Behaviorism and Internal vs. External Motivation

I was recently asked whether or not I am a behaviorist.

My response:

Behaviorism usually refers to approaches of Pavlov (classical conditioning of stimulus/response) and Skinner (behavior modification by reinforcing behavior AFTER an act occurs).

Behavior modification is popular in schools, especially with special education teachers. Unfortunately, MANY RESEARCH STUDIES HAVE SHOWN THE APPROACH TO BE INEFFECTIVE. However, its staying power is attested to by an increasing number of states mandating that schools use “positive behavior support” that is based on a behavior modification model.

The essence of behavior modification is to REWARD DESIRED BEHAVIOR AND IGNORE UNDESIRED BEHAVIOR. The fact that inappropriate behavior is ignored can send the message that nothing is wrong with the behavior, and so there may be little incentive to stop doing it. Therefore, a major problem with the approach is that, when undesired behavior is not addressed, such behavior can become “reinforced.”

Since all behavior modification RELIES ON AN EXTERNAL STIMULUS—something or someone external or outside the person—in a certain sense, this can be related to Level C in that the motivation is external.

The RAISE RESPONSIBILITY SYSTEM encourages INTERNAL motivation (Level D). External motivation (Level C) is acceptable, but it is not the highest or most effective approach for changing behavior.

People who rely on behavior modification believe that rewarding behavior influences the person to change. But in reality, only the MOTIVATION CHANGES. This can be witnessed in young people who ask, “What will I get if I do it?” The motivation lasts only as long as the reward lasts; when the reward is gone, so is the motivation.

External sources prompt us to act, but the behavior itself is not automatic; nor does one’s BEHAVIOR ever come from outside the person. Behavior is a person’s own choice. The actions may be habitual and/or nonconscious, but the behavior ALWAYS comes from that person. Therefore, it would be misleading if I classified myself as a behaviorist in the traditional sense of the word. I could classify myself as an INternalist, a word that perhaps I have just coined.

For a practical example of the difference in effect between internal and external motivation, read “A Letter Worth Reading.

More information on this topic is available at

  1. Whether motivation is produced from within or caused by an external factor, either way, you are the one who produces those feelings of motivation. Motivation, IMO, is a feeling that gets triggered. External factors can cause it but ultimately, you are the one who decides whether or not ot act on it.

  2. Technically, all motivation is internal. The body receives information through the senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching. These PROMPT feelings and the person acts then reflectively or reflexively. The inputs, therefor, do not CAUSE behavior, but they certainly PROMPT it.