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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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J. B. Watson was by no means the first to see the
importance for psychology of the objective study of
behavior. William McDougall, in his Physiological
in 1905, had defined psychology as “the
positive science of the conduct of living creatures” and
had resisted the tendency to describe it as the science
of experience or of consciousness. In 1908, in his Intro-
duction to Social Psychology,
he explicitly introduced
the term “behavior” claiming that psychology was “the
positive science of conduct or behavior.” He main-
tained that psychology must not regard introspective
description of the stream of consciousness as its whole
task. This had to be supplemented by comparative and
physiological psychology relying largely on objective
methods, the observation of man and animals under
all possible conditions of health and disease. Similarly
in 1911 W. B. Pillsbury, a pupil of Titchener, published
his Essentials of Psychology in which he claimed that
psychology should be defined as “the science of human
behavior.” But neither McDougall nor Pillsbury put
forward a puritanical or restrictive position. They were
merely arguing that the objective study of animals and
of physiology had a lot to contribute to psychology.
It was therefore unwarranted to give a definition of
psychology which excluded their findings from the

What was distinctive about Watson's view of psy-
chology was what it excluded rather than what it
included; for McDougall himself was a devotee both
of physiology and of animal studies. Watson was deter-
mined to rule out introspection as a legitimate method
of obtaining data and to banish “consciousness” and
other mentalistic terms from the conceptual scheme
of his new science. What led him to this methodolog-
ical puritanism?

1. Animal Psychology. From the time of Darwin's
Origin of the Species (1859) and Expression of the
Emotions in Man and Animals
(1872) there had been
a growing interest in the behavior of animals, birds,
and insects in order to test his hypothesis of the con-
tinuity between animals and man. In 1872, for instance,
Spalding had studied swallows in order to determine
whether they learnt to fly by imitation or whether they


had an inborn tendency to do so. Between 1879 and
1904 Fabre had made a long series of observations on
insects to determine how much of their behavior was
due to instinct. The thesis that intelligence is continu-
ous between animals and men was examined by
Romanes, Lloyd Morgan, and Loeb on the basis of
observations of animal behavior. But the decisive step,
from the point of view of the rise of behaviorism, was
taken when in 1896 E. L. Thorndike introduced cats,
dogs, chickens, and monkeys into the laboratory and
carried out experiments on them in order to determine
how they learn. From the gradual, though irregular,
improvements in the learning curves Thorndike in-
ferred that the animals could not learn by “insight”
or by reasoning. Imitation was ruled out by experi-
mental controls. “Trial and error” seemed the only
possibility left. The animals, he suggested, went
through a variety of responses. Gradually the unsuc-
cessful responses were eliminated and the successful
ones were stamped in.

Thorndike believed that there were two basic laws
which explained this process. The law of exercise
maintained that connections were strengthened by use
and weakened by disuse; the law of effect maintained
that connections, which were rewarded and thus led
to satisfaction, were strengthened. This was not a par-
ticularly original theory, as the principles employed
were a commonplace in the associationist tradition.
What was original was his application of such princi-
ples to the connections between stimulus and response
and the experimental evidence from his laboratory
which he provided to support his view.

Watson, significantly, started his academic career in
philosophy, but switched to psychology during his
period of graduate study at the University of Chicago,
and devoted himself to animal psychology. In 1908
he became professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins
University and in 1912 he launched his polemic in some
public lectures which were eventually published in
1914 in his book entitled Behavior. The vehemence
of his attack was to be explained partly by his resent-
ment of the grudging and slightly condescending atti-
tude of most orthodox psychologists of the day towards
animal studies. Instead of putting a reasoned case, as
did McDougall and Pillsbury, for the importance of
animal studies and physiology for psychology, Watson
pointed a derisive finger at the state of introspective
psychology. “Today” proclaimed Watson “the behav-
iorist can safely throw out a real challenge to the
subjective psychologists—Show us that you have a
possible method, indeed that you have a legitimate
subject-matter” (Watson [1924], p. 17). This jibe was
occasioned by the “imageless thought” controversy
amongst introspectionists and other examples of diver
gent results obtained in different laboratories by well-
trained introspectionists. Watson confidently asserted
that psychology could only become a science, instead
of a debating society, if the methods were used which
had proved so successful in animal laboratories.

2. Inductivism. The second positive starting point
of behaviorism was the view about scientific method
which Watson shared with the introspectionists whom
he attacked. Wundt and Titchener, the giants of the
introspective school, had been vehement in their am-
bition to base psychology on properly controlled ex-
periments. The general appeal to look into oneself in
order to decide upon psychological questions, which
one can find, for instance, in the controversies between
Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, was not good enough.
Introspective observers had to be carefully trained.
Moreover Titchener argued that they had to be trained
to distinguish pure experience as “existences” from the
“meaning” which it has for men in their ordinary lives.
Unless this could be done psychology would never
arrive at any pure data on which a science of mind
could be created.

