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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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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
future.