A Psychological Perspective on Behaviorism

John Watson was born in 1878 and at the age of 16, went to college. He attained a Masters degree at the age of 21, from where he went on to be a school principal. His job lasted a year and then he moved on to attend school once more at the University of Chicago. There he studied philosophy under John Dewey. He was not satisfied with Dewey’s teachings so “he sought out a different advisor and settled on functionalist psychologist James Rowland Angell and physiologist Henry Donaldson” (Wikipedia, 2007). Taking what he learned from Angell and Donaldson, Watson began forming his own theories about behavior, eventually known as “behaviorism”. John B. Watson was soon to become known as the founder of the school of behaviorism in psychology. According to Wikipedia, “Behaviorism (also called learning perspective) is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things which organisms do- including acting, thinking and feeling- can and should be regarded as behaviors.” Watson’s theory was considered classical behaviorism otherwise known as classical conditioning. Watson’s view on behavior was that it was purely elicited. He believed that people did not experience emotions, that they were a response to some other stimuli. Watson’s goal for classical behaviorism was to create a more objective science. John Watson’s most famous experiment was that of little Albert.

Albert was a small child who was brought to work everyday by his parent, a laboratory worker. Everyday Albert would play with the lab rats to keep himself occupied. Watson viewed Albert’s activity with the rat as a stimulus. Albert was given the rat (stimuli) which elicited the play behavior. In the experiment, Albert was given the rat to play with, only now the sound of a hammer hitting a metal bar was introduced when the play behavior began. After seven presentations of the rat and the loud sound that scared Albert, a new response was noticed, crying, whenever the rat was introduced back to Albert (Watson & Rayner, 1920). “This fear response “generalized” to a new stimuli: Albert also showed fear (CR) when things (CS) similar to the fuzzy lab rat were presented (e.g., men with beards, dogs, fur coats, Santa Claus masks)” (Mclntyre, 2003). John Watson was an innovator as well as the father of the school of behaviorism. His work in classical conditioning continues on today in both psychology and in the zoological society.

B.F. Skinner, born in 1904, attended college at the Hamilton College in New York. He received a degree in English Literature in 1926 with the intention of becoming a writer. After a year of unsuccessful writing, “he chanced upon a copy of Bertrand Russell’s recently published book An Outline of Philosophy, in which Russell discussed the behaviorist philosophy of psychologist John B. Watson” (Wikipedia, 2007). After reading the book Skinner decided to seek admission to Harvard University as a psychology student.

Even as a student at Harvard, Skinner became a forward thinker. “While a graduate student, he invented the operant conditioning chamber and cumulative recorder, developed the rate of response as a critical dependent variable in psychological research, and developed a powerful, inductive, data-driven method of experimental research” (Wikipedia, 2007). After attaining his Ph.D. in psychology in 1931, Skinner went on to create his own school of thought known as Radical Behaviorism. Skinner’s theory suggests that behaviors are a result of the environment, that the behavior exhibited causes effects, whether positive or negative, that determines the probability of the behavior being reproduced. His theory also paid heavy attention to the schedule of reinforcement. The reinforcement schedule suggests that the more that the behavior is rewarded, the higher the chances that the behavior will reoccur whereas the absence of a reward decreases the probability of the behavior repeating itself. Skinner’s type of conditioning has become known as operant conditioning.It is true that both Watson and Skinner have similar outlooks on behavior however; they do have one major difference. “John B. Watson argued against the use of references to mental states, and held that psychology should study behavior directly, holding private events as impossible to study scientifically. Skinner rejected this position conceding the importance of thinking, feelings and ‘inner behavior’ in his analysis” (Wikipedia, 2007). In other words, Skinner believed everything was a behavior, including emotions and that they too should be considered.

Edward C. Tolman, born in 1886, received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1915 and “although Tolman firmly behaviorist in his methodology, he was not a radical behaviorist like B.F. Skinner” (Wikipedia, 2007). Tolman believed that learning could occur without a rein forcer (such as a food reward commonly used with animals in both classic and operant conditioning). He believed that what was learned could be used in other environments, that the behavior was not just an automatic response to the stimuli.

