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Old Monday, July 25, 2011
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Default The Rise and the Fall of the Behaviorists

"I've had only one idea in my life —the idea of having my own way.’Control' expresses it. The control of human behavior. In my early experimental days it was a frenzied, selfish desire to dominate. I remember the rage I used to feel when a prediction went awry. I could have shouted at the subjects of my experiments, 'Behave, damn you! Behave as you ought!' "
B.F.Skinner,Walden Two (1948)

The Behaviorist notion states that for Psychology to be a science it must have as its subject matter only and only what is observable and measurable. An individual’s thoughts can never be measured scientifically and thus can never be a part of an exact, scientific and objective discipline. This essay aims to explore the rise of Behaviorism, that is, its intellectual history, its main postulations, its inevitable fall, and the notions of learning which followed the behaviorist theories. The historical roots of Behaviorism extend to the associationist theories of the British Empiricists and various early schools of psychology; although most of these schools never had a great deal in common with Behaviorism, it can be argued that the viewpoint of behaviorism evolved from the ideas put forward by the associationists and early experimental psychologists.

According to Hergenhahn the first school of thought in Psychology was not Structuralism, in fact it was Wilhelm Wundt’s (1832-1920) Voluntarism, so called because Wundt placed emphasis on the idea of “will”, that is the individual’s capability to choose what he or she attends to and which behaviors are adopted and undertaken, thus implying that all behaviors are motivated. Wundt aimed to study not only consciousness but also the underlying principles of mental processes using the method of introspection. He set out to establish a field of experimental psychology and succeeded in setting up the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in the year 1879, called “The Institute for Experimental Psychology”. Although this was perhaps the first concrete attempt to establish a Science of Psychology, John B. Watson, the father of Behaviorism, criticized Wundt’s attempt in his essay “Behaviorism-the Modern Note in Psychology” (1929) saying that, “It was the boast of Wundt's students, in 1869, when the first psychological laboratory was established, that psychology had at last become a science without a soul. All that Wundt and his students really accomplished was to substitute for the word "soul" the word "consciousness." Watson wrote that just like the “soul”, consciousness has no physical basis; it cannot be empirically measured and thus cannot be a part of a science of psychology.

Voluntarism laid the groundwork for a scientific psychology and Edward Bradford Titchener’s (1867-1927) school of Structuralism took it one step further. Structuralism as the name suggests focused on the structure of the mind. Titchener aimed to study the basic elements of consciousness, for he believed that once these elements were identified, the complexities of how they combine to form intricate experiences can be determined. Titchener proposed putting aside theorizing about consciousness and focus only on describing mental events that resulted from observable stimuli. Titchener’s rejection of theorizing about unobservable mental events took the field of psychology closer to the viewpoint of behaviorism.

The next generation of psychologists which had a profound influence on behaviorism were the Functionalists. William James is credited as the forerunner of the functionalist school of thought; other prominent functionalists include James Rowland Angell and Harvey A. Carr. According to the functionalists, psychology should only be concerned with, “what the mind does and how does it do it” (Schultz, 2000). This emphasis on functions of the mind eventually led to the question of applying psychology to everyday life and controlling behavior, which was one of the main concerns of the behaviorists. But perhaps the most obvious connection of behaviorism to functionalism is the study of the animal mind or animal psychology. Functionalists became interested in studying the animal mind as a result of Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Darwin in his revolutionary book On Origins of the Species wrote, “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” And thus began the interest to study the animal mind as a means of learning about behavior.

