link: Watson

                   JOHN B. WATSON (1878-1958): FOUNDER OF BEVAVIOURAL PSYCHOLOGY

                                                            OR 'BEHAVIORISM'

theme: 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)

John Broadus Watson 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 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'.

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.

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: 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.

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

 The influential behavioral scientist, B.F. Skinner, 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.'

Radical behavourist view: Skinner  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' (in the sense of the word used by Buddhist tradition).

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.

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'. 

Implications for education  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.'

 Top of page  /  Introduction  /  Homepage

references:

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

______________________________________________________________________________