Watson Alters Psychology's Course as Behaviorism Makes Its Debut



The debate between structuralism and functionalism was only the prelude to

other fundamental controversies in psychology. In the early l900s, another

major school of thought appeared that dramatically altered the course of

psychology. Founded by John B. Watson (1878-1958), behaviorism is a

theoretical orientation based on the premise that scientific psychology

should study only observable behavior. It is important to understand what a

radical change this definition represents. Watson (1913) was proposing that

psychologists abandon the study of consciousness altogether and focus

exclusively on behaviors that they could observe directly. In essence, he

was redefining what scientific psychology should be about.


Why did Watson argue for such a fundamental shift in direction? Because to

him, the power of the scientific method rested on the idea of

verifiability. In principle, scientific claims can always be verified (or

disproved) by anyone who is able and willing to make the required

observations. However, this power depends on studying things that can be

observed objectively. Otherwise, the advantage of using the scientific

approach -replacing vague speculation and personal opinion with reliable,

exact knowledge- is lost. For Watson, mental processes were not a proper

subject for scientific study because they are ultimately private events.

After all, no one can see or touch another's thoughts. Consequently, if

psychology was to be a science, it would have to give up consciousness as

its subject matter and become instead the science of behavior.


Behavior refers to any overt (observable) response or activity by an

organism. Watson asserted that psychologists could study anything that

people do or say -shopping, playing chess, eating, complimenting a friend-

but they could not study scientifically the thoughts, wishes, and feelings

that might accompany these observable behaviors. Watson's radical

reorientation of psychology did not end with his redefinition of its

subject matter. He also staked out a rather extreme position on one of

psychology's oldest and most fundamental questions: the issue of nature

versus nurture. This age-old debate is concerned with whether behavior is

determined mainly by genetic inheritance ("nature") or by environment and

experience ("nurture"). To oversimplify, the question is this: Is a great

concert pianist or a master criminal born, or made? Watson argued that each

is made, not born. In other words, he downplayed the importance of

heredity, maintaining that behavior is governed primarily by the

environment. Indeed, he boldly claimed:


Give me a dozen healthy infants and my own special world to brnlg them up

in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any

type of specialist I might select- doctor, lawyer, artist,merchant-chief,

and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants,

tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors. I am going

beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary

and they have been doing it for many thousands of years. (1924, p. 82)


For obvious reasons, Watson's tongue-in-cheek challenge was never put to a

test. Although this widely cited quote overstated and oversimplified

Watson's views on the nature-nurture issue (Todd & Morris, 1992), his

writings contributed to the strong environmental slant that became

associated with behaviorism (Horowitz, 1992).


The behaviorists eventually came to view psychology's mission as an attempt

to relate overt behaviors ("responses") to observable events in the

environment ("stimuli") . A stimulus is any detectable input from the

environment. Stimuli can range from light and sound waves to such complex

inputs as the words on this page, advertisements on TV, or sarcastic

remarks from a friend. Because the behaviorists investigated

stimulus-response relationships, the behavioral approach is often referred

to as stimulus-response (S-R) psychology.


Although it met resistance and skepticism in some quarters, Watson's

behavioral point of view gradually took hold (Samelson, 1981). Actually,

psychology had already been edging away imperceptibly from the study of

consciousness toward the study of behavior for two decades before Watson's

influential manifesto (Leahey, 1992) . The gradual emergence of behaviorism

was partly attributable to an important discovery made in 1904 by Ivan

Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. As you'll learn in Chapter 6, Pavlov (1906)

showed that dogs could be trained to salivate in response to the stimulus

of a ringing bell. This deceptively simple demonstration provided insight

into how stimulus-response bonds are formed. Such bonds were exactly what

behaviorists wanted to investigate, so Pavlov's discovery paved the way for

their work.


Behaviorism's stimulus-response approach contributed to the rise of animal

research in psychology. Having deleted consciousness from their scope of

concern, behaviorists no longer needed to study human subjects who could

report on their mental processes. Many psychologists thought that animals

would make better research subjects anyway. One key reason was that

experimental research is often more productive if experimenters can exert

considerable control over their subjects. Otherwise, too many complicating

factors enter into the picture and contaminate the experiment. Obviously, a

researcher can exert much more control over a

laboratory rat or pigeon than over a human subject, who arrives at a lab

with years of uncontrolled experience and who will probably insist on going

home at night. Thus, the discipline that had begun its life a few decades

earlier as the study of the mind now found itself heavily involved in the

study of simple responses made by laboratory animals.


Ironically, although Watson's views shaped the evolution of psychology for

many decades, he ended up watching the field's progress from the sidelines.

After a heavily publicized divorce scandal in 1920, Watson was forced to

resign from Johns Hopkins University. He left academia at the age of 42,

never to return. Psychology's loss proved to be the business world's gain,

as Watson went on to become an important pioneer in modern advertising

(Brewer, 1991).


Although Watson's ideas proved very influential, they did not go

unchallenged. One source of opposition was a school of thought called

Gestalt psychology, which emerged at about the same time as Watson's





Understanding the Implications of Major Theories: Wundt,James, and Watson

Check your understanding of the implications of some of the major theories

reviewed in this chapter by indicating who is likely to have made each of

the statements quoted below. Choose from the following theorists: (a)

Wilhelm Wundt, (b) William James, and (c) John B. Watson. You'll find the

answers in Appendix A in the back of the book.


1. "Our conclusion is that we have no real evidence of the inheritance of

traits. I would feel perfectly confident in the ultimately favorable

outcome of careful upbringing of a healthy, well-formed baby born of a long

line of crooks, murderers and thieves, and prostitutes."