The main animal studies that had a profound and direct influence on behaviorism were those carried out by Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927) and Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949). All three of them were basically associationists. The theory of Associationism put forward by philosophers like (1588-1679), John Locke (1632-1704) and David Hume (1711-76) proposes that, “that the mind is composed of elements usually referred to as sensations and ideas, which are organized by means of various associations.” (Boeree, 2000). The associationists suggested that complex behavior is learnt as a result of associations between perceptual experience and thoughts. The behaviorists put forward a similar notion that behavior is learnt when an association is formed between a stimulus from the environment and an overt reaction.
The leading proponent of learning through association was the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936). Pavlov was the first one to conduct laboratory based studies of associations between stimulus and response for glandular secretions. He gave the concept of ‘Conditioned Reflexes’ that is, reflexes that are dependent on the formation of an association between stimulus and response (Schultz, 1996). At the same time as Pavlov another Russian physiologist Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927) was also studying stimulus and response associations, but his work focused on motor conditioning response. Bekhterev’s main discovery was ‘Associated Reflexes’, the idea that a reflex can be elicited by a stimulus that has been associated with an unconditioned stimulus (Schultz, 1996). Pavlov and Bekhterev’s work helped objectify psychology and reallocate the focus from philosophical associationism to a more scientific study of associations between an organism’s environment and its behavior. Another form of associationism called Connectionism was put forward by Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949). According to Thorndike, “learning is connecting”. He set out to study the connection between situations and their responses, but he chose to do so using animal subjects in controlled situations. Thorndike’s objective methods of study were a significant input for behaviorism; in fact he is credited with establishing the groundwork for modern Behaviorism by Watson himself.

After all these years of attempts to give psychology a more scientific base, the stage was finally set in the year 1913, for one John B. Watson, to declare that the field of psychology had no place whatsoever for an abstract concept like the mind. Watson in his article titled, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it” for the first time explicitly criticized not only the subject matter but also the methods of structuralism and functionalism. He wrote that, “What we need to do is to start work upon psychology, making behavior, not consciousness, the objective point of our attack”. Although Watson was criticized for his deterministic views, his theories nonetheless revitalized the discipline of psychology and untangled it from the web of abstract concepts.

By 1930 the influence of behavioral psychology was undeniable. According to Schultz the first stage of behaviorism, the Watsonian behaviorism lasted from 1913 to 1930. The second stage called the Neo-behaviorism lasted from 1930 to 1960. The neo-behaviorists made some major contributions, one of them being Edward Chace Tolman (1886-1959), his Purposive Behaviorism basically focuses on goal oriented behavior. Tolman suggested that there are some “intervening variables” between stimulus and response. These intervening variables are factors within the organism and are actual determinants of behavior. In other words Tolman modified the behaviorist theory of S-R (stimulus-response) to S-O-R (stimulus-organism-response). Another prominent neo-behaviorist was Edwin Ray Guthrie (1886-1959). Guthrie proposed the concept of ‘one trial learning’, according to which a single pairing of stimulus and response is enough to form a connection. What separates Guthrie from other behaviorists is his focus on motor responses rather than complete acts. Acts were a series of movements and Guthrie noted that it were the movements that were learnt and not acts. From the neo-behaviorists Clark Leonard Hull (1884-1952) maintained a strictly objective and mechanistic theory of behaviorism. Due to his training in logic and mathematics he aimed to describe psychology mathematically. He devised the hypothetico-deductive method in which suppositions are formed from which experimentally testable conclusions can be drawn. Hull’s theory is based on reduction of a primary drive or law of primary reinforcement and habit strength which is a function of the number of reinforcements (Schultz, 2000). The key figure in the neo-behaviorist stage was B.F Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner’s brand of behaviorism had no place for theory in formal learning; he dealt only with describing observable behavior and focused on responses. His major concepts include operant conditioning which involves behavior of an organism in absence of a detectable stimulus. In operant conditioning the organism operates on the environment and is not passive as in the case of Pavlov’s classical conditioning. Skinner also studied the problem of varied reinforcement and its effect on behavior. He gave the reinforcement schedules, that is, “conditions involving various rates and times of reinforcements.” Skinner’s colossal contribution to the school of behaviorism remains unrivalled and surpasses other forms of behavioral psychology.

