Behavioral Theories of Development

Behavioral Theories of Development applies a behavior analytic approach to the field of human development and behavior change across the lifespan, by examining both the acquisition of basic skills and the development of more complex behaviors.

The Behavioral Theories or perspective suggests that the keys to understanding development are observable behavior and outside stimuli in the environment.

If we know the stimuli, we can predict the behavior.

The behavioral perspective or theories reflects the view that nurture is more important to development than nature.

Theories of behaviorism opposes the idea that everyone goes through a set of stages. Instead, they assume that individuals are impacted by the environmental stimuli to which they are accidentally / intentionally exposed.

Therefore, developmental patterns are personal  and represent a specific set continuous exposure to a certain environmental component or combination of environmental stimuli, and behaviour is the end effect.

Additionally, developmental change is seen in quantitative terms rather than qualitatively.

Classical Conditioning in Development 

John Watson American behaviorist believed that we could gain a full understanding of development by carefully studying the stimuli that composed the environment.

He said effective controlling a persons environment can produce virtually any behavior.

Watson wanted to find out if classical conditioning could be applied to children’s behavior. In a historic experiment- Little Albert, he taught Albert, an 11-month-old infant, to fear a neutral stimulus—a soft white rat—by presenting it several times with a sharp, loud sound, which naturally scared the baby. Little Albert, who at first had reached out eagerly to touch the furry rat, began to cry and turn his head away at the sight of it (Watson & Raynor, 1920).

Classical Conditioning occurs when an organism learns to respond in a particular way to a neutral stimulus that normally does not evoke that type of response.

Ivan Pavlov defined Classical Conditioning as learning to elicit an involuntary, reflex-like, response to a stimulus other than the original, natural stimulus that normally produces the response.

A type of learning in which an initially neutral stimulus—the conditioned stimulus (CS)—when paired with a stimulus that elicits a reflex response—the unconditioned stimulus (US)—results in a learned, or conditioned, response (CR) when the CS is presented.

For example Pavlov’s Classical Dog Experiment-  if a dog is repeatedly exposed to the pairing of the sound of a bell and the presentation of meat, it may learn to react to the bell alone in the same way it reacts to the meat—by salivating and wagging its tail with excitement. Dogs don’t typically respond to bells in this way; the behavior is a result of conditioning, a form of learning in which the response associated with one stimulus (food) comes to be
connected to another—in this case, the bell. Read More

So every parent or person can develop child or person as per their wants with the simplest form of learning that is Classical conditioning.

Operant Conditioning in Development 

Operant Conditioning is a form of learning in which a voluntary response is strengthened or weakened by its association with positive or negative consequences.

Psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), individuals learn to act deliberately on their environments in order to bring
about desired consequences (Skinner, 1975). In a sense, then, people operate on their environments to bring about a desired state. Read more 

Whether children and adults will seek to repeat a behavior depends on whether it is followed by reinforcement or punishment.

Reinforcement is the process by which a stimulus is provided that increases the probability that a preceding behavior will be repeated. For example- food, drink, praise, a friendly smile, or a new toy.

Punishment, the introduction of an unpleasant or a painful stimulus or the removal of a desirable stimulus, will decrease the probability that a preceding behavior will occur in the future. For example- disapproval or withdrawal of privileges.

With the help of environmental stimuli and behavioral modification of every person or child can be developed to a desired state with reinforcement and punishment.

Thus, behaviorism offer a more direct and effective explanation of the development of children’s social behavior than the less precise concepts of psychoanalytic theory. Behaviorist theories or perspective sees development as Continuous, non stage and gradual development where environment or nurture plays more important role than genes.


  • Feldman, R. S., & Babu, N. (2011). Discovering the Life Span. Indian subcontinent adaptation, New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley India pvt ltd.
  • Berk, L. E. (2004). Development through the lifespan. (3 Ed). New Delhi: Pearson Education Dorling Kindersley India pvt ltd



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