link: behaviourism






theme: 'Behavioural psychology' or 'behaviourism' , less than a hundred years old and a product of European and American cultures, is a science of mind and behaviour which claims that learning is a matter of conditioning... that the 'mind' is virtually a equipotent response machine. For this reason behavioural theory was used to justify the behavioural or 'traditional' paradigm of education... behavioral psychology is an example of atomism

(photo John Watson founder of behavioural science)




paradigm of classical science...   scientific rationalism...   German Nazi rationalism...

founder John Watson...   Skinner...


Watson's views discredited...



Scientific paradigm and the mistrust of human nature... The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century produced a scientific worldview or 'paradigm' emphasizing cause and effect relationships i.e. reductionist science or 'reductionism'. The reductionist view is based on the conceptual dichotomy between the material and spiritual realms of human existence - the 'mind-body problem' of Descartes. The matter/spirit dichotomy was based on the assumption that the human individual - the 'natural' - and God - the 'supernatural' - are separate. The notion of the separation between natural and supernatural is the basis for the mistrust of the nature of the 'human personality' i.e. 'human nature'.


The behavioural paradigm views human nature in terms of human instincts and emotions which are assumed to be corrupt and have to be controlled in order to prevent the wickedness of human behaviour i.e. 'evil'.


Thinking and feeling are believed to be separate functions: 'scientific rationalismIn the reductionist paradigm, the mistrust of human nature leads to the notion that the intellectual capacity for objective reasoning or 'thinking' must be disconnected from emotion or 'feeling'. The relationship between thinking and feeling is not recognised.


It was assumed that the intellectual capacity of acquiring knowledge through 'logical deduction' did not involve feeling and subjective experience and was sufficient for the objective processing of information or 'reason'. The process of reasoning alone without subjective interpretation was known as 'scientific reasoning' or 'scientific rationalism'. Scientific rationalism is an approach that ignores the role of consciousness in the discovery of the nature of 'reality' or 'truth'.


German Nazi rationalism The dichotomous perception of human nature is the basis for the fallacious notion that scientific rationalism depends on the repression of natural instincts and emotions or 'drives'. The notion was opposed by the German Nazis who argued for the debasement of human reason and the exaltation of nature with regression to the earlier so-called 'natural' stages of human development. In their attempts to alleviate the social problems of their time they promoted their own version of 'rationalism'.  Hitler harnessed power by appealing to peoples' repressed naturesand forcing them to adapt to the needs of Nazi rationalism thereby demonstrating that the debasement of human reason results in the most barbaric forms of social domination.


The American reaction against German Nazi rationalism was expressed by its spokesman John B. Watson.


Behavioral psychology: founder John Broadus Watson (1878-1958)


In the early 1930s the brain sciences or 'neurosciences' were young and scientists were largely ignorant of the architecture of the nervous system and the mechanisms of brain functioning. At that time the accepted view of biological research was that the brain is infinitely 'plastic'. It was generally believed that 'function precedes form' i.e. for example the neurons innervating the arm become specified for innervation to the arm only after the arm has been used as an arm.


As spokesman for the American reaction against German Rationalism, Watson founded and popularized the new psychology known as behavioral psychology... In the 1920's he made the radical suggestion that the origins of human behaviour cannot be explained in terms of the workings of the brain but in terms of observable responses to stimuli which he believed to be the causes of the behaviour. The notion of the stimulus-response mechanism ('conditioned reflex') as the basis for behaviour became the premise on which he built and popularised his new psychology known as 'behavioral psychology'. Behavioural psychology claims that behavior is a matter of conditioned reflexes and that human behaviors are learned through conditioning. He defined as 'a purely objective experimental branch of natural science'... an objective 'science' of the psyche or 'mind'. As a purely objective science of human behaviour, the new behavioral psychology was known as 'behavioural science'.


