Monday, February 28, 2011

Perspectives from Systems in Psychology

Contributions of Watson, Skinner and Tolman

Simply stated, behaviorism is the study of behavior, although John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Edward C. Tolman would present their theories with caveats to that introduction.  Most behaviorists would agree that psychology should be the science of behavior, not the science of the mind, and the sources of behavior are external phenomena that exist in the environment, not held internally within the mind (Goodwin, 2008).  Watson's initial discoveries thrust behaviorism into the public eye, Skinner created a radical version of Watsonian theory and Tolman thought that any concept important to psychology could be studied in the behavior of rats while they navigated his maze (Goodwin, 2008).  Although all three men were definitively behaviorists, their ideas and suppositions varied on a spectrum that included on one side, Pavlov's conditioning, on the other, the beginnings of cognitive theory (Goodwin, 2008).

John B. Watson
Watson's Fundamental Perspective

      Perhaps the life work of John B. Watson is best described by his quote from Behaviorism as cited by Whitney (2000):

     Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified 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 might select--doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggarman 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 (para. 41).                                                                                                                           
        The second sentence in his quote lead some of his peers to believe that the primary focus of his work was in reaction to the work of other psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud and others who believed in the "nature" element of the nature versus nurture discussion (Whitney, 2000).   Watson was distinctly on the side of nurture in this debate (Whitney, 2000).  Although this was not according to facts, this extreme behaviorist and anti-heredity
perspective became the traditional behaviorist view widely accepted by many psychologists (Whitney, 2000).

       John Watson believed that psychology should be a purely objective science with its sole purpose as the study of observable behavior and its prediction and control (Watson, 1994).  He adamantly thought the removal of introspection and consciousness would promote psychology as an experimental science (Watson, 1994).  To Watson, introspective studies had no scientific value and observing varied states of consciousness had no place in the true science of psychology (Watson, 1994).                                             

Watson's Greatest Challenge

     Perhaps Watson's greatest challenge was his inability to assimilate psychoanalysis into behaviorism (Buckley, 1989).  He was fascinated with Freud's theories and struggled for years to understand some of his processes without success (Buckley, 1989).  Even Watson's Little Albert experiment was an effort to explain psychoanalytic concepts by using classical conditioning (Buckley, 1989).  After Watson's removal from academia and his failure to define Freud's work using various psychological metaphors, he became severely anti-Freudian.                       
Watson's Contributions and Ultimate Success

     Watson's best-known and controversial contribution is known as the "Little Albert" experiment in which he and his future wife, Rosalie Rayner, conditioned a young child to fear a white rat (Buckley, 1989).  Pairing the rat with a loud disturbing sound clearly demonstrated conditioning and its generalization to objects similar to the white rat (Buckley, 1989).  The controversy was in the ethics of Watson's failure to de-condition the child's fear (Buckley, 1989).  Watson's conditioning and behavior modification methods' continued use in therapeutic applications and behavioral training, enables people to change maladaptive behaviors and replace them with the development of more appropriate ones.  Watson served as president of the American Psychological Association in 1915, and received the APA's award for contributions to psychology.                                                                                                                        

B. F. Skinner 
Skinner's Fundamental Perspective
     Skinner first became familiar with behaviorism when he serendipitously found books by Pavlov and Watson while browsing in a bookstore (Vargas, 2005).  He found them impressive and exciting and wanted to learn more (Vargas, 2005).  Skinner founded radical behaviorism, which sought to understand and define behavior as the outcome of environmental experiences that reinforced consequences (Skinner, 1953).  He theorized that reinforcement was the primary shaping of behavior and people and animals behave because of their current structure (Skinner, 1953).  He was adamant that behaviorist notions were not accessible through introspection (Skinner, 1953).   Skinner's behavioral paradigm proposed, contrary to reflective and introspective perspectives, that only external observable and measureable aspects of human behavior should be studied, and from which, internal thought processes could be deduced.                                                                                                           

Contributions and Finest Hour

     Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, which states behavior is dictated by its consequences, is definitively his greatest contribution to modern psychology (Goodwin, 2008).  His operant theories continue to be used therapeutically in the treatment of phobias, addictive behaviors and in classroom and curriculum design.  He denied the existence of the human mind and considered it a separate entity from the body and he believed thoughts were private behaviors and should be analyzed in the same way as external, publicly observed behaviors.  An additional contribution pictured in virtually every psychology textbook is his Skinner box, created to improve the value of his scientific observations of animals.  Skinner received 19 honorary degrees from reputable institutes of higher learning including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Ohio Wesleyan Universities. 