Tolman, even with a behaviorist view on his subjects, became known for his cognitive theory of learning, “he thought of learning as developing from bits of knowledge and cognitions about the environment and how organisms relate to it” (a2zpsychology, 2006). Tolman’s experiments also involved lab rats but Tolman studied the results of the rats running mazes without the reward. This study introduced the theory of latent learning (that learning can occur with the absence of a reward). This theory relates to humans as well. Tolman believed that humans learn without being aware of it, only when the information is needed, does the person become aware of the learning that occurred. Tolman also believed that motive drives behavior and only when there is a shift in the motive, will there be a disturbance of that behavior.

Eventually, Tolman’s theories led him to chart cognition. “Cognitive maps are a method we use to structure and store spatial knowledge, allowing the “mind’s eye” to visualize images in order to reduce cognitive load, and enhance recall and learning of information” (Wikipedia, 2007). So even though Tolman studied behavior, he came upon other mental theories.

In Conclusion

In comparison, John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, and Edward C. Tolman were all behaviorists of some sort. They all believed that behavior was the underlying reason that a person functioned the way that they did. It was only in the details that they differed. Watson, a classical behaviorist, believed that there was a connection between response and environment. According to Mclntyre 2003), “Prominent researchers identified with this orientation noted that an event that formally did not elicit a behavior (known as a neutral stimulus) can be made to do so by pairing (presenting) it with an unconditioned (already present) stimulus. This newly effective stimulus (and the responses to it) are said to be “conditioned” (trained).”

Watson’s theories continue to be practiced in modern psychology. When a patient has difficulty with certain behavior’s, many psychologists will try to reverse it with behavior modification. For example, a person with a fear of planes may go to a psychologist who will then expose the person to pictures of planes, then move to exposing the person to a virtual flight, then take the person to an airport, on the second trip to the airport, the person will stand in a terminal, the next visit it may be to sit on a plane, then eventually, to take a short flight. All these exercises would gradually desensitize the person to their fears, thus changing the behavior. Skinner’s theory was a bit different from Watson’s in that behavior was a result of consequence. “He rejected the idea of inner causes for behavior, and placed emphasis on observable behavior as opposed to the theorizing, based on unverifiable evidence, often done by others” (Mclntyre, 2003). He believed that the reappearance of a behavior was based solely on the consequence received at the time the behavior was presented.

Skinner also believed that a schedule of reinforcement could help or hinder the progression of the behavior. If the behavior was rewarded every single time, the behavior would eventually extinguish. Skinner believed that behaviors still needed to be driven; that there needs to be motivation in order for the behavior to occur again. Skinner’s theory is still a practiced psychology. His theory however, is used more frequently among animal trainers. Animal trainers use operant conditioning to elicit responses from animals. Trainers will usually take a natural behavior and turn it into a solicited behavior. Take for example, the dolphin that jumps out of the water. In a controlled environment, that behavior would be rewarded when it is observed. Eventually the animal’s behavior would be paired with a hand gesture or a whistle and be rewarded with a fish. After several pairings the animal will associate the whistle with the jump and the reward, this it has been conditioned to produce a behavior motivated by reward. Finally, Tolman’s theory of behavior, learning could occur even with the absence of a reward and could happen without knowledge that learning occurred. However, one of Tolman’s greatest discoveries had to do with the cognitive map.

While Tolman researched behavior, he noted the thought processes that occurred within his subjects. This lead Tolman to be seen as the father of cognitive theory. His cognition map is used in modern psychology as well as a number of other professions. Watson. Skinner and Tolman were all “fathers” in the field of psychology. Their ideas contributed to the way that behavior is seen. Their theories have helped to create many forms of behavior modification as well as the processes that occur during thought. Although psychology’s theories grow and change daily, these three psychologists’ theories will maintain their values in modern psychology.


A2zpsychology (2006). Edward C. Tolman (1886-1959). Retrieved on November 23, 2007 from http://www.a2zpsychology.com/great_psychologists/edward_c_tolman.htm

B.F. Skinner (2007). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on November 24, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=B._F._Skinner&oldid=173748857

Cognitive Map (2007). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on November 24, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cognitive_map&oldid=171599404

Edward C. Tolman (2007). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on November 24, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Edward_C._Tolman&oldid=170339259

John B. Watson. (2007) In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on November 24, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_B._Watson&oldid=172124112

Mclntyre, T. (2003). The History of Behaviorism. Retrieved on November 23, 2007 from http://www.behavioradvisor.com/BehavoristHistory.html

Watson, J., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Retrieved on November 25, 2006 from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/emotion.htm