The nature-nurture debate has raged among scientists for years, with some experts believing genetics to be the basis of human behavior, and others believing the environment to be the primary influence. But one thing everyone can agree on is that our behaviors and learning abilities are, to some degree, shaped by both nature and nurture. 

That’s why it’s important to understand behavioral learning, which focuses on how people learn through observation of others or direct experience. This learning theory helps explain why some employees excel in your company training program while others struggle. 

By leveraging the principles of behavioral learning theory, you can create a successful training program that encourages employees to grow and develop their skill sets meaningfully. Find out how.

What is behavioral learning theory?

Simply put, behavioral learning theory is the idea that rewards or punishments shape behaviors in response to specific actions. When someone receives positive feedback or a reward for something they do (such as praise after completing a task), they are more likely to repeat this behavior in future situations. 

On the other hand, if someone receives negative feedback or punishment for their actions (like a scolding for not completing a task), they are less likely to repeat that behavior. 

The basic principles of behavioral learning include reinforcement, punishment, extinction, and shaping. 

  • Reinforcement is when something good happens after an action (positive or negative), encouraging the person to repeat it in future situations. 
  • Punishment is when something bad happens after an action (positive or negative), discouraging the person from repeating it in the future. 
  • Extinction occurs when no reward or punishment follows an action, so there’s nothing to encourage or discourage its repetition. 
  • Shaping involves reinforcing small, successively closer approximations of a desired behavior until the final goal is achieved. 

By understanding these components of behavioral learning theory, you will have a deeper insight into how you can shape your employees’ behavior.

History of learning theory

While behavioral learning has existed for centuries, researchers have only begun understanding its implications in recent decades. Let’s take a look at some of the key figures behind this fascinating field. 

Pavlov and classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov was one of the earliest pioneers in behavioral learning theory. He famously studied dogs, conditioning them to salivate when they heard a bell ring by pairing it with food. His work paved the way for understanding how humans can be conditioned through reinforcement and repetition. 

John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner

Following Pavlov’s work, two American psychologists, John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, developed a formal theory of behavioral learning based on the idea that behavior is shaped by its consequences—positive or negative reinforcement. This theory is called operant conditioning

Watson and Skinner argued that to change someone’s behavior, you must reward the desired behavior (positive reinforcement) or punish the unwanted behavior (negative reinforcement). These consequences would increase or decrease the likelihood of repeating the specific behaviors.

Social learning theory: Albert Bandura

In addition to classical and operant conditioning, social learning is another behavioral learning theory. Albert Bandura, another prominent figure in behavioral learning theory, developed this theory suggesting that people can learn by observing and imitating the behavior of others. 

His work was foundational in understanding how we learn from our peers and how cultural norms are established. Behavioral learning is an incredibly complex field, but these four figures—Pavlov, Watson, Skinner, and Bandura—are its key architects.

Behavioral learning examples

You likely see examples of behavioral learning principles applied daily in your workplace without realizing it. You may recognize these applications:


In sales training, reinforcement is a great way to motivate employees. If you want your sales reps to make more sales calls, consider offering them bonuses or commissions for each successful sale. This could be the incentive they need to get out there and make those meaningful connections with customers.


Punishment is a consequence that reduces the likelihood of undesirable behavior. In a business context, punishment can discourage employees from engaging in activities that are not beneficial for the company. 

For instance, if your organization wants to decrease customer complaints, you could create a policy where employees who receive multiple complaints must undergo extra training or face disciplinary measures.


This technique teaches someone a complex behavior by reinforcing their small steps toward achieving it. This technique can be used in business training to help employees learn new skills. 

For example, suppose your company wants its customer service reps to know how to handle challenging customers. In that case, you can use shaping over time to teach them the essentials of communication and conflict resolution.


You can learn a new skill or behavior by observing and imitating what you see. Businesses often use modeling as a way to teach employees these things in an effective manner. For example, they may use videos or simulations to show how to communicate or lead effectively so that the employees can mimic this behavior.


Receiving constructive information about your performance is called feedback. In the field of behaviorism, you can use feedback to either encourage or adjust behavior. In business training, it’s common for managers to provide their employees with regular updates on how they’re doing and suggestions for improvements. 

This information helps workers better their performance and reach their goals much more quickly.

Applying behavioral learning theory in your training programs

Here are some tips on using this theory in your training program: 

Establish clear goals. Before you start any training program, you must set clear goals for what you hope participants will achieve by the end of it. This will help them stay focused and motivated while learning new behaviors or skills. 

Create a reinforcement system. Rewards are the best way to encourage people to learn new behaviors or skills. This can include verbal praise, tangible rewards, or even small incentives such as extra break time or time off. 

Use punishment strategically. While punishments should be used sparingly, they can help keep participants on track and reinforce specific behaviors that you want them to learn. Just make sure these punishments are appropriate for the situation and not overly harsh. 

Be consistent. Regular feedback is an integral part of any training program, as it helps participants understand what they’ve done well and where there’s room for improvement. Provide positive and constructive feedback, so participants feel motivated and supported as they learn new behaviors or skills. 

By following these tips, you’ll be well on your way to implementing a successful training program that encourages and facilitates behavioral learning.

Be on your best behavior with ELM Learning

Understanding behavioral theory is key to helping your employees learn better. ELM Learning is an eLearning company that provides intelligent and engaging learning solutions for employers to help their staff reach their full potential. 

Using technology and innovative strategies, we create beautiful learning experiences that can make a difference in how well employees learn. So if you want to maximize employee engagement and ensure everyone has access to quality education, let’s talk about how ELM Learning can help you achieve it.