Keith E Rice's Integrated SocioPsychology Blog & Pages

Aligning, integrating and applying the behavioural sciences


27 April 2020

This school of Psychology, also known as Learning Theory, maintains that behaviours as such can be described scientifically without recourse either to internal physiological events or to hypothetical constructs such as the ‘mind’. Mental states such as moods and emotions are not appropriate subjects for scientific investigation as they cannot be studied objectively.

Behaviourism as such was founded by John B Watson of John Hopkins University when he published his article ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It’ — sometimes referred to as ‘The Behaviourist Manifesto’ –  in 1913. In this article, Watson outlined the major features of his new philosophy of Psychology. The first paragraph of the article concisely described Watson’s position: “Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behaviour. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviourist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognises no dividing line between man and brute. The behaviour of man, with all of its refinement and complexity, forms only a part of the behaviourist’s total scheme of investigation.”

Watson, who had been conducting various animal experiments, was unimpressed with the Introspectionist experiments of Wilhelm Wundt (1897) and considered them unscientific. He was interested in applying scientific methods to Psychology. When he learned of the Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s (1902/1927) conditioning experiments with dogs – the beginning of Classical Conditioning – that gave Watson the notion of redefining Psychology as the ‘Science of Behaviour’. In 1919 he wrote: “Psychology, as the behaviourist views it, is a purely  objective, experimental branch of natural science  which needs introspection as little as do sciences of  chemistry and physics. It is granted that the behaviour  of animals can be investigated without appeal to  consciousness.”

For Watson all behaviour was to be analysed in terms of observable stimuli and regulated observable response. There was no need to explain what goes on in the ‘black box’ of the mind. Moreover, since the basic processes which drive learning are considered to be the same in all species, it was valid to infer about human learning from animal experiments.

Watson’s Behaviourism was founded on 4 assumptions:-

  • Determinism – All human behaviour is controlled by external events –  ie: free will does not exist
  • EmpiricismPsychology as a science has to observe, measure and record – consciousness and mental processes cannot be observed, so cannot be taken into account by scientific Psychology
    However, these ideas, if applied today, would mean Cognitive Psychology was unscientific!!)
  • Reductionism – complex behaviour can be reduced to simple, component parts
    (However, those who support the Holistic view argue people are not like machines – that you cannot reduce people to components without losing the sense of the person)
  • Environmentalism – all learning comes from experience and there is no part for heredity
    For Watson, humans were born with a tabula rosa (blank slate) and develop their personality, intelligence and other psychological characteristics through experiences in life. In 1913 he wrote:-
    “There is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talents, temperament, mental condition and characteristics. These things depend on training.”
    (However, Watson (1930) did eventually allow for 3 basic innate emotions found in infants: rage, fear and love. He called these ‘basic pattern reactions’. He also accepted that certain reflexes were innate – eg: the grasping reflex)

Watson lost his position at John Hopkins University in  October 1920 after his affair with his graduate student assistant Rosalie Raynor  was exposed by his wife.  (Watson & Raynor had conducted the notorious ‘Little Albert’ experiment together in 1929.) He subsequently divorced and remarried (Raynor – though she died in 1935). He forged an entirely new and highly successful career in advertising, using the principles of Classical Conditioning. From 1928 on Watson did re-associate himself with Psychology for a number of years by writing several influential works on (Behaviourist-flavoured) child rearing. Eg (1930): “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and  my own specific world to bring them up in, and I’ll  guarantee to take any one at random and train him to  become any type of specialist I may select – doctor,  lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yet, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his  ancestors.”

In the late 1930s through to the 1960s the dominant figure in Behaviourism was B F Skinner who built on the earlier work of Edward Thorndike to develop the concept of Operant Conditioning – which also came to be known as Radical Behaviourism.

In the second half of the 20th Century Behaviourism was largely eclipsed as a result of the so-called ‘Cognitive Revolution’. The turning point arguably was Noam Chomsky’s 1959 review of Skinner’s 1957 book ‘Verbal Behaviour’  in which Chomsky took apart Skinner’s explanation of the development of language. He criticised Behaviourism’s fundamental concept that there can be a ‘Science of Behaviour’ which ignores mental processes. Chomsky also attacked Behaviourism’s history of anthropomorphism and generalising from animal experiments. In spite of such attacks, Skinner remained an influential figure, appearing on a television chat show to promote the application of Behaviourism to society’s ills as late as 1971.

Not every psychologist associated with Behaviourism took such an absolute view as Watson and Skinner in ignoring mental processes – ie: they did allow for some cognition to influence behaviour. The leading exponent of this viewpoint was Edward C Tolman. In 1932 Tolman described ‘purposive behaviour’ in rats and proposed the concept of cognitive maps  (schemas) – eg: rats learning the layout of a maze they negotiate to get food. In the early 1960s Albert Bandura took Tolman’s ideas substantially further with the development of Social Learning Theory (SLT) which allowed completely for cognitive processes in the way we learn from the external environment. In 1977 he wrote: “If actions were determined solely by external rewards and punishments, people would behave like weather vanes, constantly shifting in radically different directions to conform to the whims of others.” To emphasise the link with Cognitive Psychology, Bandura tried to re-label SLT ‘Social Cognitive Theory’ in the early 1980s but the new name failed to catch on.

The very notion of the mind being a ‘black box’ that was impossible to investigate has, to some extent, fallen by the wayside with the advent of cognitive neuroscience. The advent of brain scanning technologies such as positive emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has enabled researchers to look at which brain structures are involved in what processes. However, such technologies do not explain the conscious experience of the event as the person being scanned experiences it. (For that, the researchers have to resort to good old questioning – eg: “How was it for you?” Phenomenology!

Accordingly, today there are very few psychologists with a rigidly Behaviourist orientation.

Though Cognitive Psychology and Behaviourism are hugely different in theoretical concept, the approaches have complementary in practical therapeutic applications – especially in the development of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, a approach to treatment that uses Cognitive models alongside Behaviourist techniques such as ‘systematic desensitisation’ and ‘contingency management’ that have demonstrable utility in helping people with certain pathologies such as simple phobias, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction.


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