Watson was the founder of the new psychology and science of the human psyche and human behaviour or 'behavioural science'. According to behavioural science human behaviours are learned through the mental process in which one stimulus is substituted  for another in a process of conditioned response... conditioned reflex (stimulus substitution or 'classical conditioning') i.e. 'conditioned learning' or 'conditioning'. The notion of conditioning became the basic premise for behavioral science - also known as 'behavioural psychology'.  Watson promoted the new behavioural psychology as the most objective science of human behaviour not involving subjective interpretation... "... a purely objective science of the mind which is an experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behaviour. Introspection forms no part of its methods." (Psychological Review 20:158) Watson transformed the psychology into a philosophy and a national movement with a mission i.e. 'behaviourism'.

Objective of behaviourism was to predict and control human behaviour The goal of behaviourism was to describe the individual or group in terms of behaviour patterns considered suitable for social and political purposes. Behavioral science was meant to emphasize overt behaviour and the objective was to predict and control human behaviour... which was believed to result from conditioned learning.  The belief in conditioning as the basis for human learning and behaviour was supported by the information available at the time.  

Watson's claim that function precedes form:

 Watson was the founder and popularizer of behavioral psychology the aim of which was to predict and control human behaviour.

  John Watson..."recognized spokesman for an American reaction against German Rationalism and the fragility of introspective evidence when taken as scientific evidence." (Gazzaniga The Social Brain)

Objective science of human behaviour: behavioural psychology or 'behavioural science'  With behaviourism  the so-called 'mind-body problem' vanished.

The behaviourists believed that there was no interaction between mind and body and so there was no need to explain it.

Behavioral psychologists attempted to formulate a science of the mind which was as objective as the physical sciences. They rejected the idea of a mind with its own intentions and purposes. In their efforts to formulate a purely objective science of human behaviour, behavioral psychologists discredited 'introspection' as too fragile to be used for scientific evidence. They claimed that since the idea of an internal mind with intentions and purposes was impossible to test with experimentation then so-called 'introspective evidence' did not belong to 'hard science' and should therefore be ignored. ( John Watson, Behaviorism New York: Norton, 1925)

Watson turned the study of psychology into a philosophy and the philosophy into a 'national movement with a mission' i.e. 'behaviorism'

 'Behaviorism' was extolled as an explanation for the learning process. Behavioral psychologists were intent on formulating an objective science of the mind. They emphasized the individual's overt behavior and reactions to environmental conditions. They had no use for introspection and ignored the study of subjective experience During the twentieth century, the field of educational psychology has been influenced primarily by behavioural psychology. When psychologists were trying to formulate a science of mind which was objective like the physical sciences, the founder of 'behaviorism' John B. Watson claimed that psychology was a purely objective science having no use for introspecton.

 The American reaction against German Nazi rationalism was expressed by its spokesman John B. Watson. 

This biological view was equivalent to the psychological view of the brain of the newborn as a clean slate or 'tabula rasa'.

 Radical behavourist view: Skinner (1904-1990) Thorndike was a behaviourist who believed that problem solving was a natter of random fumbling. His successor was the influential behavioural scientist of Harvard University Burrhus F. Skinner. ... theory of 'operant conditioning'.

Skinner author About Behaviorism made it a rule that the study of psychology should be limited to testable theories which examined the individual's behaviour in terms of their reactions to environmental conditions.  He described human behaviour in terms of stimulus-response mechanisms of conditioned learning. He developed highly controlled learning environments to insure that the learners developed the desired behavior. Skinner developed Watson's ideas into an elaborate system which made it possible for them to catalogue the 'laws' which determine the causal relations between stimuli and response. According to behaviorism the nature of the human personality or 'human nature' is the product of one's environment. It is not human nature but defective environments which are responsible for the harmful things that people do to themselves and each other

Since the concept of an internal mind with intentions and purposes was impossible to test with scientific experimentation then it did not belong to 'hard science'. There is no scientific proof of free will or psychological autonomy so these were considered to be mythical concepts.  