For nearly fifty years behaviorism remained the dominant trend in psychology, it finally came under attack when psychologists realized the folly of completely disregarding the cognitive processes. With this reaffirmation of the cognitive processes began the third stage of behaviorism; the socio-behaviorist stage. The socio-behaviorists were ‘methodological behaviorists’ as their methods and techniques were those of the ‘radical behaviorists’, but unlike them, they did not exclude the cognitive processes from the subject matter of psychology. One such socio-behaviorist was Albert Bandura (1952- ). Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory retains the behaviorist concepts but makes room for cognitive processes. His main concepts include vicarious reinforcement; behavior can be learnt through indirect reinforcement or by observing others, self efficacy that is one’s sense of competency and reciprocal determinism the idea that the environment and the person both influence each other.

In the year 1912 when the Behaviorism movement was taking hold in America, in Germany a different kind of protest was being voiced against the schools of structuralism and functionalism. This movement, which would later come to be known as Gestalt psychology, accepted the role of consciousness in psychology but criticized Wundt and Titchener’s attempt to study consciousness by breaking it down into elements and atoms. The basic tenets of Gestalt psychology can be summarized in one line; “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. The Gestalt theory proposes that learning consists of the grasping of a structural whole and not just a mechanistic response to a stimulus. Along with Kohler and Koffka, Max Wertheimer was one of the principal proponents of Gestalt theory. The focus of Gestalt theory was the ideas of “grouping”, that is, characteristics of stimuli cause us to interpret a visual field or problem in a certain way (Wertheimer, 1922). The primary factors that determine grouping were: (1) proximity (2) similarity (3) closure (4) simplicity. These factors were called the laws of organization and were explained in the context of perception and problem-solving. Gestalt theory applies to all aspects of human learning, although it applies most directly to perception and problem-solving.
Gestalt psychology’s emphasis on cognitive processes and the socio-behaviorists modification of radical behaviorism gave rise to the cognitive movement in psychology. The Cognitive school of Psychology also contributed a great deal to the theories of human learning. A pioneer in cognitive psychology was the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget whose studies on how children learn are still influential in developmental psychology. Piaget acknowledged that environment plays a role in learning, but he focused his attention on the changes that took place in the internal cognitive structures. Cognitive psychology mainly focuses on information processing or how information that is received through the different senses is "processed" by various systems in the brain. This interest in the structures of the brain gave rise to Neuropsychology. Neuropsychology deals with the relationship between the nervous system, especially the brain and mental functions such as language, memory, and perception. According to Bruce (1985) the term 'neuropsychology' was first used in 1913 by Sir William Osler in an address he gave at the opening of the Phipps Clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. But the term was popularized by Donald Hebb in 1949 with his publication of. The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. Hebb proposed a theory of cell-assembly: a group of neurons clustered together functionally because of a past history of being stimulated together. The cells are capable of functioning together for a time as a closed unit. Cell assemblies that are activated at the same time may become organized into "phase sequences," which become the basic elementary or functional units of behavior. Hans-Lukas Teuber, one of the early pioneers in neuropsychology, argued that the task of neuropsychology is twofold; first, to help the patient with the damaged brain to understand his disease and, secondly, by carefully studying such experiments of nature, to provide essential insights into the physiological basis of normal brain function. Another major contribution to the field was the work of Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke (1848 – 1905), both of whom identified sites on the cerebral cortex involved in the production and comprehension of language.

Another approach to understand human learning is Evolutionary psychology. This paradigm of psychology was pioneered by Leda Cosmides. Like cognitive psychologists, evolutionary psychologists suggest that much, if not all, of our behavior can be explained by appeal to internal psychological mechanisms. What differentiates evolutionary psychologists from many cognitive psychologists is the proposal that the relevant internal mechanisms are adaptations, that is, products of natural selection that helped the human species survive. Evolutionary psychology combines natural selection with modern cognitive theories of information processing mechanisms to study the adaptive functions of mechanisms.

In conclusion, the field of psychology in its quest to understand behavior has come a long way. Generations of psychologists and their colossal amount of work has helped establish the field in such a manner that its importance cannot be denied. The contribution of the Behaviorists was significant in that it helped psychology become a more objective field. The rejection of the concept of the mind became the primary cause of the behaviorists’ downfall. But perhaps it would be correct to assume that had this movement of behaviorism not transpired, psychology would still be lost in the ethereal realms of the abstract and the intangible.
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