Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Humanism belong maybe to the most thoroughly developed theories in the field of early Psychology. Their roots are stated to draw from a heritage of scholarships developed by key thinkers as early as the 1900’s. And as particular elements of science, their unifying objective is to explicate human habits neither through arbitrary and random observations nor dubious conclusions, however through a more strenuous procedure of “clinical investigation” (Moskowitz & & Orgel, 1967, p. 107).
This paper tries to effectively describe the 3 theories cited, and hence put them in discussion with one another.
While doing so, this paper wants to bring into the fore essential similarities and relative distinctions that may be gleaned from such a discussion.
Three Mental Theories
. Behaviorism is a theory that runs on the underlying presumption that the concrete manifestations of human habits are nothing however the result of recognizable causes or influences. Put in other words, the core contention of behaviorism lies in comprehending human habits in the context of its responses to numerous stimuli (Behaviorism, 2007).
Secret to this theory is personnel concept of external supports; i.e., behaviorism takes the nature of human habits as sufficiently explainable through the outdoors forces acting upon it. For example, Ivan Pavlov in 1900 had the ability to demonstrate in his experiment that the “salivation reflexes” of dogs can be “managed” utilizing external conditioning.
By associating dog feeding sessions with secondary stimuli (say, bell ringing) it was learned that dogs eventually tended to react to these “secondary” forces inasmuch as they do with primary stimuli.
The idea that goes with the experiment was to establish the “prediction and control of behavior” (Wozniak, 1997). As a result, many thinkers picked up this admirable concept, and, using Pavlov’s investigation, a number of psychologists began studying the how “classical conditioning” can be applied to human beings. (Moskowitz & Orgel, 1967, p. 107). If only to mention, other notable proponents of this theory include J. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and E. Thorndlike.
Since behaviorism gives higher premium than most on the importance of looking at the external forces affecting human behavior, it has a tendency to depreciate, if not all together deny the concept of human consciousness, or internal workings of the mind (Wozniak, 1997). Behaviorism “assumes that the learner is essentially passive”, in that one’s behavior relies heavily on external forces to achieve its concrete form. In many ways, this theory takes human behavior as tabula rasa; i.e., a sheet wiped clean for external experiences to start building into. Thus, it claims that human behavior “can be explained without the need to consider internal mental states” (Behaviorism, 2007).
In what appears to be a direct critique to the behaviorist theory, the Cognitive psychological theory meanwhile believes that human learning is a process that involves putting into use what already is present within the human framework. Put in other words, instead of taking the human person as a tabula rasa, adherents of the cognitive theory seem to understand a person as a black box – a repository of internal processors that enable one to achieve learning. Cognitivism was said to gain a fair amount of attention from among the diverse psychological circles in the 1960’s. And noted theorists affiliated to this theory include Merill, Reigeluth, Gagne, Briggs, Wager, among others (Cognitivism, 2007).
A few significant differences may be gleaned from juxtaposing the two theories cited thus far. First, unlike behaviorism, cognitivism tends to pay closer attention to establishing inner mental workings of a person to explain human behavior. Cognitivists reject the notion that the behavioral manifestations of a human person are explainable by solely citing external factors. One can perhaps consider how human persons possess a unique manner of gaining insights apart from outside experiences.
For instance, if a child were to be given Lego constructs to play with, it would be utterly difficult to explain how he or she can in the process end up building certain formation such as dolls, guns or planes if one were to only see a child from the perspective of stimulus-response perspective. If only to argue, there is no stimulus-response framework to begin with. Instead, one needs to look at the whole experience of the child from the point of view of insight building. For, according to Moskowitz and Orgel, “the ability of the organism to manipulate symbols seems to be an essential component in insightful behavior” (1967, p. 135). Second, unlike behaviorism, cognitivism does not subscribe to the concept of persons as “programmed animals” (Cognitivism, 2007).
Far more critical, cognitive theorists reject any notion claiming that human persons are but passive recipients of external forces – helpless, as they were, in the entire process of behavior formation or learning process. On the contrary, cognitive theorists believe that human persons are very much involved in their learning process and progress, inasmuch as they take part and are highly responsible in their actions. In sum, cognitivists take “mental processes such as thinking, memory, knowing, and problem-solving” as issues of paramount importance (Cognitivism, 2007).
It can be noted that the psychological theories thus far cited involve attempts to resolve the tension between external and internal forces affecting human behavior. In view of the foregoing discussions, it seems that the Humanistic psychological perspective can prove to be a theory that can somewhat integrate the conflicting claims of both the Behaviorist and Cognitivist theories. The basic contention of Humanistic perspective lies in seeing human persons as organisms drawn towards motivational learning. Popular proponents of this theory include A. Maslow, K. Rogers, and M. Knowles (Humanist Theories, 2007).
Under this scheme, a person’s behavior is taken within the context of his or her aspirations, motivations, needs, and values. And these aspects, if only to argue, stem from the a person’s interaction with his or her environment, coupled with an inherent capacity to appropriate these influences into one’s own worldview (Moskowitz & Orgel, 1967, p. 340). Like Behaviorism, this theory affirms the crucial role of external influences in the manner a person comes up with value system.
Like Cognitivism, this theory also affirms the fact that learning uses “reflection…(as) guides for active experimentation and the choice of new experience” (Humanistic Theories, 2007). Unlike the two theories however, Humanistic psychology does not confine itself to a more restricted approach to understanding human behavior. Key to understanding this theory therefore lies in the concept of self-appropriation – a process that involves putting into a successful integration both the external and internal aspects of human behavior.
This paper now ends with a thought that indeed, the three psychological theories that were discussed hereinabove do manifest distinctive differences. But two strains of similarities can be drawn between and among them nevertheless. The first points to the fact that all the above cited theories employ scientific methods in arriving at their sacred contentions.
In fact, like most behavioral sciences, Behaviorism, Cognitivism and Humanism rely heavily on scientific methodologies to substantiate their proposed theories. Secondly, it needs to be acknowledged that these theories all contribute to the furthering of knowledge pertinent to the science of human behavior. Despite their differences, their contribution to the already rich heritage of the science of psychology seems very patent, if not all together undeniable.
Learning Theories Knowledgebase. (2007). “Behaviorism”. Retrieved from,
Learning Theories Knowledgebase. (2007). “Cognitivism”. Retrieved from, <http://www.learning-theories.com/category/cognitive-theories>
Learning Theories Knowledgebase. (2007). “Humanist Theories”. Retrieved from, <http://www.learning-theories.com/category/humanist-theories>
Moskowitz, M. and Orgel, A. (1969). General Psychology. A Core Text in Human Behavior. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Wozniak, R. (1997). “Behaviourism: The Early Years”. Retrieved from, <http://www.brynmawr.edu/Acads/Psych/rwozniak/behaviorism.html>