Two Basic Kinds of Behavior

Two Basic Kinds of Behavior

There are only two kinds of behavior in humans and other animals.

One kind of behavior is called Operant Behavior because it “operates”, or acts, upon the environment. Most important, operant behavior is controlled by its consequences. Consequences are said to “control” our behavior because they increase (strengthen) or decrease (weaken) the future frequency of the behaviors they follow.

Consequences influence our operant behavior probabilistically, but not absolutely. For example, a child who is praised for helping with a chore, is more likely to help others in the future. A child who is allowed to push another child down and take their toy, is more likely to be aggressive to others in the future.

The only other kind of behavior is Respondent Behavior. The word respondent means that these behaviors are reflexive responses to specific stimuli. Common examples of our respondent behavior are being startled by a loud noise, snapping our hand away from a hot flame, or salivating when we put food in our mouths.

As you will see, these two apparently simple kinds of behavior, and the ways they can be learned, are of huge importance to the lives of fellow citizens and to our socioculture.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.       4/20/10

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39 Responses to “Two Basic Kinds of Behavior”

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    While I believe that this blog is very comprehensive in terms of clarity of concepts, I do not believe that it would hurt to proofread your entries. I found many misspelled words which is inappropriate for an individual with a PhD to publish.



      I do not mean to be negative or hurtful but your credibility is compromised with errors like these. I would hate to see that happen because you do provide an excellent understanding of the concepts.


    • vtmawhinney Says:

      You speak the truth and tell it like it is.

      One of my personal flaws is that I try to do too much per units of time. I believe that I have gotten better at taking more time to proof my various writings. I started blogging in 2009 and hopefully have improved in this area and I now have over 1000 entries. I must admit that I could benefit from the help of a skilled editor, or critical pre-publication readers, as I have with my book and professional journal publications. Best wishes,


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  25. Shon green Says:

    This is a great definition. Thanks. My comment is there were two typos. But I did understand it


  26. Frank Fujita Says:

    Wow, what a mis-reading. I read there are only two types — the first is Operant — and I (contrary to the text) then read “classical” rather than “respondent.” Sorry to be so dense.


    • vtmawhinney Says:


      No problem, my friend. The imprefect pursuit of the the truth is what guides us. I’m sure I will match your honest mistake….and then some.



  27. Frank Fujita Says:

    Surely there are more than only two kinds of behavior. One example is innate behavior — such as a baby blinking its eyes when its nose is touched. There are other types too.


    • vtmawhinney Says:

      Good to hear from you, Frank.

      I am posting snippets of some of my writing on the psychology of cultural change. I will be selecting only some psychological principles for explanation and example, depending on the point that I wish to make, at particular locations in my book.

      In the taxonomy of behavior and its classes, it could be argued that there are types other than operant and respondent. However, from a conditioning and learning perspective, operant and respondent behaviors are the two most basic classes of behavior, of which all other typologies are comprised (imprinting, imitative behavior in newborns–children and adults also, and innate fixed action behavior patters) for examples.

      I would view unlearned reflexes, innate behavioral reactions to specific stimuli, to be examples of respondent behavior. Your example of an infant blinking to a nose touch would be such a reflex and is also an example of respondent behavior, which is innate. As you know, some such reflexes begin as respondents and later in development, come under the control of consequences (as in toilet training of children), an interesting maturational admixture of respondent and operant behavior comprising a complex chain of social behavior.

      Anyway, when it comes to our own self-defeating behaviors, at the individual or cultural levels, I believe the most relevant basic classes of our behavior are operant and respondent.

      I will always appreciate your editorial reactions to my postings.



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