Experimental analysis of behavior

​​​​​​​Experimental behavior analysis recognizes two procedures that can trigger behavior change: Respondent conditioning and operant conditioning. In response conditioning — more commonly referred to in other theoretical contexts as classical or Pavlovian conditioning — an indifferent stimulus is regularly followed by another stimulus that already triggers a response. As a result of this sequence of events, the first, previously ineffective, stimulus begins to produce a reaction that may have a strong resemblance to the reaction caused by the second stimulus. Although Respondent conditioning plays an important role in learning, especially emotional responses, learning is mostly associated with operant conditioning.

In operant conditioning, the response is followed by a certain reinforcement. The response on which this reinforcement depends (or rather, is conditionally dependent) is called an operant, because it affects the environment to cause this reinforcement. It is believed that operant conditioning plays a more important role in human behavior, since by gradually modifying the response to which conditional reinforcement is associated, new and more complex operants can be developed. This process is called operant formation.

In the experimental analysis of behavior developed by B. F. Skinner, reinforcement is simply a stimulus that, when included in the system of connections determined by the use of Respondent or operant procedures, increases the probability of the formed behavior in the future.

Skinner has studied the significance of reinforcement for human behavior in a much more systematic way than any other theorist. In his analysis, he tried to avoid introducing any new processes that are not observable in laboratory experiments on animal learning. His explanation of complex behavior was based on the assumption that often unobservable and refined behavior follows the same principles as fully observable behaviors.


It is doubtful that the study of learning can be limited only to the behavioral level. Why?

  1. The time interval between the behavior and its prerequisites can be quite large. To fill this gap, some theorists have suggested the existence of hypothetical phenomena such as habits or memory processes that mediate the observed premise and subsequent actions. Secondly,
  2. We often behave in different ways in conditions that look like the same situation on the outside. In these cases, unobservable States of the body, often called motivations, are invoked as a hypothetical explanation for observed differences in behavior.
  3. Complex evolutionary and individual development histories make it possible for highly organized responses to occur in the absence of observed intermediate, transitional behaviors. In such circumstances, the previous external conditions necessary for the skill to occur, and the events that occur between the occurrence of the problem and the appearance of the answer to it, are not available for observation. In conditions of limited knowledge about events that precede the observed behavior, and a lack of knowledge about intermediate physiological and nervous processes, unobservable (hypothetical) cognitive processes are used to explain the behavior.