Three Points of View on Behaviorism

In the late 19th Century, Ivan Pavlov (the known Russian physiologist) released the term respondent conditioning (an amendment of the term stimulus-response reflex) when his assistant noticed dogs secrete gastric juice on seeing or smelling food. J. B. Watson applied Pavlov’s theory to human and animal psychology and suggested that psychologists should dispose of studying mental processes and consciousness and center on recognizable behavior and its sources. In the first half of the 20th Century, another American psychologist, B. F. Skinner suggested that learning to change or introduce a behavioral change can be what Skinner called operant learning. In the second half of the 20th Century, Tolman recognized defects in Skinner’s view and identified the purposeful (goal-directed) behavior, and clarified the difference between molar (consequences-related), and molecular (action or movement-related) behaviors (Cizko, 2000).

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This highlighted a change in studying psychology from explaining actions based on beliefs and desires to a realistic viewpoint of studying actions in the lights of learned behaviors, which is the core of behavioral perspective in psychology (Evans and Zarate, 2003). The aim of this essay is to spotlight similarities and differences of the scope J. B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and E. C. Tolman viewed behavioral psychology.

John B. Watson: The early (methodological) behaviorism

Origin and development of Watson’s methodological approach

Influenced by the work of Pavlov, Watson assumed the conditioned motor reflex can be applied to humans and animals making up behavior keystone. Watson truly believed analysis is essential in science considering psychology no exception, yet instead of seeking mind-building blocks; Watson sought the constituents of behavior. Near the end of the first decade of the 20th Century, Watson was able to modify the conditioned response of an 11-months child (The Albert Experiment) after introducing a white rat and a rabbit into the experiment. Although the experiment was not a carefully controlled experiment; yet, it was a vivid elucidation of Watson’s ideas and vision on the origins and development of behavior. This raised expectations among the public that psychology can change human life, setting up an era of objective and popular psychology (Fuchs and Milar, 2003).

Types of behavior, and basis of methodological approach

According to Watson (after Hergenhahn, 2008), there are four types of behavior that explain human actions; explicit learning behavior (overt-clear) like writing, and playing basketball, implicit learning behavior (inherent-covert) like tachycardia on fear. Besides explicit unlearned behavior (as blinking, grasping a falling object), and implicit unlearned behavior like glands secretions. Thinking represented a controversial facet in Watson’s theory; he considered thinking a matter of one speaking to him/herself, thus it is an implicit (none or sub-vocal speech) despite being an objective behavior. Based on this assumption, speech to Watson was no more than an explicit behavior. Watson laid the foundation of the methodological approach in studying behavior, suggesting there are four methods to study behavior. First is observation, which can be either naturalistic (as they occur in nature), or experimentally controlled (imitating or reproducing what occurs in real life). Second, influenced by Pavlov, is the conditioned-reflex method, third is testing that is considering behavior samples but not measuring the capacity or personality. Finally, Watson suggested studying verbal reports as an overt behavior but not as a method to study consciousness (Hergenhahn, 2008).

Instincts and behavior

The influence of instincts on behavior was an ever-changing area in Watson’s perspective. In 1914, instincts were a major causal factor in behavior, later in 1919, Watson believed instincts are important in infancy but later in life, learned habits supersede them. In mid-1920s, Watson declined the instincts concepts arguing only few reflexes like sneezing, crying, breathing and suckling are innate behavioral patterns that can be called instincts (Hergenhahn, 2008).

The second (radical) behaviorism: B.F. Skinner

The stage of comparative psychology

Skinner’s major experimental work was in comparative psychology (a branch of psychology that studies animal behavior). This experimental work lead to developing the experimental analysis of behavior school of psychological research, on whose basis, Skinner developed his philosophy of behaviorism, the radical behaviorism (Dewsbury, 2003).

Skinner and the stimulation-response concept

Watson’s methodological behaviorism differs from Skinner’s radical behaviorism in two essential points, first, Skinner rejected the stimulation-response concept as an explanation for all behavior motivated by his defense that psychology is different from physiology, although complementary. Second, Skinner’s radical behaviorism accepts feelings, states of mind and insightful look to the self, examining thoughts and feelings. Further, it also accepts treating feelings and states of mind identifying some conditions as behavioral and others as in need of further behavioral analysis. Despite these differences, Skinner’s radical behaviorism did not recognize feelings as motives of behavior (Leary, 2004).

