Behaviorism vs. Gestalt Psychology

John B. Watson (1878-1958), the father of behaviorism, was no longer active in academia, but there were three major figures vying for leadership: Clark L. Hull (1884-1952), E. C. Tolman (1886-1959), and B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). All of these men were committed to psychology as a science, which at that time meant Newtonian science. The philosophical outlook of Newtonianism was realism. A scientist was someone who not only sought to empirically validate his or her theory through a “control and prediction” logic of a hypothesis corresponding to “observed reality,” but a restriction was placed on the kind of theory a “genuine” scientist might use to explain any observed findings. All causal analysis had to be done in terms of mechanistic or “efficient” causation—the sort of thing that takes place when one billiard ball bumps into another; the first ball thrusts the second along. The stimulus-response (S-R) sequence in Watsonian behaviorism is conceived in a similar antecedent-consequent fashion.

Problems among the behaviorists arose over the nature of the mechanistic process. Tolman had been influenced by the Gestalt psychologist, Kurt Koffka (1886-1941). Gestalt psychology had been founded by Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), who was supported in this effort by Koffka, Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967), and to a lesser extent, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). Gestalt theory draws on continental philosophy, which emphasizes organization, totality, and the essential quality of things. The British followed a Lockean, bottom-up strategy of explanation, while the gestaltists pursued a more Kantian, top-down phenomenological approach. British empiricism called for observing reality, which was presumably “there” to be concretely measured. Phenomenologists believed that the observer contributed to what was under observation, that there was no completely free-standing reality “there” to measure in the first place.

The 1920s was the period when Gestalt psychology reached its zenith at Berlin University, where Kohler and Wertheimer were located. But after being repressed and threatened by the Nazis, the gestaltists immigrated from Germany to America before war broke out. Unfortunately, their views never caught on in American universities. They had better luck among applied psychologists like Carl Rogers (1902-1987). Even so, Tol-man borrowed enough from Koffka to generate a conflict with Hull. Tolman had modified Watson’s simple S-R habit formulation to suggest that there was a “cognitive map” that animals (white rats) acquired while learning to do things like running a maze. He backed his argument with empirical research. The cognitive map was said to “mediate” between the S and the R. Tolman referred to his approach as purposive behaviorism. The cognitive map “pictured” the goal box for the animal, where food and water could be found at the end of the maze. Tolman believed that an animal’s improvement in maze running from trial to trial was empirical proof of purpose.

Hull found a way of explaining purpose as a mechanistic response in its own right. He claimed that in repeatedly running to attain the reward (food, water) at the end of a maze, animals began making “eating-like” responses even before they got to the goal box. This gave the appearance of purpose, but it was actually nothing but an anticipatory goal response. a fraction of the complete sequence of “running to eat.” In other words, the animals were already getting in position to eat in running faster as they came closer to the goal box, and made head rotations, salivated, and so forth even before the goal had been reached. Such actions appear to be purposive but are merely learned responses, as when a human being begins putting silverware in place, picking up the napkin, looking about in expectation that food will soon be served. Such actions are an aspect of the total behavior called dining and they are responses to stimuli, not purposes. The debate over whether behavior was purposive and what “purpose” could mean was never solved, and in fact. Skinner was to add a new dimension to the issue.

Skinner favored Hull’s position that human behavior lacked true purpose, but he reached this conclusion from a totally different approach. Skinner frequently said that although he was a behaviorist he was not an S-R theorist. He did not accept the view that responses were “stimulated” by antecedent stimuli. This was the traditional understanding of a behavioral sequence dating back to work by the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), on elicitation of salivation in the dog. Skinner (1931) argued that behavioral responses were not brought on by such elicitation in the natural state. Rather, an animal’s behavior consisted of “operant” responses which actually acted (operated) on the environment to bring about contingently reinforcing states of affairs or not! The fox must run to catch the hare if it is to eat. Looked at externally or extraspectively, it appeared that the animal was operantly responding for a purpose. But Skinner denied this, saying instead that operant responses were emitted and then contingently reinforced by the environment. When Skinner later extended his theory to the behavior of human beings he argued the same way, including the claim that language (verbal behavior) was also carried on without purpose. We emit or say things and believe things that have previously been reinforced by our environment. Our verbal usage is shaped, so that even though we may say “I intend to drink some water” just before doing so, this is not an intentional, purposive action. We are merely emitting what has been shaped into our behavior earlier when we were thirsty and learned how to express this need.

In the mid-1950s there was an extremely influential research project carried out which seemed to prove that people participating in experiments could be manipulated linguistically like this without being aware of what was taking place (Greenspoon, 1955). A host of researchers followed up to show that, in point of fact, Pavlovian (classical) or Skinnerian (operant) conditioning seemed to require both an awareness and a willingness by participants to comply with what the experimental design suggested to them before a conditioning effect could be demonstrated (Brewer. 1974). Indeed, a subject who was aware of what was going on in the experiment could negate the expected sequence in what definitely appeared to be an intentional manner (Page, 1972). This issue of conditioning with or without awareness and cooperation is still being debated, but at the very least, the confident attitude once expressed by John Watson that he could shape people any way he wanted them to be is no longer voiced by behaviorists.

Actually, something of this same variety occurred in work with lower animals where it was found that behavioral conditioning is constrained by an animal’s evolutionary history. Some rather intelligent animals (such as the pig) cannot be conditioned to go against what “comes naturally” (like rooting) in their behavior (see Breland & Breland. 1961). In the reverse direction, chimpanzees were found capable of linguistic communication with humans through use of hand signals (Griffin, 1981). But, gradually, the area known as comparative psychology began to wane as behavioral accounts shifted more to sociocultural explanations. There was a great cry for “ecologically correct” (lifelike) research. The traditional Darwinian reduction of behavior to biological structures that traced back in evolutionary history to lower animals gave way to new advances in genetics, DNA, and related hereditary considerations. Animal laboratories in academic centers declined noticeably in the 1960s. Even so, biological influences on behavior continue to be studied in what has become the burgeoning field of biopsychology. The older, Darwinian rationale for comparative psychology has given way to an even more assertive—and controversial—theory known as sociobiology (Wilson, 1975). In fact, this view holds that psychology will one day be explained away by biology. Biological perspectives in psychology have spawned different disciplines in psychology such as biological psychology, physiological psychology, psychobiology, and neuroscience. Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the relationship between the mind and the brain (Urbach, 1997). All of these disciplines are concerned with the biological mechanisms underlying human thought and behavior in the form of sensing, synthesizing, integrating, and responding to the environment.

In the 1920s, Jean Piaget had initiated a series of cognitive studies on the acquisition of knowledge in children. He relied on logical analysis rather than on behavioristic mechanisms in his cognitive theory. As a result, his work was generally ignored until the 1960s when, along with the questioning of behavioristic theory, there was a growing sympathy among psychologists for cognitive speculations. Piaget seemed to it the bill, and his work has had a significant influence in the fields of educational and developmental psychology. Piaget had postulated a developmental sequence of four major stages through which he believed children sequentially matured. In recent years this stage theory has been brought into question. but the influence of Piaget’s thought on psychology continues to be felt— especially in educational circles.