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Purposive Behaviorism

Researcher Edward Tolman took the study of behavior one step farther when he combined traditional behaviorism with a focus on the goal of any given behavior, resulting in the study of purposive behaviorism. Purposive BehaviorismUnderstanding that behavior was guided by more than just a response to a given stimulus, Tolman theorized that individuals learn as a result of the way they interact with their environment. Understanding why a person interacts with their environment as they do – that is, what their purpose is in completing the interaction – allowed Tolman to understand more about the person and their behavior.

Much of Tolman’s research focused on meaningful behavior, or behavior that was done with the sole purpose of causing a reaction. If his studies were on the behavior of throwing a ball, he would focus on why the person was throwing the ball and what they hoped to accomplish, not just the physical action of throwing the ball or the muscle actions involved in such a behavior. Ultimately, Tolman concluded that all animals – whether they are human, canine, primate, or otherwise – engage in goal-oriented behaviors. All actions, he claimed, were done for the purpose of meeting a given goal, and it is through understanding that goal and why the individual is pursuing it that one can more fully understand the individual. Tolman’s focus on the implicitness of behavioral choices, rather than on the explicit factors of the behaviors, helped contribute to the development of cognitive psychology, even though his initial findings were not well-received by his colleagures.

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