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Social behaviorism: history and theoretical principles

Social behaviorism: history and theoretical principles

August 11, 2022

The study of the human mind has traditionally been done through the analysis of verbalizations, physical reactions and behaviors. Different tests and tests have been proposed through which to infer the mental state of people and how they react to the natural and social environment.

One of the many aspects that have been studied is the process of socialization and the ability to relate to our peers. Studied among other disciplines by social psychology, this object of study has been observed from different perspectives, including by behaviorism.

Although the latter is based on the association between stimuli and responses in the same subject without generally taking into account the intermediate mental processes, there is a branch that of this one that did take into account these factors, tried to explain the mind through the behavior, focusing on the processes of social interaction. It's about social behaviorism l .


Preamble: brief explanation of behaviorism

Behaviorism is one of the main theoretical currents that have emerged throughout history with the purpose of understanding why human beings act as they do. This paradigm is based on the objective observation of reality , looking for an empirical and scientific knowledge based on observable and measurable evidences.

Mind being something that does not enjoy such characteristics, behaviorism in general ignores its direct study and is based on behavior as an object of study. This is based on the observation of the ability of association between stimuli, which allows generalized responses from one stimulus to another. In this way, the basis of behaviorism is the association between stimulus and response .


Since the behaviorists began to work based on operant conditioning, it was considered that the performance of a specific behavior is mainly influenced by its consequences, which can be positive (with which the behavior issued will become more likely) or negative, assuming the conduct of the behavior a punishment (which reduces the behavior).

The black box

Although behaviorism is aware that the mind exists, it is considered a "black box", an unknowable element that is given little importance to explain the behavior and that is somewhere between stimuli and responses. The human being is a fundamentally passive being that limits itself to capturing stimuli and responding in the pertinent way.

However, the mere association between stimuli and responses or the link with positive or negative consequences is not enough to explain a large number of complex behaviors, processes such as thinking, or understand why certain behaviors (such as some due to psychopathologies) .


The mind does not stop having an influence on this process, which would make with the passage of time other currents such as cognitivism focused on explaining mental processes. But before that some authors tried to take into account the existence of an intermediate point. This is how social behaviorism was born.

Social behaviorism

Traditional behaviorism, as we have seen, bases its theory on the association between stimuli and tried to explain behavior directly. However, it left aside the influence of internal processes and ignored the role in the conduct of subjective and non-measurable facets of our mental life. Elements such as the opinion of others or beliefs, which in principle do not involve damage or immediate reinforcement at the physical level, were not considered.

That is why some authors, such as George H. Mead, decided to try to explain the mind through behavior, focusing their research in the field of social bonding and initiating the type of behaviorism called social behaviorism.

In social behaviorism, more focused on the process of behavior formation and on the factors that initiate it, it is considered that the human being is not a mere passive element in the chain between stimuli and responses but is an active part that is able to act on the basis of internal impulses or external elements. The person interprets the stimuli and responds according to that interpretation.

Exploring the mental processes

Thus, social behaviorism takes into account that all those traces left in our mind interaction with others and their study is partly behavioral, in the sense that part of the systematic observation of behavior in the process of realization of social events. However, it is not possible to ignore the existence of internal processes that affect the performance of social behaviors.

Although the link between stimuli and responses is still used to explain behavior, in social behaviorism this link is exercised through the concept of attitude, in the sense that Through the accumulation and interpretation of experiences we form an attitude that will alter our behavior and induce a specific type of response, while these responses and attitudes can act as a stimulus in others.

The social, both the interaction with others and the cultural context in which it is performed, is used as a stimulus for the emission of behaviors, while in turn the behavior elicits a response from the environment.

Keys to understanding this psychological school

Below you can see a series of ideas that help to understand the perspective from which social behaviorism starts and which methodology defines it.

1. Social behavior

Social behaviorism considers that the relationship between people and the actions and behaviors that we carry out they become a stimulus that will provoke in another a response , which in turn will become a stimulus for the first.

In this way, the interaction is going to occur continuously, affecting the actions of each other and following in part the stimulus-response chain.

2. The importance of language in the construction of the person

For social behaviorism one of the main elements of interest that mediates in any social act is communication and language. The person emerges as such in a specific context in which many meanings have been socially constructed, acquiring different attitudes towards them and exercising our behavior based on them.

Sharing the use of meanings through language allows the existence of learning , and based on this, the subjectivity can be born through which we guide our behavior. That is why for Mead and social behaviorism the I and the mind are a product, a consequence of social interaction.

In fact, the formation of personality depends to a large extent on language. Throughout the development the child will be participating in different situations and games in which his performance will be receiving a series of responses from the rest of the components of society, which through language and the act are communicated. Based on them, they will form different attitudes towards the world and about themselves, allowing the personality and the self to be forged.

3. Self-concept from social behaviorism

For this current the term self-concept refers to the set of verbal self-descriptions that a subject makes of himself, descriptions that are used by others in order to interact with him.

It can be observed that these self-verbalizations act as a stimulus that elicits a response in the other subjects, a response that, as we have said, will generate a response. But these self-descriptions do not appear from nowhere , but they depend on the stimulation that the person has received.

  • Related article: "Self-concept: what is it and how is it formed?"

4. The me and the me

Thus, the subjectivity of a person depends to a great extent on the capture of the responses of our behaviors, which we use as a stimulus.

Mead considered the existence in the self of two internal elements in the structuring of the person , the me and the me. The me is the perception that the individual has regarding how society, understood as the "generalized other", perceives it. It is the value part of the person who integrates external expectations in their own being, reacting and acting on them.

On the other hand, the I is the innermost part that allows the existence of a concrete reaction to the environment, the primal and spontaneous part. It is about what we believe to be , a part of us that will emerge through the conjunction and synthesis of the different "mis" perceived. Through this we can again observe how within the social behaviorism of Mead the mind is considered as something emerged and prepared from and for social action.

Bibliographic references:

  • Mead, G. H. (1934). Spirit, person and society. From the point of view of social behaviorism. Buenos Aires: Paidós.

Behavioral theory | Behavior | MCAT | Khan Academy (August 2022).


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