques.

Some limitations

The contribution of radical behaviorism has been essential in the development of the scientific study of behavior. However, this perspective has the disadvantage that at least originally does not take into account other factors such as motivation, emotions , the intelligence or personality of the subject.

It is because of these and other limitations that different neo-behavioral approaches would eventually emerge that do take them into account and even one of the reasons why the behavioral and cognitivist lines would eventually come together in the cognitive-behavioral paradigm.

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Applications of radical behaviorism

Radical behaviorism has been a focus on the study of behavior with great importance and presence in different areas, including clinical and educational.

The idea that behavior depends on its consequences and that this can be modified through the use of programs in which certain behaviors are reinforced or punished has allowed techniques to be generated that are still used today, although they have been developed and have been developed. incorporated concepts from other paradigms such as the cognitivist. It is about the techniques of behavior modification, being specially linked to the radical behaviorism the operative techniques.

Reinforcement and punishment Both positive and negative are the most basic and are a fundamental part of most others. In the reinforcement the repetition or acquisition of a behavior is provoked either because an appetitive stimulus is provided or an aversive stimulus is withdrawn, while in the punishment a behavior is diminished or eliminated by the appearance of aversive stimuli or the withdrawal of reinforcers.

As for the concepts of positive and negative, positive is understood as one in which a stimulus is added and negative in which it is removed. Other derived techniques are those of shaping or chaining to learn how to perform behaviors, as well as fading and aversive techniques.

These types of techniques have been used in order to help reduce problematic behaviors and promote more adaptive ones. They are usually applied to behavioral problems, in children and adults, and in some learning processes in which new behaviors have to be developed or existing ones must be modified.

Despite this, the fact of not taking into account aspects such as mental processes have caused their usefulness to be limited and even in some cases have undesired effects. It is necessary to integrate cognitive aspects in the treatment of problems such as depression or learning problems.


How to Train a Brain - Crash Course Psychology #11 (May 2021).


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