What Is the Main Difference Between Behaviourism and Cognitive Psychology?


Diego Sanchez

Behaviourism and cognitive psychology are two major schools of thought in the field of psychology that differ in their approaches to understanding human behavior. While both theories aim to explain human behavior, they have distinct differences in their underlying assumptions, methods, and applications. In this article, we will explore the main differences between behaviourism and cognitive psychology.


Behaviourism is a theory that emerged in the early 20th century and was developed by psychologists such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner. Behaviourists believe that all behavior can be explained through observable stimuli and responses, without the need for any internal mental processes or subjective experiences.

According to behaviourists, behavior is shaped by the environment through a process called conditioning. There are two types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical conditioning involves learning by association, where a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus to produce a conditioned response. Operant conditioning involves learning through consequences, where behaviors are reinforced or punished depending on their outcomes.

One of the key assumptions of behaviourism is that all behavior can be changed through manipulation of environmental factors such as rewards or punishments. Behaviourists also believe that subjective experiences such as emotions or thoughts cannot be studied scientifically because they are not directly observable.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology emerged as a reaction to behaviourism in the mid-20th century and was developed by psychologists such as George Miller and Ulric Neisser. Unlike behaviourism, cognitive psychology focuses on internal mental processes such as perception, attention, memory, language, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Cognitive psychologists believe that behavior cannot be fully understood without considering the underlying mental processes involved. They also assume that humans actively process information from their environment rather than passively responding to stimuli.

Cognitive psychology uses various methods such as experiments, observations, and computer simulations to study mental processes objectively. It also emphasizes the importance of subjective experiences in understanding behavior, such as emotions, beliefs, and attitudes.

Differences between Behaviourism and Cognitive Psychology

The main differences between behaviourism and cognitive psychology can be summarized as follows:

Assumptions: Behaviourism assumes that all behavior is a result of environmental factors, while cognitive psychology assumes that internal mental processes play a crucial role in shaping behavior.

Methods: Behaviourism uses methods such as observation and experimentation to study behavior, while cognitive psychology uses these methods as well as computer simulations and other techniques to study mental processes.

Applications: Behaviourism is often used in applied settings such as education and therapy to modify behavior through reinforcement or punishment. Cognitive psychology is used in fields such as neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction to understand mental processes and develop new technologies.


In conclusion, behaviourism and cognitive psychology are two major schools of thought that differ in their approaches to understanding human behavior. While behaviourism focuses on observable stimuli and responses without considering internal mental processes, cognitive psychology emphasizes the importance of mental processes in understanding behavior. Both theories have contributed significantly to the field of psychology and continue to be influential today.