Behaviorism

Although behaviorism has diverse intellectual roots going back into the nineteenth century, the name John B. Watson (1878-1958) has become eponymous with the idea of behaviorism. Trained as an animal psychologist at the University of Chicago, Watson gave a series of lectures in 1913, which in its published form was to become known as the behaviorist manifesto. The manifesto rejected the study of consciousness as unscientific; it claimed that to be a natural science, psychology must be dedicated to the study of observable behaviors that represent the human organisms’ adjustments to their environment. Watson described a new psychology dependent upon the controlled conditions of the laboratory where responses could be predicted on the basis of the particular stimuli presented. Behaviorism, then, was grounded on the wholesale rejection of the idea that mental processes determine behavior along with affirmation of the notion that behavioral adaptations follow lawful patterns of acquisition and extinction. Habit and learning were the core foci of behaviorists’ observations.

After a hiatus created by World War I. psychologists began to appreciate behaviorism’s objectivity as well as its practical utility. Within a decade there emerged numerous variations; for instance, “methodological behaviorism” did not reject notions of consciousness but conceded that conscious experience did not lend itself to scientific scrutiny, while “strict behaviorism” denied that any such consciousness exists (Leahey, 1997). By the following decade, behaviorism dominated and psychologists had generated complex theories of learning that then were compared and empirically tested.

Behaviorism appeared to be the perfect solution to the diverse desiderata of American psychologists. The theory’s insistence that only observable actions be studied fulfilled the desire for psychology to be a science in that it met the criteria of describing, predicting, and controlling observable phenomena. Behaviorism also manifested functionalists’ interests in understanding the organism’s adaptation to the environment. Third, it provided researchers with objects whose analysis could be standardized and shared among the rapidly expanding numbers of researchers: on this count it was far better than the apparently fuzzy and idiosyncratic experiences of consciousness. Finally, behaviorism promised to deliver a remarkably useful science. Its anticipation of revealing laws of habit formation and learning was exceptionally well suited to the reform ideologies of social control. In fact its mechanistic model of behavior adjustment combined with its implicit social hierarchy (of experts and the unknowing) has been found to buttress the emerging corporate culture of America (O’Donnell, 1985).

Behaviorism’s distinctly American qualities extended even further than the mandates for social control: behaviorism also contained, perhaps paradoxically, a faith in human self-improvement. Behaviorists’ popular writings conveyed a spirit of perfectibility. Watson even published an account of a utopia based on behaviorist principles that described the human betterment that could ensue in a behavioristically managed society. Watson described his utopia in an explicit treatise on ideals of perfection as well as the behavioral means to attain that end, yet his famous study of little Albert exemplifies faith in human improvement. The experimental conditioning of a young boy to fear certain stimulus objects not only illustrated the acquired nature of neurosis and irrational behaviors but also intimated the possibilities for cultivating more rational and socially productive beings.