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Behaviorism and the Humanistic Approach in Understanding Human Behavior

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Using two psychological theories of behaviorism and humanistic, in this essay I will analyze how well they explain human behavior. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the study of psychology started, however, in ancient Greek times where philosophers would sit and debate topics of human thoughts and behaviors, this might be evidence of the earlier studies. Although the evaluation of behaviorism and humanistic theories will be covered, it is important to remember that there are many more approaches.

A German scientist by the name of Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), who could be said to be the first person to which used the ‘scientific method’ to study human behavior. Literature would inform us that Wundt 1847 book ‘Principles of Physiological Psychology’ could be the first attempt to evaluate and explore the links between physiology and human behavior. In 1879, Wundt would go on to open the first experimental psychology department in Leipzig, Germany. While here the research method he would use is ‘introspection’, introspection can be described as someone explaining their thoughts aloud while having an experience. This was an innovative method as it would try to understand someone's thoughts directly, rather than observing behaviors or the brain as a structure (Ralls and Riggs, 2019).

The next theory we will evaluate will be Thorndike’s ‘law of effect’. In the early 20th century Thorndike conducted experiments involving cats, dogs and their behavior, and how they learn from their environment. Thorndike would create ‘puzzle boxes’ to evaluate how the cats and dogs would find their way out, and how to find their way to food. Early into the experiments Thorndike realized that the animals could not learn by observation (imitating), entail he would later go on to propose that learning must simply be by ‘trial and error’. This would mean that the animal could only learn by the mistakes it would make during the experiment. Thorndike would suggest something called ‘stimulus-response associations’, this means that if a stimulus (leaver) is introduced in the puzzle box and entail if the leaver is used (responds) and the animal is presented with a treat (reward), then the action of pressing the lever is strengthened going forward as a learnt behavior. Thorndike’s ‘law of effect’ would be central to the theory of behavioral theory in the future (Haralambos and Rice, 2002).

Over the years there have been countless experiments conducted to understand behavior, some of which are very controversial. The next theorist I will analyze will be Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). In the 1890’s, Pavlov would happen to stumble upon a vital learning theory called ‘classical conditioning’ while undertaking one of the most well-known experiments of all time. The reason Pavlov’s experiment was controversial is because he surgically implanted syringes into dog’s saliva glands. Pavlov's reason for this was to better understand the dog's digestion, however, he became aware that the dogs would start to salivate even before the food was provided. Pavlov would notice that simple things such as footsteps or the sight of the scientist white coat would begin this process. Pavlov would refer to this as an ‘unconditional stimulus’, where the dogs would salivate without being trained. Pavlov would also introduce a ‘neutral stimulus’, where a buzzer would be introduced so every time it was pressed the animal would receive a treat. This would lead to what Pavlov would call an ‘unconditional response’, where a response from a recipient could be generated by conditioning (Ralls and Riggs, 2019).

The founding father of behaviorism, John B. Watson, in the 1920’s was majorly influenced by Pavlov and would use his method to conduct one of the most controversial experiments. The experiment known as ‘Little Albert’ was controversial because the test subject was that of a little nine-month-old boy whose name was Douglus Merritte. Watson would subject little Albert to several objects such as rats, rabbit and dogs to name a few, he would want to check to see how Douglus would react to them. Watson would invite Douglus back to take part in the next step of the experiment. This time Watson would reintroduce the animals, but while doing this he would hit a metal pole with a hammer, creating a loud noise to startle Douglus. What Watson believed is that by introducing the load bang, he could condition the child to fear the animal. Shortly after the experiment Watson would discover that Douglus would become distressed even by the sight of objects that resembled the animals. At what cost was Watson’s success will never be understood, Before the experiment Watson promised Douglus’ mother that he would reverse the effects of the conditional learnt behavior he bestowed on him. Unfortunately, Douglus was to pass away at an early age of encephalitis, therefore it was not possible to see if there were any long-lasting effects. Psychologists would be able to treat this by introducing something called systematic decentralization, this simply means replacing one conditioned response of fear with one of a relaxed nature. Watson would suggest that if all unobservable thoughts and feelings were taken away, then a behavior could be seen as an ‘observable response’ by an ‘observable stimulus’. Entail, this would then allow a behaviorist phycologist to ask more questions, like can we predict a behavior if the stimulus was controlled (Ralls and Riggs, 2019).

Another well-respected theorist was B. F Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner would propose the ‘operant conditioning’ and with this came a ‘operant behavior’, which is a behavior that would be present because of some aspect of the environment would produce consequences. This meant that if a behavior is rewarded, then it is more likely that the same behavior would be repeated. If a behavior is punished, it would be less likely for the same behavior. The method Skinner used which is still highly regarded today is called ‘aversion therapy’; this was created when Skinner introduced ‘the Skinner box’ – a box where Skinner would place rats or pigeons with either a leaver or a light. When the animal learned that with a peck of the light or the push of a leaver would provide food, it learned to repeat this action. Skinner’s breakthrough would eventually create ‘behavior modification’; this would mean that it can be learnt that good behavior will be rewarded, and bad behavior will be punished (Haralambos and Rice, 2002).