Skinner  developed highly controlled learning environments to insure that the learners developed the desired behavior...  made it a rule that the study of psychology be limited to testable theories which examined the person's reactions to the environmental conditions. The idea of an internal mind with intentions and purposes was impossible to test with experimentation and did not belong to 'hard science.'

B.F. Skinner of Harvard University developed Watson's ideas into an elaborate system which made it possible for them to catalogue the 'laws' which determine the causal relations between stimuli and response.

 The early behavioral psychologists defined their psychology in terms of 'mental and behavioural characteristics which result from past experience'... so from 'conditioning'They believed that conditioned behaviour must be controlled.

Watson's views have been discredited  Watson's views have been largely discredited on two major counts. The first is that the manipulation of reward and punishment for learning behaviours are not the predominant determinants of human behaviour. The second is that the structure of the nervous system depends on its interaction with the environment.



Winfred Hill, Learning: A Survey of Psychological Interpretations, New York: Harper and Row, 1990, 31-38

Behaviourism ignores the inner life  Behavioural psychology recognizes a limited number of normal 'consciousness states': the ordinary 'waking state' and two 'sleeping states' - the 'dreaming state' and the 'non-dreaming state'. The waking state is believed to be the most desirable dimension of consciousness and the most satisfactory for the individual's perception of reality. Having no use for introspection or subjective experience behaviourism is an approach to psychology which ignores the individual's consciousness state or 'inner life'. For this reason its description of human behaviour is oversimplified  and it provides a  very limited perspective of human nature which is defined in terms of the values for living i.e. 'human values'.     


Behaviourists focus on overt behaviour  The early 'behaviourists' defined behavioural psychology in terms of the individual's mental and behavioural characteristics resulting from conditioned learning. They argued that since behavioural psychology was a purely objective science, emphasis should be on the individual's reactions to environmental conditions and therefore on behaviour which was overt. Their methods of inquiry were not to include any form of introspective evidence. Since it is impossible to test with experiment an internal 'mind' with its own intentions and purposes, they discredited introspection as too fragile to be used as a source of scientific evidence. They believed that essentially all psychological functioning and phenomena can be codified and communicated through language and that it is only through intellectual analysis that psychological phenomena can be understood.


Behaviouists argued that since an individual's behaviour is the result of conditioning and a product of past experience then the behaviour has to be controlled. Acceptable behaviour is suitable for social and political purposes.

Effect of behaviourism on pedagogical methods The explanation of human behaviour in terms of stimulus-response mechanisms of overt conditioning, behavioural psychology was extolled as the explanation for the learning process. It was used to justify the 'traditional' teaching paradigm in which natural learning is confused with conditioned learning or 'schooling'. As a result of the emphasis on overt conditioning, it is generally believed that human learning behaviours can be shaped through the use of a punishment reward system of negative and positive reinforcement and that the individual is motivated by external motivating devices such as desire for 'success' and fear of 'failure' i.e. 'extrinsic motivation'


In the 'behavioural paradigm', conditioned learning behaviours are evaluated objectively in terms of extent of success in meeting  'learning outcomes' and measured objectively in terms of  'student performance' on 'objective tests' with the results expressed as numerical scores and 'grades'.


Implications for education: Behavioural paradigm... teaching as instruction... is inadequate as a teaching paradigm

  With their views of conditioned learning and the control of human behaviour, the behaviourists and their behavioral psychology have greatly influenced the field of educational psychology throughout the twentieth century. 'Traditional' educational theories have been based on the mechanistic and objective approach to educational research. The early behaviorists emphasized overt human behavior and conditioning. Education has been considered in the framework, paradigm, worldview of the behavioral sciences. It has been perceived in terms of establishing behavior patterns suitable for social and political purposes. The process of education has been perceived in terms of such behavioral concepts as conditioning, reward and punishment as well as behavioral outcomes. The learning process has been considered in terms of conditioning and conditioned behavior. Educational aims have been formulated in terms of conditioning human beings for desired purposes and behavioral outcomes. Teaching methods have been devised with a view to rewarding desirable learning behavior. Education has been institutionalized within this framework of behaviorism and  as institutionalized learning, education has become little more than a process of 'human engineering.'

