Behavioral Psychology and its Practical Implications

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Behaviorism was first introduced by the American psychologist John Watson. He introduced the doctrine of cognitive significance to oppose the growing opinion that psychology studied consciousness. Since we are not sure if consciousness exists, let alone able to access it, psychology deals with the study of human behavior. His work inspired many theoretical and practical ideas.

Pieces of paper of different colors, cut into the shape of human heads, overlapping each other.
The implications of behavioral psychology led to the manipulation of masses in advertising and politics. (Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock)

Frederic Skinner’s Ideas about the Human Mind

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, a Harvard psychologist, who was influenced by logical positivists, adopted Watson’s work. He, too, was interested in studying human behavior in response to certain stimuli. He found a mathematical relationship between environmental factors and human responses as well as the influence of positive and negative reinforcement on such responses. For example, he studied how room temperature influenced how long it would take a subject to drink a glass of water. Even further, he observed how reward and punishment would make the subjects behave in specific ways that he wanted.

Black and white photograph of B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department, circa 1950
B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department, circa 1950. (Image: Silly rabbit/CC BY 3.0 / Public domain)

These findings had both theoretical and practical implications. They helped gain knowledge about the structure of reality and also to manipulate people.

Skinner wrote a book titled Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which was reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Beyond Good and Evil. According to Nietzsche, good and evil are not inherent properties of the world. They are human-made features manufactured by the weak to restrict the strong, which has helped the weak prosper and keep the strong behind. That’s why human progress has been restrained. Similarly, Skinner held that moral concepts of freedom and dignity are not features of the world. They are created to glorify the individual and have retarded human development.  

Rather than autonomous agents capable of rational thinking, human beings are regarded as creatures of habit. If these habits are shaped randomly, they will have no consequences for us. If they are correctly shaped, they can lead to our advancement. They can also be formed in a way that they limit human progress. The only way to achieve human growth is to identify the best culture that contributes to such growth and prepare the conditions for humans to thrive. Freewill is a mere myth that deters human flourishing.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Learn more about solving psychological mysteries.

The Use of Behaviorism in Social Engineering

John Watson was fired from John Hopkins University, where he held an academic position. He pivoted his career to advertising to use his expertise in enriching business owners instead of advancing humans. By manipulating the masses, he used his knowledge of the human mind to create gold, like the alchemist’s philosopher stone.

Psychology gave him the power to shape individual minds and culture as a whole. He found out fear, rage, love, habits, or needs were crucial for making humans take the action we want. Testimonials from ordinary people and celebrities were two powerful marketing strategies proposed by Watson.

The same ideas were adopted in the fashion industry by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. He found out that he could use the results of his psychological studies in the world of fashion and advertising.

The term ‘public relations’ was his idea to replace ‘propaganda’. He rightly thought that propaganda had negative connotations because it was associated with the military and the Nazis. So, he used a propagandistic term as a euphemism for the word propaganda.

In one of his books, Propaganda, he outlines the instructions to engineer public opinion, which formed the basis of modern public relations. Due to the collapse of monarchies replaced by democracies around the world, he believed that “Power had been taken from the king and given to the people.” So, the power of masses had to be harnessed by controlling the people’s behavior to achieve profit and authority. Now, rather than a tool for searching the nature of the human mind, psychology was used to manufacture false realities in the mind of people to make business owners wealthier and help certain politicians get elected.

Learn more about how human nature evolved.

Behaviorism and Arts

Image of Campbell's tomato soup can I (1968).
Andy Warhol made his audience view things in a different context (Image: Public domain)

In the realm of arts, the same notion was adopted, too. In the 1910s, Marcel Duchamp started a series of works called Readymades. He treated mass-produced goods as works of art by putting them in galleries. He made people rethink the way they looked at these everyday objects by putting them in not-so-familiar places.

The same approach was taken by Andy Warhol with his paintings of soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles. In the same vein, he took objects out of their standardized contexts and made his audience see them from another angle. He meant to show us that we were conditioned and manipulated by advertising, and, as Skinner had in mind, we could finally behave like autonomous beings with freedom and dignity.

Common Questions about Behavioral Psychology and its Practical Implications

Q: Who is the founder of behavioral psychology?

John Watson is the founder of behavioral psychology. He was the first person to introduce the doctrine of cognitive significance to oppose the idea that psychology was the study of consciousness.

Q: Who was Fredric Skinner?

Fredric Skinner was an American psychologist. He found a mathematical relationship between environmental factors and human responses as well as the influence of positive and negative reinforcement on such responses.

Q: What is Edward Bernays known for?

Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. He coined the term ‘public relations’ to replace propaganda. He believed in controlling human minds to gain profit and authority.

Q: What are Readymades in art?

Readymades are mass-manufactured products displayed in galleries as art. The concept was first introduced by Marcel Duchamp to make people see everyday objects in a different way.

Keep Reading
The Role of the Environment in Shaping Personality
Evolution and Behavior: Fear, Aggression, and Overeating
Evolutionary Psychology and Fundamental Human Needs