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Behaviorism and Criminology

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Behaviorism originated from the work of an American psychologist John B. Watson. He claimed that psychology wasn’t concerned with the mind or with human consciousness. Rather, psychology would be concerned solely with behaviour. Therefore humans could be studied objectively, just like rats and apes.

There are two events that stand out as foundations for behavioural therapy. The first is the rise of behavioural therapy in the early 1900’s:

J.B Watson critisised the subjectivity and mentalism of the psychology of the time and advocated behaviourism as the basis for the objective study of behaviour Watson’s emphasis on the importance of environmental events, his rejection of covert aspects of the individual, and his claim that all behaviour could be understood as a result of learning became the formal basis of behaviourism. Watson’s view has been widely rejected by other behaviour therapists and more refined versions of behaviourism have been developed by theorists such as B.F Skinner, whose radical behaviourism has had a huge impact not only on behaviour therapy but also on psychology in general. Skinner, like Watson insisted that overt behaviour is the only acceptable subject of scientific investigation.

The second was the experimental research on the psychology of learning:

In Russia, around the turn of the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov established the foundations of classical conditioning. Research on conditioning and learning principles, conducted largely in the animal laboratory, became a dominant part of experimental psychology in the United States following World War 2. Workers in this area, in the traditions of Pavlov and Skinner, were committed to the scientific analysis of behaviour using the laboratory rat and pigeon as their subjects. Among the early applications of conditioning principles to the treatment of clinical problems were two particularly notable studies.

Types Of Conditioning

Experiments by behaviorists identify conditioning as a universal learning process. There are two different types of conditioning, each yielding a different behavioral pattern:

1. Classic conditioning occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus. The most popular example is Pavlov’s observation that dogs salivate when they eat or even see food. Essentially, animals and people are biologically “wired” so that a certain stimulus will produce a specific response.

2. Behavioral conditioning occurs when a response to a stimulus is reinforced. Basically, operant conditioning is a simple feedback system: If a reward or reinforcement follows the response to a stimulus, then the response becomes more probable in the future. For example, leading behaviorist B.F. Skinner used reinforcement techniques to teach pigeons to dance and bowl a ball in a mini-alley.

Watson’s work was generated from the experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov, who had studied animals’ responses to conditioning. Pavlov’s best-known experiment aimed to explain why dogs` start to salivate before they are confronted with food. Pavlov discovered that any stimulus would have the same effect on salivation if the dog was able to associate the presentation of the original stimulus often enough. Pavlov decided to use a bell as the Conditioned Stimulus to see whether the dog would be able to pair food with the bell. Pavlov rang the bell then fed the dogs. After doing this on numerous occasions the dog’s associated the ringing of the bell with food and started to salivate at the sound of the bell. After repeatedly doing this pairing, Pavlov removed the food and on ringing the bell the dogs would start to food and bell were paired together often enough for the dog’s to associate the bell with food. Pavlov believed, as Watson was later to emphasise, that humans react to stimuli in the same way.

Today we associate behaviourism with the name of B.F. Skinner, who was the man who tested Watson’s theories in the laboratory. Upon doing this Skinners’ studies led him to reject Watson’s emphasis on reflexes and conditioning. Skinner said that people respond to their environment, but he added that they also operate on the environment to produce certain consequences.

Behaviorism originated in the field of psychology, but it has had a much wider influence. Its concepts and methods are used in education, and many education courses at University are based on the same assumptions about man as behaviorism. Behaviourism can also be used in the justice field as it can explain the behaviour of many people, including, offenders and so on.

Pre-suppositions of Behaviourism

1. It is said that behaviourism is naturalistic. Once interpreted this means that the world is the ultimate reality, and all can be explained in terms of natural laws. It also says that man has no soul and mind, only a brain that responds to external stimuli.

2. Man is said to be nothing more than a machine that responds to conditioning. David Cohen in his book “Behaviourism” explained it in this way. ” The central tenet of behaviourism is that thoughts, feelings, intentions and mental process, all, do not determine what we do. Our behaviour is the product of our conditioning. We are biological machines and do not consciously act; rather we act to stimuli.”

3. Behaviourism also teaches us that we are not responsible for our actions. If we are just machines, without minds or souls, reacting on just stimuli and operating on our environment to attain certain ends, then anything we do is inevitable.

4. It is thought that behaviourism is manipulative. It seeks not merely to understand human behaviour, but to predict and control it. From his theories, Skinner developed the idea of “shaping”. By controlling rewards and punishments, you can shape the behaviour of another person.

Another major theorist in behaviour therapy is Hans J. Eysneck. In a paper that he submitted to his University in 1959, he defined behaviour therapy as the application of modern learning theory to the treatment of behavioural and emotional disorders. Eysneck emphasisied the principles and procedures of Pavlov as well as that of learning theorists. In Eysnecks view, behaviour therapy was an applied science, the defining feature of which was that it was testable and falsifiable. A landmark event for behaviour therapy was when in 1963 Eysneck and Rachman established the first journal devoted to behaviour therapy- Behaviour Research and Therapy.

Another force in the behavioural therapy movement was the emergence of publications in 1953 by Skinner. It was his book, Science and Human Behaviour, that he critisised psychodynamic concept and reformulated psychotherapy in behavioural terms. The most important initial clinical application of operant conditioning was with children.

Behaviourism in the Justice Field

People may suggest that Psychology and crime might not have anything in common. This is far from the truth. Conditioning is instilled upon us from a very young age.

