The History of Psychology: Behaviorism

John B. Watson (1878-1958), as founder of behaviorism as a new school of thought, converged the anti-functionalist movements to a new type of psychology. Watson clearly defined his goals of the new science: “Psychology…is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior” (pg.259). He argued that “…the psychological object of observation…is the mental state itself” (pg.260). With the word “observation” he clearly defined the methodology of his science: his science is to be positivistic and to observe the mental activities on an experimental basis “…without making consciousness a special object of observation” (pg.265). His anti-introspective attitude becomes once again unmistakable when he wrote: “…The plans which I most favor…lead…to the ignoring of consciousness in the sense that that term is used by psychologists today” (pg.265).

Watson wanted to place psychology to the fields of natural sciences. Thus, psychology had to involve observable facts, which are, for psychology, the acts or the behavior. For this reason, Watson was not necessarily an advocator of mental measurements, since those tests measure indirectly and only the subject’s response to the test, but not what is happening “inside” the individual. Watson’s experiments and research was heavily based on stimulus-response pairs in various fashions. Probably the most unethical was to condition the fear of diverse objects on an 11-month-old baby. Afterwards, Mary Cover Jones offered research results demonstrating the opposite way of conditioning. Jones’ experiments have introduced a method of removing those conditioned fears. This method is known as Systematic Desensitization.

Towards the 1930s, Watson’s behaviorism “…took on some of the aspects of a religion” (pg.274). He wrote “…give me a dozen healthy infants…and I’ll guarantee to train them to become any type of specialist I might select” (pg.274). Making such statements resulted in positive echo from the public. One could suspect that Watson hit the society’s “nerve” of democratic value and especially the idea of equality of individuals. Watson’s idea was more than only psychology; more accurately, for him, it was a life style. “I am trying to dangle a stimulus in front of you…which…will gradually change this universe” (pg.275).

Holt and Lashley formulated two different principles and thereby routed behaviorism to another sub-area—the brain. Their Law of Mass Action brought the connection between the theoretical concepts and physically observable facts. The Law of Mass Action referred to the mass of the cortex. The more cortical tissue is available, the better the learning. Furthermore, the Principle of Equipotentiality stated that learning is distributed among all the parts of the cerebral cortex.

During the lifetime of Watson, one of his forceful opponents was McDougall (1871-1938). His main argument against behaviorism was that it was to simplistic to offer some valuable explanations to higher-level mental processes such as feelings.

Although Watson’s way to introduce his approach was radical, it gradually lead to wide acceptance within the field of psychology. Watson has guided the field of psychology to a more scientific and therefore more plausible and distinguished science. He deserves to be referred to as a pioneer of psychology.