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If we evaluate Thorndike’s ‘law of effect’ or Pavlov’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s ‘operant behaviors’, it is evident the importance of behaviorist theory and the part it plays within psychology. Psychologists would argue that their work is scientific as they only measure objectively observable events. As evidence would suggest when it comes to individuals who suffer from phobias, where behavior therapy is applied it can help them overcome their fears, it would be difficult not to agree. However, critics would say that when it comes to aversion therapy, it can be said that it does not work well, and it can be questioned ethically and morally (Haralambos and Rice, 2002).

The next approach to psychology is the humanistic approach. Humanists would suggest that the previously discussed theories would use a ‘nomothetic approach’, this means that behaviorist try to explain behaviors by using a set of universal rules that apply to everyone, and that humans have no free will or control over their actions. Literature would inform us that the humanistic approach rebels against these ideas and argues that each person is a unique individual, with a subjective experience of life and free will over their choices and behavior, and that they would evaluate the person as a whole (Ralls and Riggs, 2019).

It could be suggested that the humanistic approach to phycology was created as a rebellion against the psychodynamic and behavioral approaches, which deprived us of our own free will. The first humanistic theorist that can be evaluated is Abraham Maslow (1908-1970). Maslow, who would go on to become president of the American Psychological Association, is said to be credited with starting the humanistic approach to psychology. In 1943, Maslow’s issue of his ‘hierarchy of needs’, which has been developed in contemporary society suggest that humans are only motivated to succeed when certain basic needs are met. The fundamental basic needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are food, water, and sleep. Once these are acquired only then is it possible to move on to the next stage. Once these are achieved, one can move on to the ‘security’ needs for example employment, resources, and health. At the top of Maslow's needs were meaningful relationships with friends and family, once all of these needs are met one would achieve self-actualization, this is where one would increase their status, have high self-esteem, and have freedom of choice over their life choices (Ralls and Riggs, 2019). Maslow would refer to the humanistic approach as the ‘third force’, the first force being psychoanalysis, the second being behavioral concepts, at the time the cognitive approach was not yet established. Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem will be a nail” (Ralls and Riggs, 2019).

Another renowned humanistic psychologist is Carl Rogers (1902-1987). Rogers would go on to expand on Maslow’s work, so much in depth that he would go on to write 16 books and many journals. Rogers would go on to develop the theory of a ‘person centered approach’, as the name suggests the focus here is to understand the important things to the individual. In a sense the power was put back into the individuals' hands, and a therapist is not there to simply fix their problems. Rogers believed that the therapist was there to listen and not to judge, and that the session should be engaging for the individual. Rogers would develop his techniques over the years, it all started with his non-directive therapy. Roger's publication of his book called ‘Counselling and Psychotherapy Newer Concepts in Practice’, describes the revolutionary practice compared to the current ‘direct therapy’ that focused on the therapist leading the session. Rogers would eventually publish his ‘client-centered’ theory in 1951 and decided to move away from the concept of therapist-controlled sessions and not focus on what the therapist should not do, nevertheless, focus should be on what the client should do. Rogers would emphasis the importance of our own point of view is and that any situation does not matter directly – it is how we perceive it. Rogers would explain that ‘self-actualization’ for one to reach their full potential there must be a harmony between three ‘major personal perceptions’. These perceptions were categorized as self-worth, self-image and our ideal self, once these are achieved only then will one reach ‘self-actualization’. Through his approach, Rogers would conduct something he referred to as ‘un-conditional positive regard’, Rogers felt that it was important as the client's actual sense of themselves, their ‘self-concept’ does not line up with ‘their ideal’, how they want to see them self (Ralls and Riggs, 2019). One of the major therapeutic methods used by humanistic therapists is ‘role play’, this is where the client is encouraged to act or speak about their emotions. ‘Psychodrama’ is another method this is where groups of people will come together to act out scenes of emotional significance. The last major theory is ‘group therapy’; here a group of people will meet to share experiences and to discuss how they made them feel (Haralambos and Rice, 2002).

With the humanistic approach focusing on an individual's personal needs, and not just focusing on the behavior itself, it could be argued that it is the most important theory to the person that needs it. One can only agree with the humanistic approach, as if one is to believe that all behaviors are pre-determined, and as Skinner once said that “free will is an illusion”, then this would mean that two people who experience an event at the same time would have the same reactions and would go against our personal autonomy (Ralls and Riggs, 2019).

In conclusion, scientific studies of humans and their behaviors can only benefit society as a whole. As for the controversial experiments conducted, from Pavlov's dogs to Watson's Little Albert experiment, it is important to not forget what was learnt from these experiments in respect of the suffering of the test subjects. Even though one theorist might critique another in their findings, it is evidential that all aspects of psychology are imperative, and one must learn to understand and respect them all.


  1. Ralls, E., Riggs, C. (2019) The Little Book of Psychology [online]. Summerdale Publishers. [Accessed 02nd January 2022].
  2. Haralambos, M., Rice, D. (2002) Psychology in Focus. Pearson Education.
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