One of the main and historically most important theoretical trends in psychology is behaviorism. This current tries to explain behavior and human action based on the objective analysis of behavior, which is understood as the only evident correlation of the psyche and generally ignoring mental processes due to the impossibility of observing them empirically.

Throughout history there have been multiple developments within behaviorism, which have varied the approach or the way of understanding behavior. One of them was elaborated by what would be the forty-fourth president of the APA, Clark Leonard Hull: we are talking about deductive behaviorism or deductive neoconductism .

Brief introduction to behaviorism

Behaviorism starts from the intention of making the study of the human psyche an objective science based on evidence, moving away from hypothetical constructs that cannot be demonstrated. It is based on the premise that the only thing truly demonstrable is behaviour , based on the association between stimulus and response or between behaviour and consequence to explain human behaviour.

However, it does not initially consider the mind or mental processes as part of the equation that explains or influences behavior.

Moreover, the fundamental passive subject, is considered a receptacle of information that simply reacts to stimulation . This would be so until the arrival of neoconductism, in which the existence of demonstrable forces characteristic of the subject begins to be considered. And one of the best known neoconductisms is Hull’s deductive behaviorism.

Hull and deductive behaviorism

Based on the prevailing logical positivism of the time and on Skinner’s developments with regard to the reinforcement of behaviour, Thorndike and Pavlov, Clark Hull would elaborate a new way of understanding behaviourism.

In the methodological field, Hull considered that it is necessary for the science of behavior to start from deduction, proposing a hypothetical-deductive model in which from some initial premises based on observation it is possible to extract, deduce and later verify different principles and sub-theories. The theory had to maintain coherence and be able to be elaborated from logic and deduction, using models based on mathematics to be able to elaborate and demonstrate its theories.

As far as behaviour is concerned, Hull maintained a functional perspective: we act because we need to in order to survive, behaviour being the mechanism by which we manage to do so. The human being or the organism itself ceases to be a passive entity and becomes an active element that seeks survival and reduction of needs.

This fact is a milestone that incorporates into the typical stimulus-response scheme a set of variables that intermediate between the independent and dependent variables in that relationship: the so-called intervening variables, variables specific to the organism such as motivation. And although these variables are not directly visible, they can be deduced mathematically and checked experimentally.

From his observations, Hull establishes a series of postulates that try to explain behaviour, with impulse and habit being the central components that allow us to understand phenomena such as learning and the emission of behaviour.

The drive or impulse

One of the main theories arising from Hull’s deductive neo-conductism is the theory of impulse reduction.

The human being, like all creatures, has basic biological needs that need to be satisfied . The need causes a drive or impulse to arise in the organism, an emission of energy that generates that we seek to make up for our lack through behaviour in order to guarantee or favour the possibility of adapting to the environment and surviving.

We act on the basis of the attempt to reduce the impulses that our biological needs cause us . The needs are present regardless of the existence or not of stimulation and they generate or drive the emission of behaviours. Thus, it is considered that our needs motivate us for behaviour.

The needs that lead us to the impulse can be very variable, from the most biological ones such as hunger, thirst or reproduction to others derived from socialization or the obtaining of elements linked to the satisfaction of such needs (such as money).

Habit and learning

If our actions reduce those needs, we obtain a reinforcement that will generate that the behaviors that were carried out and allowed such reduction have more probability of being replicated.

Thus, the body learns by strengthening the association between stimuli and responses and behaviour and consequences based on the need to reduce needs. The repetition of reinforcing experiences ends up configuring habits that we replicate in those situations or stimuli that elicit the emission of behaviour by provoking the impulse. And before situations that have similar characteristics to those that generate a certain impulse, we will tend to act in the same way, generalizing the habit.

It is important to note and emphasize that the impulse itself only provides us with energy and motivation to act, but it does not generate the habit: it is derived from conditioning. In other words, if we see something that seems edible, the impulse to eat may arise, but how to do so depends on the associations we have made between certain behaviors and their consequences in terms of meeting our needs.

The strength of the acquired habit depends on numerous factors such as the contiguity and contingency between the emission of the behavior and its reinforcing consequence. It also depends on the intensity with which the impulse appears, the number of repetitions of the association and the incentive that the consequence implies by reducing the need to a greater or lesser extent. And as the strength of the habit increases, it becomes increasingly difficult to extinguish, to the point that even when it no longer serves to reduce the impulse it may persist.

Hull also worked and studied the accumulation of experience, being greater the amount of learning of the behavior that is made in the initial moments than the one made later. On this basis, the different learning curves have emerged subsequently. What remains to be learned from the behaviour is less, so that with time the amount of information learned is reduced.

Bibliographic references:

  • Hull, C. L. (1943). Principles of Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.