The behavioural paradigm provides an oversimplified interpretation of human learning behaviour which is inadequate for the formulation of educational policies and teaching practices. It is inadequate because it ignores the 'role of the unconscious'. It ignores the natural emotional drives or 'deep meanings' of the inner life,  the individual's own goals and intrinsic motives for meaningful learning i.e. 'intrinsic motivation'. Intrinsically motivated learning is the basis for creative or 'adaptive' behaviour i.e. 'adaptability'.

  As a result of progress in the science of the brain or 'neuroscience', there is a fundamental shift from the behavioural paradigm to the paradigm of 'connectedness' or 'wholeness' i.e. 'holistic science'. Scientists of the various psychologies are investigating a wide range of human thought behaviour - 'cognitive behaviour modification', 'humanistic psychotherapy', 'existential psychotherapy' and 'transpersonal psychotherapy'. The recognition of the spiritual or 'transpersonal' dimension of human behaviour has significant implications for education. The new teaching paradigm is concerned with the nature of the learning process and ways to facilitate it. The 'facilitation of learning' is the function of the teacher as 'facilitator'. The function of  the facilitative teacher is to provide the right conditions for development of the whole personality i.e. the human motives for behaviour or 'human needs'. Human needs include the 'unconscious' or 'basic' psychological needs for self-esteem i.e. 'ego needs' and the growth needs for personality development and 'self-actualisation' - the spiritual needs or 'metaneeds'. Human needs must be met for development of moral consciousness or 'conscience'. The extent to which the needs are met determine the individual's consciousness state or 'motivational type'. There are different motivational types depending on the extent to which human needs have been met in the course of personality development or 'moral development'. Motivation by deficiency of ego-needs is deficiency or 'deficit motivation'. Motivation by sufficiency of ego-needs is motivation by growth needs or 'metamotivation'. Metamotivation engages the optimal functioning of the brain i.e. 'optimalearning'. Optimalearning in the result of needs-based education or 'holistic education'. Holistic education is concerned with both the conscious and the unconscious aspects of the learning process. This is critical for accurate evaluation and interpretation of social reality the prerequisite to intelligent decision-making and creative problem-solving which is required for appropriate adaptation to changing social conditions i.e. 'social intelligence'.


'Cognitive Revolution' started with invention of the computer see Noam Chomsky... Chomsky observed that all children learn language at about the same age throughthe same developmental stages and suggested that the brain is programmed for language ... evolution and natural selection.


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Winfred Hill  Learning: A Survey of Psychological Interpretations New York: Harper and Row, 1990


Watson, John. (1925)  Behaviorism New York: Norton


Watson, John. (1913)  'Psychology as a Behaviourist Views it'. Psychological Review volume 20, 158-177


Roger Sperry In the late 1950s Dr. Roger Sperry at the California Institute of Technology was interested in understanding whether or not the growth of nerves in the brain did depend on their interaction with the environment. He explored how nerve circuits grow in the brain and showed how intricate neural networks which manage and control the appendages are establised during development. He showed that the neural networks are carefully formed and built under the control of genetic mechanisms. They grow to their destination points in prespecified ways. How brains adopt psychological character depends not only on accidents of environmental events but also on their innate architecture. Sperry's experiments established the fact that the brain is structured by the genetic code. Sperry demonstrated that in the process of nerve growth, specific neuronal connections are made under the direction of the genome and not of the environment. In so doing he demonstrated that 'form precedes function' contrary to Watson's claim  that function precedes form. (Roger Sperry, "Chemoaffinity in the Orderly Growth of Nerve Fiber Patterns of Connections" Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 50, 1963: 703-710. Roger Sperry, "The Growth of Nerve Circuits," Scientific American 201, 1959: 68-75)

In the l960s and l970s Sperry utilised the new experimental system known as the 'split-brain system' in his left brain/right brain research experiments... 'cerebral hemispheres'.