How Did Behaviorism Influence Cognitive Psychology?


Jane Flores

Behaviorism and cognitive psychology are two of the most important schools of thought in the history of psychology. While behaviorism focused on observable behaviors and external stimuli, cognitive psychology looks at internal mental processes such as attention, perception, and memory.

However, it would be incorrect to assume that these two fields are completely separate from each other. In fact, behaviorism has had a significant influence on the development of cognitive psychology. Let’s take a closer look at how this happened.

What is behaviorism?

Behaviorism is a school of thought that emerged in the early 20th century and dominated psychology until the 1950s. It was founded by John B. Watson, who believed that psychology should focus solely on observable behaviors rather than mental processes or unconscious motives. According to behaviorists, all behavior is learned through the environment and external stimuli.

Principles of behaviorism

The following are some key principles of behaviorism:

  • Behavior can be studied objectively without reference to internal mental states.
  • All behaviors are learned through interactions with the environment.
  • Rewards and punishments play a crucial role in shaping behavior.
  • Behaviors that are reinforced tend to be repeated while those that are punished tend not to be repeated.

The rise of cognitive psychology

In the 1950s, psychologists began to shift their focus away from behaviorism towards studying mental processes such as attention, perception, and memory. This marked the beginning of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists believed that to understand human behavior fully, it was necessary to study internal mental processes.

Behaviorism’s influence on cognitive psychology

Despite their differences, cognitive psychology owes a debt to behaviorism for several reasons:

1) Methodological rigor:

One of the strengths of behaviorism was its emphasis on rigorous scientific methodology. Behaviorists believed that psychology should be based on observable and measurable data, which required precise experimental methods. Cognitive psychologists have adopted this approach, conducting experiments that are carefully controlled and designed to test specific hypotheses.

2) Focus on behavior:

Another important influence of behaviorism was its focus on behavior. While cognitive psychology studies internal mental processes, it is also concerned with how these processes affect behavior. For example, cognitive psychologists study how attention affects perception or how memory affects decision-making.

3) Learning theories:

Behaviorism’s emphasis on learning has also influenced cognitive psychology’s understanding of how people acquire knowledge and skills. Cognitive psychologists have drawn upon behaviorist theories of conditioning to explain various forms of learning such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

4) Cognitive-behavioral therapy:

Behaviorism’s focus on observable behaviors has been incorporated into cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that is widely used today. CBT aims to change maladaptive behaviors by altering the thoughts and beliefs that underlie them, using techniques such as exposure therapy and cognitive restructuring.


In conclusion, while behaviorism and cognitive psychology are distinct schools of thought, they are not completely separate from each other. Behaviorism has had a significant influence on the development of cognitive psychology through its emphasis on scientific methodology, focus on behavior, learning theories, and contributions to psychotherapy. Understanding this relationship between the two schools can help us gain a better appreciation for the complexity of human behavior.