Last Updated 28 May 2020

Behaviorism the beginnings

Category Behaviorism
Essay type Research
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Behaviorism is one of the most influential schools of psychology, especially American psychology. The development of behaviorism was spurned as a reaction to structuralism and functionalism. Behaviorism was posited as a revolution in the methodology of the science of psychology (Hothersall, 1995), while structuralism and functionalism have argued that the rightful object of study of psychology is the mind and consciousness and have developed methods that congruently were subjective and enabled the psychologists of that time to study the mind and consciousness.

Although behaviorism has become established as a major force in psychology, in its earlier days it was not popular and embraced by many psychologists. However as behaviorism evolved and developed into a theoretically based and objective science many have found its assumptions practical and scientific. Western psychology’s history is short and colorful compared to other sciences, it started with structuralism from Germany with Wundt at the helm (Murphy, 1930). When psychology arrived in America it obviously followed structuralism, and since it was too philosophical for the American scholars.

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James developed his own paradigm and called it functionalism, which in essence focused on the function of consciousness in explaining behavior than in studying the structure of the mind. Functionalism held greater influence in American psychology but together with structuralism it still espoused that psychology is the study of the mind and consciousness. The zeitgeist of that period was that the focus of psychology is the understanding of the human mind and internal experiences (Hothersall, 1995).

This inspired psychologists to devise methods of studying perception and consciousness in the attempt to discover the workings of the human mind. Research at that time was centered on identifying and describing physiological experiences and how it affected human behavior. Psychologists were comfortable with the notion that psychology is the study of the mind and most of them wrote about the self, attention, consciousness, perception and even mental processes that were believed to be the cause of human behavior.

At this point, methods used to study the human mind were subjective and did not lend itself to replication and reliability which in turn questioned the veracity of psychological researches. Although functionalism stressed that the mind and consciousness were responsible for human actions, they viewed behavior as a product of mental processes and ignored its importance in the study of psychology. Functionalism however stressed the application of psychological knowledge to practical issues such as learning, education and organizational development.

The pragmaticism of functionalism led it to the discovery that human behavior is as much important to study since it is directly related to the human mind. Functionalism also identified the shortcomings of structuralism and its methods and since it was heavily influenced by Darwin, functionalism also welcomed the idea of studying animals in laboratories to test psychological assumptions. While this new developments were gaining support, a new school of psychology emerged from the work and writings of Ivan Pavlov (Hothersall, 1995).

Pavlov was able to demonstrate that a dog can be trained to salivate with just the sound of a bell intrigued some psychologists and became one of the most popular teachings in psychology; Pavlov called this process classical conditioning. In America, John B. Watson was impressed with the experiments of Pavlov that he embraced the idea that behavior is the mot important aspect of man that should be studied by psychology (Watson, 1913). John B. Watson was an influential person and he is conventionally credited to be the father of behaviorism as he strongly and eloquently articulated the new psychology of that time.

Central to Watson’s argument was that he accepted that animal behavior is quite similar to human behavior and that they are legitimate subjects in the experimental study of behavior. Earlier, it was mentioned that behaviorism was revolutionary in the sense that it developed a methodology of study of psychology and that it held few theoretical explanations to human behavior. Watson (1913) posited that any behavior is a response to a stimuli and the relationship between the stimulus and the response should be the subject matter of psychology.

Watson also erased the mental processes that the structuralism and functionalism was focused on, arguing that studying mental processes are futile and subjective and did not uphold the scientific and experimental tradition of the discipline. Watson became the editor of the Psychological Review, one of the earliest scientific journals in psychology and used his position in the paper to put forth his ideas and conceptualizations of psychology as the behaviorist would see it (Watson & Evans, 1990).

Watson was a radical behaviorist, he always referred to himself as “the behaviorist” and it implied that he renounced all mental processes as devoid of any psychological insight. He reasoned that structuralism and functionalism are limited perspectives and it did not offer objective and rational explanations of behavior. He was famous for his experiments with Little Albert, wherein he conditioned fear of white and flurry objects in a small child. He demonstrated that fear can be conditioned and that it is manifested in different objects that fit the original object used as a stimulus (Watson, 1928).

Watson believed that every action is a product of conditioning and that genetics or cultural orientations does not have anything to do with it. When asked to explain thinking, he said that thinking was not a mental process per se; instead it is an act of speaking in symbolic form (Watson, 1913). Watson’s intense dedication to behaviorism led him to believe that he can train any child to become what he wants them to be by subjecting them to the environment and experiences that would support this personality (Watson, 1928).

Watson was a true-blooded behaviorist and this actually was the main criticism leveled against him. Psychologists who were trained in the functionalist and structuralist traditions had difficulty accepting Watson’s theories since it took out the mind and consciousness in psychology. There were a number of supporters but they also believed that mental processes are as much important as behavior. another criticism of Watson was that behaviorism was too deterministic, it seemed that the person had no free will since he/she is controlled by his/her environment.

It can be remembered that psychology was the child of philosophy and for those who were trained in philosophical logic stressed free will, choice and freedom. Support for Watson waned in the later part of his career since he became too caught up in his assumptions on behaviorism that his contentions became too radical and lacked scientific credence. Watson’s major contribution to psychology is his emphasis on objective methods of research and the use of rats and animals in the study of psychology.

Behaviorism became one of the great schools of thought in psychology because it evolved and developed into what we now know as modern behaviorism (Hothersall, 1995), a theoretical perspective that still focuses on human behavior as the object of study but have come to acknowledge the importance of mental processes, genetics and environmental experiences, as well as using methods that not only seek to elicit behavior but also gives due attention to thinking, attention, emotions and consciousness.

References Hothersall, D. (1995). History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. Murphy, G. (1930). A Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc. Watson, J. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177. Watson, J. (1928). The Ways of Behaviorism. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishing. Watson, R. & Evans, R. (1990). The great psychologists: An intellectual history 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins.

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