Comparing and Contrasting Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis

Categories: Sigmund Freud


Psychology is a vast field with diverse approaches, each offering unique perspectives on human behavior and mental processes. Prominent psychologists like Freud, Skinner, Rogers, and Watson have made significant contributions, providing valuable tools to assess and treat mental illnesses, comprehend and address phobias, and offer insights into the unconscious mind. This essay aims to compare and contrast two distinct psychological approaches: Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis. We will not only examine their research methods but also identify their similarities, differences, strengths, and weaknesses.

The Behaviorist Approach

In 1913, John Watson published 'Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,' a groundbreaking work that challenged Freud's views on human behavior. Watson criticized Freud's perspective as "philosophical to the point of mysticism" and rejected the significance of heredity in shaping behavior. He advocated a more scientific and objective approach to psychology, emphasizing the relationship between the environment and behavior.

Watson's core belief was that psychologists should focus on the observable relationship between the environment and behavior rather than the contents of consciousness, which he considered unverifiable.

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He aimed to predict and control behavior, providing empirical evidence for his theories. Unlike psychoanalysts who studied mental patients, Watson's research was based on the study of animals and humans in controlled environments.

The behaviorist approach posits that the environment is the primary motivator of behavior, where stimuli elicit responses. This approach rejects the notion of the unconscious mind and asserts that only observable behavior should be the subject of study. Behaviorism comprises three main areas of study: Classical conditioning (Pavlov), Operant conditioning (Skinner), and Observational learning (Bandura).

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Classical conditioning, exemplified by Pavlov's famous dog experiments, focuses on stimulus-response relationships. Pavlov conditioned dogs to associate a bell ringing with food, leading to salivation, demonstrating how learning occurs through associations.

Operant conditioning, pioneered by Skinner, involves positive and negative reinforcement as rewards or punishments to modify behavior. This approach emphasizes the consequences of actions in shaping future behavior.

Observational learning, as demonstrated by Bandura in 1960, employs laboratory studies and experiments to provide a more scientific and objective perspective. It emphasizes the role of observation and imitation in learning.

The behaviorist approach offers a scientific and objective viewpoint, challenging the nature theory of behavior. It simplifies complex explanations for behavior and has practical applications in various fields, from education to treating behavioral disorders. However, critics argue that behaviorism oversimplifies behavior and dismisses conscious mental experiences. It also implies that individuals bear no responsibility for their actions.

The Psychoanalytic Approach

The psychoanalytic approach, primarily developed by Sigmund Freud, emerged from his fascination with hysteria and the belief that unconscious mental causes underlie all disorders and personalities, including so-called "normal" ones. Freud's ideas were influenced by the technological advancements of his time, such as locomotives, and the work of the hypnotist Charcot. His conversations with Charcot revealed the therapeutic benefits of discussing traumatic experiences, which he later termed the 'Talking Cure.'

Freud also linked sex to hysterical behavior, considering it a potential source of emotional stress. He drew inspiration from Breuer, who pioneered cathartic therapy, a precursor to the 'Talking Cure.'

Central to the psychoanalytic approach is the belief that behavior is primarily influenced by the unconscious mind, a realm beyond our awareness. This perspective subscribes to psychic determinism, asserting that every action or utterance has a cause. Freud postulated the existence of psychic energy driven by hydraulic forces, with the sex drive and aggressive drive as fundamental components. He also proposed psychodynamic conflicts within the unconscious mind, where different aspects of one's psyche constantly battle each other.

According to Freud, the personality develops through various stages, and each stage shapes different aspects of the self. His psychoanalytic theory laid the foundation for further developments by psychologists like Jung, Adler, and Anna Freud.

The psychoanalytic approach has had a profound influence on psychology and psychiatry. Freud's techniques, such as free association and dream analysis, aimed to access and interpret the unconscious mind. However, this approach faced criticism for its lack of empirical support, limited experimental validation, and the inability to be scientifically proven. While it has therapeutic applications, psychoanalytic therapy has also been met with skepticism.

Comparing and Contrasting the Approaches

Although both Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis claim to offer comprehensive explanations of human behavior, they differ significantly in their foundations, methodologies, and implications.

