23 Mar 2015
The question of whether psychology is a science persists. John Broadus Watson ignited this topic, offering strong evidence in pursuits of establishing psychology as an empirical science. Today, some psychologists reject the idea that psychology is a science at all, while others who agree weigh heavily on the role of behavior. Historically, traditional views on psychology have been unscientific. Offering an alternative view, the central idea in behaviorism is the prediction and control of behavior. Although controversial, the evidence for behaviorism, its contribution to the field, research, and treatment of disorders is undeniable. This paper addresses a history of behaviorism, with focus on the viewpoint and contribution of John B. Watson. Additionally, behaviorism's application to the field of clinical psychology is discussed.
Keywords: behaviorism, learning, classical conditioning
Behaviorism: A History of John B. Watson and Contributions to Clinical Psychology
The interest in knowing and understanding human behavior is deeply rooted within historical philosophies and persists today. The desire to obtain tangible evidence in order to measure one's actions, thoughts, and emotions paved many ideas, including John Broadus Watson's revolutionary theory of Behaviorism (Hart & Kristonis, 2006). Before he established behaviorism, Watson considered learning as one of the most important factors of psychology and established it as a central topic for basic research and application of American psychology (Rilling, 2000). Dissatisfied with the view that psychology focused on the mind, he dedicated his career to establishing psychology as a valid science. His dedication to learning and establishment of behaviorism shed light on several important clinical issues such as mental health disorders, drug addiction and phobias. In regards to theory, Watson is credited for having brought validity to some of the psychoanalytic concepts such as the role of early childhood experiences, relationships, and the effects of trauma. His interest and dedication to uncovering psychopathology led to the discovery of conditioned emotional responses and an explanation for learning of feared behaviors (Rilling, 2000). Today, the contribution of Watson is undeniable. Therapies with strong behavioral components are utilized and applicable to many disorders. The purpose of this paper is to provide a history of Watson's behaviorism emphasizing the foundations of his work through his viewpoint. In addition to history, behaviorist contribution within the field of psychology and modern clinical psychology utilization are discussed.
Science originally developed within, and eventually navigated away from philosophy. Before astronomy and physics understood phenomena through observation, philosophers used God as the means to reason and conclude about the universe (Baum, 1994). Philosophers weighed heavily on God's contribution to living and nonliving organisms, referencing the "soul" as the force of life. The Enlightenment saw substantial contributions to science as philosophers such as Galileo and Newton uncovered scientific truth through observation (Baum, 1994). Emphasizing data, early physiologists such as William Harvey conceptualized the body as a machine, discovering in which the heart functioned like a pump, circulating blood through tissues, arteries and veins (Baum, 1994). In addition, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution radically debunked the bible's accounts of the creation and offered a new explanation that left out God (Baum, 1994). As astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology began to break away from philosophical thought, so did the field of psychology.
Late nineteenth century labeled psychology as the "science of mind." The field of psychology emerged as a discipline through Wilhelm Wundt's laboratory at the University of Leipzig in 1879 (Moore, 2011). In his work, Wundt assumed that the study of consciousness was the appropriate subject for psychology, conducting experiments within areas now known as sensation and perception. Following Wundt, Titchener's "structuralism," focused on sensations, images, and feelings, researched by drawing inferences from participants' introspective reports and reaction times, indicating which sensations were higher or lower in the structure of consciousness (Moore, 2011). An alternative "functionalism" employed similar methods as structuralists but emphasized the function of conscious mental phenomena. For example, functionalists might use reaction times to study how children's conscious mental phenomena developed over time, in efforts to provide individual education services (Moore, 2011). Concerns manifested in practical applications of either theory, and a lack of reliability. Introspection as a method was particularly problematic. For instance, concerning the lack of reliability, research findings with the introspective method were not often replicated with other participants or in other laboratories (Moore, 2011).
The major emphasis of contention for Watson within psychology was introspection, specifically within the theories of structuralism and functionalism. Structuralist and functionalist views incorporated introspection to understand the contents and function of consciousness, using it as data in forming conclusions about human behavior (Carr, 1930; Boring, 1954). Unlike scientific method, Watson believed that introspection was biased towards the individual, had unreliable methods and formed baseless speculations (Baum, 1994; Watson, 1913). Further, he discarded introspective methods due to their inapplicability to animals, believing that the fundamentals of human behavior may be better explained through animal experiments. He rejected both theories, due to his belief that they lacked the applicability, consistency and logic for the more pressing issues within the field (Mills, 1999; Watson; 1913). To Watson, the introspective aspects of consciousness (feeling, choice, judgment) had not demonstrated functional use, were unreliable and impossible to verify in an experimental setting (Boring, 1954).