This presupposed a certain view of scientific method,
dating back to Bacon, which is often called “induc-
tivism” or “observationalism” (Popper, 1962). The
leading idea of this conception can be summed up in
Titchener's own words: “We are agreed, I suppose, that
scientific method may be summed up in the single word
'observation'; the only way to work in science is to
observe those phenomena which form the subject-
matter of science” (Titchener [1908], p. 175). Watson
himself had basically the same conception of scientific
method. To quote him: “You will find, then, the behav-
iorist working like any other scientist. His sole object
is to gather facts about behavior—verify his data—
subject them both to logic and mathematics (the tool
of every scientist)” (Watson [1924], p. 7). Watson's
basic objection to introspectionism was that it was an
attempt to form a science on very unreliable data about
which experimenters could reach no agreement, and
which purported to reveal facts about a nonexistent
subject matter, namely consciousness. If psychologists
were to start from data provided by rats in mazes they
would at least have a chance of developing a science
on the basis of publicly observable data.

When it came to making generalizations Watson
again showed his inductivist allegiance; for the Baco-
nian view was that generalizations should never go
beyond the data. They should simply record correla-
tions between observables. Thus Watson was as unin-
terested in physiological speculation about intervening
processes as he was hostile to any recourse to unob-
servable mental entities or processes to explain what
could be observed. One should, of course, quantify the


data if possible and operate mathematically on it. But
this was merely a way of arriving at correlations.

3. Associationism. The correlations which Watson
discerned were again part and parcel of the introspec-
tionist tradition, namely, the laws of association. He
did not reject the postulate of instincts, but accorded
them less and less importance in comparison with the
influence of the environment via learning. In his theory
of learning he rejected Thorndike's law of effect be-
cause the concept of “satisfaction” was mentalistic. He
relied on the law of exercise under which Thorndike
had subsumed the old principles of association such
as frequency and recency. He also minimized the im-
portance of the brain and of central processes in learn-
ing. All behavior, he believed, was sensori-motor, con-
sisting of stimulus-response units. It was initiated by
the stimulation of a sense organ and terminated in a
muscular or glandular response.

Thorndike produced conclusive evidence to demon-
strate the inadequacy of the law of exercise as a suffi-
cient explanation of learning, but Watson kept his head
above water by incorporating into his theory the pos-
tulate of the conditioned response which Pavlov had
first put forward in 1902. This, together with the con-
cept of reinforcement, gave a more acceptable account
of the type of strengthening of connections which
Thorndike had covered by his mentalistic law of effect.
But it was only gradually that the work of Pavlov and
of Bekhterev, who put forward a similar theory of
associated reflexes at about the same time, became
known in America. It seems as if Watson was familiar
with the Russian work from about 1914 onwards but
he only gradually grasped its importance for his theory.
By 1924 he had come to entertain the view that the
conditioned response might afford the key to all habit
formation. Other behaviorists, however, took over the
conditioned response with alacrity. Indeed, in a modi-
fied form, it kept their theory going for about a quarter
of a century as will later be explained.

If Watson had stuck rigidly to what could be exter-
nally observed he would have severely restricted his
“subject-matter.” However he claimed that thinking
could also be studied because it consisted in implicit
speech reactions or in subvocal talking. The implicit
behavior, which constitutes thinking, becomes substi-
tuted for overt manipulation. The child begins by
learning to name things that he is doing while he is
doing them, speech being a series of conditioned re-
sponses. He then learns to do this inaudibly and as a
substitute for doing them. Thinking is therefore surro-
gate behavior.

Watson also contrived to include emotions within
his subject matter by claiming that they consisted in
implicit visceral reactions. He espoused the James-
Lange theory, while disregarding the introspective
feelings which James claimed to be consequent on the
visceral changes. In his actual studies of emotion, how-
ever, he rather ignored their visceral source and con-
centrated on their overt manifestations. He singled out
three emotions—rage, fear, and love—as being innately
determined, and suggested that all others are acquired
by conditioning. He achieved some fame, or notoriety,
by showing how small children can be conditioned to
develop aversions to harmless animals like rabbits and
white rats, if their appearance is associated with a
noxious stimulus such as a loud noise.

Thus on the slender basis of the conditioning of
reactions such as salivation and simple movements, of
a bizarre and quite dubious theory of thinking, and
of a few interesting experiments in conditioning chil-
dren's emotional reactions, Watson made optimistic
claims for what could be achieved in education and
social life generally by a process of systematic and
benevolent conditioning. His doctrine fitted well with
the thinking of a nation one of whose basic problems
was to create American citizens out of a multitude of
immigrants of diverse origins, and who, in their ap-
proach to life combined a pragmatic outlook with a
high level of technical skill, and a friendly extroverted
disposition with an optimistic attitude towards the