1. Foundations: Behaviorism, as championed by Watson, emphasizes the observable relationship between the environment and behavior. It rejects the unconscious mind and focuses on empirical evidence. In contrast, Psychoanalysis, pioneered by Freud, delves into the influence of the unconscious mind, psychic determinism, and the role of internal conflicts.

2. Methodologies: Behaviorism relies on experimental and observable data to support its theories. It emphasizes the role of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning. On the other hand, Psychoanalysis relies on introspective techniques like free association and dream analysis, which are less empirical and more reliant on interpretation.

3. Similarities: Both Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis claim to provide comprehensive explanations for human behavior, often excluding other perspectives. They hold deterministic views, with Behaviorism asserting that the environment shapes behavior and Psychoanalysis contending that unconscious forces determine actions.

4. Differences: Behaviorism simplifies explanations for behavior, focusing solely on observable factors. It is more objective and scientific in its approach. In contrast, Psychoanalysis delves into the complexities of the unconscious mind, relying on introspective techniques and interpretations. It is often criticized for its lack of empirical support.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Both Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis possess strengths and weaknesses that have contributed to their respective places in the field of psychology.


  • Strengths:
    • Scientific and experimental approach.
    • Provides a counter-argument to the nature theory.
    • Offers practical applications in education, behavior modification, and therapy.
  • Weaknesses:
    • Rejects conscious mental experiences.
    • Assumes individuals are not responsible for their actions.
    • Oversimplifies explanations for behavior and experiences.


  • Strengths:
    • Offers a comprehensive explanation of human behavior and personality.
    • Recognizes the role of the unconscious mind.
    • Provides a therapeutic approach for addressing mental disorders.
  • Weaknesses:
    • Lacks empirical support for many of its concepts.
    • Relies on introspective techniques that are less objective.
    • Difficult to scientifically validate its claims.

Implications for Society

Both Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis have had implications for society, but the impact of Behaviorism has been more pronounced due to its practical applications.

Behaviorism's Implications:

Behaviorism has made significant contributions to various aspects of society:

  • Education: Behaviorist principles have been applied in programmed learning, helping educators design effective teaching methods.
  • Behavioral Disorders: The behaviorist approach has been instrumental in treating behavioral disturbances, including phobias and behavior shaping in conditions like autism.
  • Animal Training: Operant conditioning principles have been widely used to train animals to perform specific tasks, benefiting fields such as entertainment, agriculture, and research.
  • Advertising: Behaviorist concepts have been employed in advertising to understand consumer behavior and tailor marketing strategies accordingly.
  • Child Rearing: Behaviorism has influenced parenting techniques and strategies for disciplining children.

Psychoanalysis' Implications:

While Psychoanalysis has contributed to the field of psychology and therapy, its practical applications have been limited:

  • Therapy: Psychoanalytic therapy has been used to treat mental disorders, providing a space for patients to explore their unconscious conflicts.

Compared to Behaviorism, Psychoanalysis has had a more confined impact on society due to its emphasis on introspective techniques and its limited empirical validation. Behaviorism, with its scientific approach and practical applications, has played a more significant role in shaping various domains of human life.


In conclusion, the Behaviorist and Psychoanalytic approaches represent two contrasting perspectives within the field of psychology. Behaviorism, championed by John Watson, emphasizes the observable relationship between the environment and behavior. It provides a scientific and objective viewpoint, with practical applications in education, therapy, and various societal domains. However, it oversimplifies behavior and neglects conscious mental experiences.

On the other hand, Psychoanalysis, pioneered by Sigmund Freud, delves into the unconscious mind and psychic determinism. While it offers a comprehensive explanation of behavior and personality, it lacks empirical support and relies on introspective techniques that are less objective.

Overall, both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, and their implications for society differ significantly. Behaviorism has had a more significant impact on various aspects of human life due to its practical applications and scientific approach. In contrast, Psychoanalysis, while influential in psychology and therapy, has not exerted the same level of influence on society at large.

Updated: Nov 07, 2023
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Comparing and Contrasting Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis. (2016, Jul 15). Retrieved from

Comparing and Contrasting Behaviorism and Psychoanalysis essay
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