Overt Vs Covert Behavior

Behavior is any action an organism uses to adjust to the environment. But, there has always been divergent opinions about what ought to be included under the category of behavior. In the narrower sense, only behaviors or actions that can be sensed or are visible are categorized as behaviors. Behaviorists and psychologists argue that change in the environment are only seen when the behaviors are observable, which are also called overt behaviors.

woman thinking is covert behavior whereas a woman jumping is overt behavior

Human actions however, are not limited to observable actions, and there are wide ranges of emotions, thought processes which are not seen or sensed.

In broader sense, behavior is psycho-physical in origin and includes anything that the individual does or experiences. For instance, ideas, dreams, glandular responses, running, reading in silent etc are actions that are not overtly observed, yet, they hold significant value influencing the overt behaviors and bringing change to the environment. These behaviors are called covert behaviors.

Here are the differences between overt and covert behavior.

Overt Behavior

Covert Behavior


  • The word “Overt” is an adjective which refers to something which is clearly apparent.
    Synonyms: obvious, public, noticeable.
  • The word “Covert” refers to something which is not openly acknowledged or displayed.
    Synonyms: Secret, Behind the Scenes.
  • Overt behavior can be defined as observable behavior or responses depicted in the forms of actions.
  • Covert behavior can be defined as unobservable behavior which leads to certain actions.

        Behavioral Activities

  • Behaviors such as speaking, walking, running, working etc are termed under observable behavior.
  • Behaviors such as thinking, dreaming, glandular responses, reasoning etc are termed as unobservable behavior.

       Cause and Effect

  • Observable behaviors are caused by the unobservable mental process that takes place in the brain.
  • Unobservable behaviors are the causes of observable actions. Unobservable behaviors are mental processes that create a response.
  • Overt behaviors can also be turned as responses.
  • Covert behaviors can also be termed as stimulus.

For instance, mental processes such as thinking, reasoning, dreaming etc, leads to actions like walking, answering, working and many more.

       Divergent Opinions

  • Considering only overt behavior as behavior is considered narrow understanding of behavior.
  • Most modern psychologists believe covert behavior to be just as important aspect of behavioral studies, if not more.
  • The challenge of studying mental events has led to the development of innovative research techniques.

        Example: Same example can be understood as an example of both overt and covert behavior.

  • When a man is walking, walking is the overt behavior since it can be observed.
  • On the other hand, we don’t know why the man is walking when we try to understand the covert purpose.
  • The overt behavior of a person can be generalized to describe each and every action committed at a certain time, such as; walking, sleeping, sitting, eating ec.
  • When covert behavior is considered, nothing is black and white anymore. A person might be walking towards the cafĂ© when observed overtly; however, he might not have the intention to go in when taking covert thought process into consideration.
  • The term covert is mostly used in armies, government agencies, and so on