The reasons for behaviourism as a philosophy and school of psychology to have fallen out of favour are well known and documented. However, when Newton's view of gravity was replaced by general relativity, his entire works were not then tossed aside as if discredited. But this is, practically speaking, what has happened to behaviourism.

Beahviourism has always focused on learning-based mechanisms (eg, conditioning, role modelling, enculturation) that are highly evidence-based, repeatable, and generalizable. Today, cognitive / computational-model theories dominate many fields, but their explanatory approach rarely considers learning-based theories traditionally associated with behaviourism. Why is that? More specifically, my question is:

Have there been any surveys or studies asking cognitive psychology researchers whether or not they incorporate learning mechanisms in their theories, and why or why not?

A nice article I ran across suggests some reasons why cognitive research may not consider learning mechanisms, but it is purely speculative, with no data to back anything up.

Today, behaviourism continues to thrive in the form of behaviour analysis, and its history is regularly taught as part of introductory psychology courses. However, while other branches of cognitive science often collaborate (as for example cognitive psychology and neuroscience forming cognitive neuroscience), behaviourism's learning models are rarely incorporated into other works. The founding ideologies of the radical version of this school of psychology have long been discredited, but ignoring over a century of highly productive research into an influential branch of cognitive science seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Note: Questions like this tend to attract opinion-based answers, that are discouraged on this forum. Despite the catchy title, I am interested in evidence-based answers, and the bolded question suggests the kind of evidence that could be pertinent.

Note: Examples of well-established cognitive theories with evidence of learning but yet fail to incorporate learning mechanisms in their explanatory approach include: Cognitive dissonance, emotion, self-serving bias, and metacognition.

  • $\begingroup$ There is something of a smoking-gun study that I think matches what you're after here by ... Tolman? I'll see if I can find the reference, but it might be nice if you restated your question in a stronger form. Skinnerian Behaviorism may have 'fallen out of favor', but learning theories most certainly have not. $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2015 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ The most scientifc answer would be to mark behaviourism as a paradigm which was overcome due to a paradigm shift as explained in Kuhn: Structure of Scientific Revolution. To my knowledge, learning theories yet play a great role in psychology but they are not any longer treated as an exclusive explanation as they were during the high times of behaviourism. $\endgroup$
    – user13275
    Jul 26, 2016 at 15:16

1 Answer 1


There is a lot of research here so there is a lot to cover. Please bear with me.

There are what is known as 3 forces of psychology

Although there is now talk of a possible fourth force such as Multicultural Psychology or Transpersonal Psychology

Short & Thomas (2014) also stated on page 203, that

Psychology was initially defined as the study of the human mind and linked to work in medicine and philosophy, however, animal research in the early 1900s produced results that could be generalised to human behaviour. (Thorndike, 1898; Pavlov, 1928) This led to psychology being redefined as the study of human behaviour.

Tabula rasa

Behavioural approach focuses exclusively on observable and measurable behaviour [and] emphasises the importance of nurture. Humans are born as a tabula rasa or blank slate on which experience writes the patterns of their future behaviour.

On page 205, the book then states

Popularity of behaviourism decreased in the 1960s to 1980s

This is my speculation, but I strongly believe this could be due to the work of Sigmund Freud's daughter, Anna Freud, and the popularisation of the works of

  • Cognitive revolution redirected psychological research away from the study of behaviour to focus on theoretical models about the nature of the mind

Radical behaviourism softened into behaviour analysis

  • Behaviourism that refused to accept the existence of cognitive states was rejected in favour of a less extreme version which focused on analysing behaviour as an external (measurable) evidence of cognitive states
  • Staats (1996) argued that radical behaviourism failed as an approach in psychology because it did not incorporate other known phenomena, such as cognition. Psychological behaviourism should aim to unify all elements of psychology (biology, environment, cognition, emotion, etc.) into a single grand theory
  • Behaviour analysis adopts an interdisciplinary approach. Theories include elements from other approaches such as cognitive, humanistic, etc.

As my first link indicates, Behaviourism hasn't completely fallen out of favour. Due to the work of Carl Rogers (1902-1987) there has been some shift, although not a complete shift, away from the rigidity of the Psychodynamic approach towards the Humanistic approach to therapy and Behaviourism has also started to gain more of the spotlight again.

There is a prolific use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) within health organisations such as the NHS and I know of a fair few people who have been referred for CBT by NHS staff for various problems. One thing I would like to point out though is that CBT isn't without its criticisms. Some believe that CBT is not a 'cure all' that some believe, and is not effective in helping PTSD sufferers, whilst there is some data which could back this claim up


Pavlov, I.P. (1928) Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes: Twenty-Five Years of Objective Study of the Higher Nervous Activity Behavior of Animals. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation.

Short, F. & Thomas, P. (2015) Core Approaches in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Hove: Routledge.

Staats, A.W. (1996) Behavior and Personality: Psychological Behaviorism. New York: Springer.

Thorndike, E.L. (1898) Animal intelligence: an experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 2, 4.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks @Chris. This doesn't answer my question (at the very least because it doesn't review any actual evidence), but it does help me formulate a better question, so I'll edit accordingly and see if that helps improve results. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 18, 2017 at 18:23

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