Psych History- “Belongingness” in Behavioral Theory

“Belongingness” in Behavioral Theory

First, some context! When we look at behavioral psychology, a great deal of it came up as a philosophical model in the late 19th/early 20th century, which gained traction for the following 60 or so years.

One of these original scientists/psychologists who contributed was named Edward Thorndike (1847-1949), who had a number of contributions to the growing science. Some of his ideas stuck around, and others were refuted by more modern theories and evidence, but one of the more interesting theories was that of Belongingness. [1.2,3]

One of the backbones to the various philosophies of Behaviorism is the theory that operant behaviors act very much in the same sense as evolutionary forces; adaptation is what causes behaviors to come about, because they are functional, and work on the environment to achieve or “get” something. [1,2]

Thorndike had an idea called the “Law of Effect”, and predates Skinner’s work in operant condition, but appears to be studying the same phenomenon: a behavior is more likely to occur when it is rewarded. Belongingess follows this and takes it a step further. [1,3]

Belonginess is a “law” that Thorndike proposed to describe this type of phenomena, and to paraphrase them; “punishment or reward has to be relative to a situation in order to have effectiveness”. For a reward (reinforcer) or punishment to be at its greatest effectiveness, it has to be working on a behavior relevant to the situation. [1]

Let’s look at an example:

Antecedent (Setting Event) Operant Behavior (What behavior is happening) Consequence (Reward, or Punishment)
You are in line at a coffee shop and it is now your turn.


You say “I would like a coffee, please”, and hand them money. You receive your coffee.

Given this situation, and assuming your coffee is as good as you expected, this reward fits a behavior working on the context of the situation, and is more likely to strengthen that behavior to occur in the future, according to the “law of belongingness”.  If a behavior acts to get coffee, and it receives that coffee, then that context lends to the strength of that behavior being learned. [1,2,3]

This theory influence many aspects of the behavioral philosophy and science to follow it, and how reinforcement (rewarding, as it was called then) is effectively used. There is also an interesting effect of reinforcement that Thorndike was not aware of at the time; what is called the automaticity of reinforcement. Look for that one in the next Psych History.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!


  1. Fraisse, P., & Piaget, J. (1968). Experimental psychology; its scope and method. New York: Basic Books
  2.  Singh, A. K. (1991). The comprehensive history of psychology. Delhi: Motilal.
  3.  Goodenough, Florence L. (1950).Edward Lee Thorndike: 1874-1949. The American Journal of Psychology.


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