Watson grew frustrated with psychology defined as "science of consciousness," attributing to psychology's failure in becoming a true science (Watson, 1913). It was in his 1913 publication Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, that he stated his intentions to change the subject of psychology from consciousness to behavior, replacing introspective methods with objective approaches. For him, the goal of behaviorist psychology was in the prediction and control of behavior (Goss, Watson, 1913; 1924; Rilling, 2000). From his point of view, behavior is a function of stimulating conditions within in the environment and characteristics (e.g., drive states, hereditary, habit, emotions) within the organism, later defining behaviorism as "stimulus-response, or "S-R" (Wozniak, 1997; Watson, 1919). According to him, behavior consists of motor and glandular responses to sensory stimuli (sensorimotor) (Woodworth, 1959). A stimulus arouses activity in one or more receptors, exciting nerve impulses in the brain and spinal cord where outgoing nerve currents are excited in the motor and glandular nerves with resulting excitation of muscles and glands. Whatever organizational activity is taking place, it is present in the brain and spinal cord, and should not be attributed to higher processes (Woodworth, 1959). Watson formally ruled introspection out of psychology and urged for applicable undertakings within psychology, beneficial to the legal, educational, medical and business arenas (Boring, 1954; Watson, 1913; Mills, 1999). For the first time behaviorism was given definitive goals, methods and parameters.Â The structure that Watson illustrated for the behaviorism was a discipline based heavily in rationalist thought, and on the precept that learning, and habit is the major influence on development (Rilling, 2000; King, Viney, & Woody, 2009).
Watson believed that the causes of behavior were within the environment rather than the mind (Markey, 1925). In his 1919 book Psychology From the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, Watson rejected the concept of mind completely, extending all of his behaviorist views to introspective activities, such as language and thinking (Markey, 1925). According to him, thinking a mental process, is actually an overt behavior nothing more than sub-vocal speaking, or "silent talking" (Watson, 1920). Thinking is a verbal process where expressive movements (gestures) serve as substitution of words. In the study of human behavior, Watson's views on language explained consciousness and awareness as an objective mechanistic process. Higher order processing (e.g., expression of the face, hands, shoulders), fulfill the symbolic character necessary in language. Our whole body comes to be part of the language mechanism providing a basis for imagery, reasoning, and thought (Watson, 1920). To Freud, Watson proposed a behavioristic translation of the "unconscious," stating that situations where language is covert, or un-verbalized is the unconscious, where overt language, "speaking" is the state of conscious (Goss, 1961; Watson, 1928). In summary, thinking, where learning is involved, is a trial-and-error process dependent upon motor expression and language (Watson, 1920). As the 20th century sought to uncover the actual mechanisms of learning, Watson discovered the opportunity to extend learning experiments to psychologists (Rilling, 2000). Central to his theory was the concept of habits. Watson believed that personality, like language also developed through a system of habit and conditioning, beginning immediately after birth. Furthermore, he believed that pathology depended on the environment, normal personality is a function of healthy upbringing, while weaknesses in person were related to trauma, or punishment (King et al., 2009). Behaviorists avoid terms such as normal and abnormal, because these words imply an absolute distinction between health and sickness (Roberts, 2012). Watson argued in which mental illness was a product of environmental conditioning, and is best illustrated through his famous work on fear conditioning (King et al., 2009).
Like Pavlov, Watson believed in observing and training physical responses to stimuli without referencing the mind, allowing animal and human behavior to be interpreted similarly (Markey, 1925). Based on the animal experiments of Ivan Pavlov, Watson applied classical conditioning experiments in efforts to study human behavior and create an objective science. Watson's interest in animal learning provided him a tool for controlling behavior, preempting his widely recognized conditioning experiment of Albert B. Cited within psychology's history, Watson demonstrated the impact of classical conditioning to human emotional behavior (Harris, 1979; Watson & Rayner, 1920). The goal of conditioning A.B. to fear a white rat by paring it with the presentation of a noise led to the discovery of conditioned emotional responses. Initially, A.B. did not display fear, however once rat and noise were paired and repeatedly presented, fear developed. After several presentations of rat and noise, a new response, "crying," was noticed, generalizing his fear response to new stimuli that appeared similar to the rat (Watson & Rayner, 1920). Watson's clarification of psychopathology to the detection of conditioned emotional responses is proclaimed as his major contribution to the field of psychology (Rilling, 2000). Literature cites A.B's conditioning as a model of psychopathology (e.g., specific phobia) and is often implemented within discussion of systematic desensitization as treatment for phobia (Harris, 1979; Eysenck, 1960). Through his theory and research, Watson's behaviorism unquestionably provided major contributions to the field of applied psychology.
Behaviorism generated behavior therapy, developing behavior management techniques for children with autism and token economies for the management of severe mental illness (Spiegler & Guevremont, 2010). Due to Watson's work, the areas of legal & forensic psychology blossomed and continues have utility in courtroom matters (e.g., reliability of eyewitness testimony, fitness to stand trial) (Rilling, 2000). Due to the behaviorists, personality and development were given credit as the result of interaction between genetics and experience, holding true for abnormal and normal development (Roberts, 2012).
In conclusion, Psychology is defined as the science of behavior. Supported through the works of John B. Watson, his passion and contribution to the field of psychology, the relevance of behaviorism is a permanent in the field of applied psychology.
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