Difficulties and Dissonance

             Although many of his peers thought he was arrogant and condescending, and some thought he failed to relate to American ideals and values, it was his consistently strong and austere beliefs and powerful advocacy for strict behaviorist notions that created this appearance (Goodwin, 2008).  Some of his ideas were radical and definitively contrary to American tradition, but most believed Skinner authentically sought to improve society and the well-being of humankind even in his controversial fictional experimental community referred to in his book, Walden II (Goodwin, 2008).  Skinner's family and friends considered him kind and considerate, and not the narrow-minded scientist as some have portrayed (Goodwin, 2008).  His vitality and love for life and its beauty were apparent in his love for his family and the opera, his poetic ability, and his acting endeavors that included membership in an organized group (Goodwin, 2008).  One caveat in the promotion of Skinner's work is to acknowledge clearly his underestimation of the power of reason and the human capacity to determine that which is right or wrong, (Modgil & Modgil, 1987).  Regardless of this warning, Skinner's work dominated American psychology for decades, and his work is undeniably some of the most significant in the history of the nation's young science (Goodwin, 2008).

Edward C. Tolman
General Scope of Tolman's Work

     The genesis of Tolman's work in behaviorism was in his senior year of college when he discovered the work of William James, and its effect impelled him to enroll as a graduate student of psychology (Goodwin, 2008).  Methods of introspection troubled him and he considered behaviorism a reasonable alternative to introspective tradition (Goodwin, 2008).  Tolman was significantly influenced by Gestalt theory and he criticized behaviorism's apparent denigration of psychological events to the mechanisms of stimulus and response (Tolman, 1948).  He is credited with introducing cognitive maps that he referred to as models of thought or schemas that people use in categorizing complex problems into a more understandable frame of reference (Tolman, 1948).  Gestalt influences are equally evident in his description of these maps as a way humans group pieces of information together to assist in the cognitive process of recall and learning new information (Tolman, 1948).  Although he is often criticized for producing a lack of specific applicable theory, he departed from the more austere Watsonian approach that defined the perspective by its mechanistic nature of stimulus and response and he prompted behaviorist researchers to rethink their position on the traditional behaviorist austerity (Goodwin, 2008)
Major Difficulties and Challenges
     One of Tolman's most difficult times was one of his most significant successes when, during the McCarthy era of the 1950s, the University of California sought his dismissal when he refused to sign a loyalty oath (Tolman, 1951).  He declined to sign, not because of his loyalty to the United States, or lack thereof, but on the principle that it was an infringement of his academic freedom (Tolman, 1951).  Tolman lead a resistance to the oath, and sued the university for his right to retain his academic position without signing the loyalty oath (Tolman, 1951).  He won the case, and anyone who had refused to sign the oath was reinstated (Tolman, 1951).  Many of his peers viewed the incident as a reflection of his authentic desire for freedom, fairness, and equality.
Tolman's Major Contributions

            Although Tolman's contributions seemed short-lived and unremarkable, his work created a significant step in the movement toward cognitive psychology (Goodwin, 2008).  Aside from his theories lacking specificity, Goodwin (2008) wonders if Tolman's most significant contribution was his persistent and passionate attitude toward research combined with his unusual perspective that allowed him complete focus on his work while "not taking himself too seriously" (p. 373).  Goodwin (2008) quotes Tolman in "Principles of Purposeful Behaviors" (1959):

      "the best that any individual scientist . . . can do seems to be to follow his own gleam and
      his own bent, however inadequate they may be.  In fact, I suppose that actually this
      is what we all do. In the end, the only sure criterion is to have fun.   And I have had
      fun" (p. 374).


     According to Goodwin (2008), behaviorism has been, and continues as a significant psychological force in American psychology.  Both Watson and Skinner postulated notions that continue to perpetuate new theories in a science that continues to struggle with its youth and its validity (Goodwin, 2008).  Behaviorism is considered an American perspective while European psychologists failed to embrace the perspective's application (Goodwin, 2008).  As previously encountered in Titchener's narrow view of structuralism, American's preferred a psychology that was applicable in daily life, not one that would solely hold up in a laboratory setting.  Some have suggested it was American's practical approach; although others consider it an element of American's self-centered need to address personal conditions (Goodwin, 2008).  Regardless of where the truth lies, the notions of these three men have set the parameters and guidance for the evolution of American psychology (Goodwin, 2008).

Buckley, K. W. (1989). Mechanical man: John Broadus Watson and the beginnings of behaviorism. Retrieved September 3, 2010, from

Goodwin, C.J. (2008). A History of Modern Psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Modgil, S., & Modgil, C. (1987). B.F. Skinner: consensus and controversy. Retrieved September 4, 2010, from

Rilling, M. (2000). John Watson's paradoxical struggle to explain Freud. American Psychologist, 55(3), 301-312. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.3.301

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Retrieved September 2, 2010, from

Tolman, E. C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review, 55(4), 189-208. doi: 10.1037/h0061626

Tolman, E. C. (1951). Report on the Controversy at the University of California. American Psychologist, 6(2), 69-70. doi: 10.1037/h0061873

Vargas, J. S. (2005). A brief biography of B. F. Skinner. B. F. Skinner Foundation. Retrieved September 02, 2010, from

No comments:

Post a Comment