2. "The book which I present to the public is an attempt to mark out a new

domain of science.... The new discipline rests upon anatomical and

physiological foundations.... The experimental treatment of psychological

problems must be pronounced from every point of view to be in its first



3. "Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such

words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly.... It is nothing

jointed; it flows. A 'river' or 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is

most naturally described."


Skinner Questions Free Will as Behaviorism Flourishes


While psychoanalytic thought was slowly gaining a foothold within

psychology the behaviorists were temporarily softening their stance on the

acceptability of studying internal mental events.They were not about to go

back to making conscious experience the focus of psychology. However, many

did admit that stimulus-response connections are made by a living creature

-an organism- that should not be ignored entirely. Under the leadership of

Clark Hull, this modified behavioral approach still emphasized the study of

observable behavior, but it permitted careful inferences to be drawn about

an organism's internal states, such as drives, needs, and habits. For

example, Hull (1943) argued that if an animal ate eagerly when offered

food, it was not farfetched to infer the existence of an internal hunger




Photo caption

I submit that what we call the behavior of the human organism is no more

free than its digestion.

B.F. SKINNER 1904-1990



This movement toward the consideration of internal states was dramatically

reversed in the 1950s by the work of B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner set

out to be a writer, but he gave up his dream after a few unproductive

years. "I had," he wrote later,"nothing important to say" (1967, p. 395).

However, he had many important things to say about psychology, and he went

on to become one of the most influential of all American psychologists. In

response to the softening that had occurred in the behaviorist position,

Skinner (1953) championed a return to Watson's strict focus on observable

behavior. Skinner did not deny the existence of internal mental events.

However, he insisted that they could not be studied scientifically.

Moreover, there was no need to study them. According to Skinner, if the

stimulus of food is followed by the response of eating, we can fully

describe what is happening without making any guesses about whether the

animal is experiencing hunger. He asserted that finding out how stimuli and

responses are associated is all we need in order to understand and predict

behavior. Like Watson, Skinner also emphasized how environmental factors

mold behavior. Although he repeatedly acknowledged that an organism's

behavior is influenced by its biological endowment, he argued that

psychology could understand and predict behavior (through stimulus-response

analyses) adequately without resorting to physiological explanations

(Delprato & Midgley, 1992).


The fundamental principle of behavior documented by Skinner is deceptively

simple: Organisms tend to repeat responses that lead to positive outcomes,

and they tend not to repeat responses that lead to neutral or negative

outcomes. Despite its simplicity, this principle turns out to be quite

powerful. Working primarily with laboratory rats and pigeons, Skinner

showed that he could exert remarkable control over the behavior of animals

by manipulating the outcomes of their responses. He was even able to train

animals to perform unnatural behaviors. For example, he once trained some

pigeons to play PingPong! Skinner's followers eventually showed that the

principles uncovered in their animal research could be applied to complex

human behaviors as well. Behavioral principles are now widely used in

factories, schools, prisons, mental hospitals, and a variety of other



Skinner's ideas had repercussions that went far beyond the debate among

psychologists about what they should study. Skinner spelled out the full

implications of his findings in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).

There he asserted that all behavior is fully governed by external stimuli.

In other words, your behavior is determined in predictable ways by lawful

principles, just as the flight of an arrow is governed by the laws of

physics Thus, if you believe that your actions are the result of conscious

decisions, you're wrong. According to Skinner, we are all controlled by our

environment not by ourselves. In short, Skinner arrived at the conclusion

that free will is an illusion.


As you can readily imagine, such a disconcerting view of human nature was

not universally acclaimed. Like Freud, Skinner was the target of harsh

criticism. Much of this criticism stemmed from misinterpretations of his

ideas. For example, his analysis of free will was often misconstrued as an

attack on the concept of a free society -which it was not- and he was often

mistakenly condemned for advocating an undemocratic "scientific police

state" (Dinsmoor, 1992). Despite all the controversy, however, behaviorism

flourished as the dominant school of thought in psychology during the1950s

and 1960s (Gilgen, 1982).



Table 1.2

Overview of Five Contemporary Theoretical Perspectives in Psychology


  1. Perspective: Behavioral

        o Its Influential Period: (1913-present)

        o Principal Contributors: John B. Watson, Ivan Pavlov, B. F.


        o Subject Matter: Effects of environment on the overt behavior of

          humans and animals

        o Basic Premise: Only observable events (stimulus-response

          relations) can be studied scientifically.

  2. Perspective: Psychoanalytic

        o Its Influential Period: (l900-present)

        o Principal Contributors: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler

        o Subject Matter: Unconscious determinants of behavior

        o Basic Premise: Unconscious motives and experiences in early

          childhood govern personality and mental disorders.

  3. Perspective: Humanistic

        o Its Influential Period: (1950s-present)

        o Principal Contributors: Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow

        o Subject Matter: Unique aspects of human experience

        o Basic Premise: Humans are free, rational beings with the

          potential for personal growth, and they are fundamentally

          different from animals.

  4. Perspective: Cognitive

        o Its Influential Period: (1950s-present)

        o Principal Contributors: Jean Piaget, Noam Chomsky, Herbert Simon

        o Subject Matter: Thoughts; mental processes

        o Basic Premise: Human behavior cannot be fully understood without

          examining how people acquire, store, and process information .

  5. Perspective: Biological

        o Its Influential Period: (1950s-present)

        o Principal Contributors: James Olds, Roger Sperry

        o Subject Matter: Physiological bases of behavior in humans and


        o Basic Premise: An organism's functioning can be explained terms

          of the bodily structures and biochemical processes that underlie





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