Quick-Start Synopsis 

Behaviorism has a long history as a learning theory. It was very popular in the early 20th century. Teachers used the concept to standardize classrooms and design curricula. 

Let’s illustrate with Leah. 

Leah Sci is a MSL trainer for a Pharma Company – she has a new puppy!

What is behaviorism? 

Behaviorism is concerned about observable behavior. The theory predicts that a specific behavior can be encouraged if either positive or negative reinforcement is applied. Pavlov’s dog, anyone? The focus is on behaviors – actions – that can be seen and observed by others. 

Consider if Leah’s puppy needs to be housebroken… 

When a preferred response occurs, positive reinforcement is received.  

Leah Uses positive reinforcement - You are such a good puppy! Let's get you a treat. Good boy! - The puppy gets a treat when they make a poop.

Negative reinforcement decreases behaviors that are not preferred.  

Leah is provides immediate feedback - Bad boy! What were you thinking? We don't do that in the house! - She shakes a can with coins in it if the puppy starts to pee in the house.

Through operant conditioning, researchers demonstrated that behavior could be shaped by the reinforcement received. Over time, the positive reinforcement becomes rewarding to the animal, child, or adult. 

You met Leah’s colleague, Mehta, in a prior blog that you can see here. Mehta liked to train from a Cognitivism framework. He liked to consider how learning happens in the brain. 

A tale of three professionals - Leah Sci - Mehta Cogni - Conni Lincoln-Log

What data support behaviorism? 

B.F. Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning while working with pigeons. If the animal pecked at the correct spot, they received a food reward. If they did not peck in the right location, no extra food was given. Skinner considered learning to be an observable behavior that was best supported by positive reinforcement rather than punishment.  

Did you know that Skinner created a self-paced machine in the 1950s that provided instant feedback to students? We talk a lot about self-paced learning today, but it’s not new

Behaviorism is a useful concept when teaching hands-on skills during training – operating software, running a Western blot, or turning in monthly expense reports. Consider gamification elements used in training; these are examples of training through behaviorism. 

How does behaviorism translate to adult learning? 

Adult learning, called andragogy, can and should utilize elements of behaviorism.  

Examples of behaviorism in training: 

  • Trainers can design clear and relevant learning objectives that identify the preferred behavior(s).   
  • Instructional designers can create achievable tasks and then reward successful completion.  
At work, Leah has a similar manner of training. For onboarding: established clear, specific objectives. Learners know when they have been successful (or not). There is a focus on external, observable events. “By the end of the nine-week  new hire orientation, you will take a formal assessment on company values to obtain your orientation certificate.”

For example, a learning objective might read: “At the end of this onboarding program, the MSL will present a comprehensive territory-planning document to their manager.” 

Given what we know about Leah, and what you may have learned from Mehta, can you answer this question? 

Which foundational learning theory does Leah align to? Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism

You are right! Leah trains with an eye towards behaviorism. She may not even be aware that she is employing these methods. 

Why Behaviorism and learning theory? Stimuli and responses- Observable behavior - reinforcement - reward/punishment - observable behavior - immediate feedback

Proven Value for Medical Affairs 

Whether you are creating goals, writing up a performance review, or developing training content, consider the observable behaviors that the employee should demonstrate.  

How will an MSL confirm that they “understand” a concept?  

During a workshop, can realistic methods for rapport building be modeled to others? 

During a difficult conversation, is it clear to both sides what good-better-best looks like in action? 

In a future blog, we will meet one more member of the training team: 

Guess how she likes to train – what do you think? 

Contact Us to Develop Your Strategy 

If you would like to discuss your team’s situation, please contact us.  

We can create a learning experience that uses current learning theories to achieve the outcomes you desire.  

eLearning – check 

Workshop – check 

Onboarding – check 


Braat M, Engelen J, van Gemert T, Verhaegh S. The rise and fall of behaviorism: The narrative and the numbers. Hist Psychol. 2020 Aug;23(3):252-280. doi: 10.1037/hop0000146. Epub 2020 Mar 19. PMID: 32191061. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32191061/ 

Kay D, Kibble J. Learning theories 101: application to everyday teaching and scholarship. Adv Physiol Educ. 2016 Mar;40(1):17-25. doi: 10.1152/advan.00132.2015. PMID: 26847253. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26847253/ 

Association for Talent Development (ATD), Talent Development Book of Knowledge (TDBoK). January 2020 ed. 2020, Alexandria, VA: Association for Talent Development. https://www.td.org/tdbok 

Watters, Audrey.  Pigeons, Operant Conditioning, and Social Control. June 2018, Hack Education blog. http://hackeducation.com/2018/06/15/pigeons#:~:text=Skinner’s%20early%20work%20was%20with,used%20to%20study%20animal%20behavior.&text=The%20pigeons%20were%20trained%20by,they%20completed%20the%20task%20correctly