It has previously been discussed that behaviour is learnt through the use of rewards and punishments. Behaviour, which is rewarded, will be reinforced through the use of rewards and punishments. Behaviour, which is rewarded, will be reinforced and become more frequent in order to maximise the rewards, and behaviour which is punished or which meets with aversive consequences will be discouraged. Behaviour changes to secure more of what is liked, and less of what is disliked. Thus far, classical and operant learning are very similar, but in operant learning behaviour has unpleasant cannotations, they may learn to avoid the unpleasant consequences whilst still enjoying the initial behaviour.

A child may learn that to steal lollies will bring an unpleasant result, and therefore may not go ahead with the theft. The child may discover that by going about the theft in another manner, when no one is around, they will be unlikely caught. Therefore the child learns that they may be able to get the desired effect and avoid the unpleasant effect by altering their behavior. If the risk seems worth taking, the individual may chose to continue engaging in that unacceptable behaviour. This theory is generated from what the individual unpleasant or rewarding, and presumes that everybody aims to maximise rewards and minimize punishment.

The area of gambling behaviour is another example of the potential use of a biopsychosocial model. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that approximately 330,000 Australians (2.3% of the adult population) have significant gambling behavioral problems, with 140,000 experiencing severe problems, and one in ten problem gamblers had contemplated suicide because of gambling. Much of the research in gambling behaviour has been confined to the study of biological (such as genetic research), psychological (positive-negative reinforcement, impulsive behaviour), or social factors (environment & peer influences). Recent research by Sharpe argues that these factors are likely to interact with each another in the development and maintenance of problem gambling. Accordingly, the impulsive nature of the disorder lends itself to a biopsychosocial point of view.

When looking for examples of behaviour therapy in the justice field, you wouldn’t have to look very far at all before you spot notions of conditioning. When we look at our prison system it is obvious to see how our prisoners have been conditioned, even the principal of punishment itself falls into the category of behaviourism. In relation to the psychological theory it can be said that a prisoner, has been taken out of their environment, which is mainstream society, and placed into an environment, where the purpose of their stay is for punishment and rehabilitation. When talking about the prison system, in comparison with Pavlov’s dog and the bell, it can be said that prisoners may respond to similar stimuli.

For example, a prison rings bells at different times of the day to inform the prisoners of different duties at different time that they must attend to. Life in prison for prisoners is moulded by the authorities to condition the way in which they should behave. When a lunch bell rings, prisoners are required to attend the lunchroom or their cell to receive their food. Failure to do so will result in them missing out on lunch. The failure to receive their food is a punishment on the prisoners and they will learn that failure to respond to the stimuli (lunch bell) will result in the loss of their privilege.

The court system is also linked in with the theories of behaviour therapy. The concept itself is a classical case of how the system conditions offenders with the process of detention and rehabilitation. When a court sentences an offender to jail, it is the first step of the system that will try to condition the offender to rehabilitate. Upon entering the penitentiary that has been allocated to them, this is the initial phase of being taken out of their environment and the conditioning begins. The fact that they are controlled and have little freedom proves that is a genuine attempt at conditioning prisoners.

Another factor that comes out of prison system, but not necessarily the prisoners themselves, are the prison guards. Prison Guards share the facility with prisoners, but the only difference between the both of them are the uniforms that the guards wear. This is another classic example of how prison guards are also conditioned to look after the prisoners, and there behaviour within the uniform is different to the environment that they are used to. Once a prison guard is in his/her uniform, immediately they become the sculptors in the behaviour of a prisoner.

Classic examples of behaviourism with the aspect of punishment and reward lie once again within the cells of prison. If a court sentences an offender to 6 years jail with a non-parole period of 4 years, the offender is eligible for release after just 4 years. This relies heavily upon the behaviour of the offender in jail and whether or not they have been good. If the prisoner has there parole hearing and it is granted, it is an indication to the system that the offender has behaved in the system and therefore they should be rewarded for their good behaviour.

Another example of reward punishment in the justice system is that of Judges who issue good behaviour bonds. This is seen as a reward for good behaviour and being the first time offence by the offender. In other words, it can be described as being the last chance or punishment will be issued.


Behaviourism states that people can learn to behave in a certain manner. This is evident through out the entire Justice system. Examples of the concept of behaviourism are littered throughout the justice system. They lie in the policing, courts and prison system. It is plain to see that behaviourism is a notion that is very accepted and practiced within our Justice community on a daily basis and although people may disagree, it is what keeps our justice system effective.


Books/ Journals

Williams, Katherine, S, Textbook On Criminology, 4th Edition. Chapter 10.2, Learning Structures. 2001, Blackstone Press, 2001

Corsini, G. Wedding, D. Current Psychotherapies. Chapter 7, Behavior therapy, Pg, 205. F.E Peacock, 2000.

Gleitmam, H. Psychology, 2nd Edition, Norton & Company, U.S.A 1986

Grivas, J. Psychology for the V.C.E Student, Units 1&2. 2nd Edition, Jacaranda press, Melbourne 1996

Burish, T. Behavior therapy, techniques and empirical findings. 3rd Edition. Harcourt Brace, U.S.A, 1987.

White, M. Selected Papers, Chapter 9, Dulwich Centre Publications, 1989.


Michaels, S. Biological Psychology,
http://users.net2000.com.au/~bosco/BESC-1190_essay.htm, Web page accessed on 29-02-05

DeMar, G. The fundamentals of Behaviourism http://www.forerunner.com/forerunner/X0497_DeMar_-_Behaviorism.html, Web page accessed on 27-02-05

McKay, V. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. http://evolution.massey.ac.nz/assign2/VM/~temp03.html (website accessed on 16-02-2005

Jonas, F, Understanding Behaviourism, definition of Behaviourism http://www.funderstanding.com/behaviorism.cfm, Website Accessed 23-02-1005

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