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Skinner’s operant response concept

As Skinner rejected the stimulus-response concept he developed the concept of operant response, which has its origin from the operant pattern that an organism’s behavior is reinforced. Skinner called a stimulus the reinforcer, which is the stimulus for the organism to get more of the outcome on repeating the behavior (positive reinforcer). A reinforcer can be negative (producing a behavior when removed); in either case the resulting behavior is called the operant behavior (Lin and Li, 2007). Despite these differences; yet, Skinner rejected to claim that reinforcers are causes of behavior, thus, Skinner was committed to behaviorism despite differences with Watson (Alvarez, 2009).

Language and learning in skinner’s theory

Skinner’s look at language differed from that of Watson, in that he believed in the same way external stimuli take control over behavior, humans can build up linguistic stimuli, which will later take control over behavior. The possibility of this learning control over behavior highlighted reinforcement possibilities in humans may not be as consistent as they are in animals.

This resulted in a shift in radical behaviorists’ analysis of human behavior to identify the link between learning (instructional) control contingency control and to recognize what behavioral processes decide what instructions are built up, in addition to what control these instructions bring upon behavior (O’Toole et al, 2009).

Edward C. Tolman: Purposeful behavior

Molar view of behavior

Watson was satisfied that human behavior whatever complex it is can be explained by stimulation-response reflexes, Skinner believed in molecular view of behavior that is behavior can be fragmented into smaller units that are consequences-related. Tolman, on the other hand, argued that behavior cannot be understood based on events at the moment; further, Tolman believed there is no proximate cause to behavior, and rather it is a pattern of actions over time (molar view) (Malone, 2004).

Tolman: Mentalist or behaviorist

Tolman agreed with Watson in behavior should be the psychology’s subject matter despite believing that Watson’s work centered on the incorrect type of behavior. Tolman believed in some mentalist terms like purpose and cognition but the problem was how to merge these terms in behaviorism. Tolman identified purposive behavior can be studied by observing purpose in behavior rather than concluding purpose from behavior. Later, in the 1930s, Tolman changed his position and used purpose and cognition terms in agreement with the mentalist approach as determinants of behavior. To keep his position as a behaviorist, Tolman considered mentalist perspective as the one dealing with the subject’s relation to the self; while behaviorism is centered on the subject’s relation to the environment (Lefebvre, 2003).

Tolman’s cognition map

By the late 1930s, Tolman became increasingly convinced that cognitive processes do exist and further they affect and even determine behavior; however, he still felt sturdy about behaviorism. To solve this conflict, Tolman dealt with cognitive events as intervening variables that are variables interceding between environmental events and behavior. Thus, based on Tolman’s theory, environmental events result in internal unnoticeable events, which cause behavior. In other words to explain behavior, there must knowledge of environmental events and internal or intervening events they initiated (Hergenhann, 2008). Whereas Watson believed learning is a reflex procedure that depends on continuity and frequency, Skinner believed that learning is a result of reinforcement. Tolman rejected both assumptions and believed that learning is a constant continuous process that occurs with or without enforcement or motivation. Based on animal studies, Tolman showed development of a cognitive map, which is by continuous learning a comprehensive knowledge of the environment develops, it allows reorganization, adjustment and reconfiguration (Lecas, 2006).

Watson, Skinner, and Tolman: Three Schools or one

Watson’s beliefs were psychology should be centered with observable and measurable behavior, and much of his work was influenced by Pavlov’s experiments. As a classical behaviorism, Watson recognized a link between response and environment in the lights of response-stimulus relationship, whether the response is naturally present (unconditioned) or trained upon (conditioned). Skinner’s beliefs added the concept of reinforcement (positive or negative) to Watson’s theory. According to Skinner, the learner is an active part of the learning process. Skinner differed slightly from Watson in believing that behavior is a consequence of reinforcement, and a set of reinforcements can help or hamper behavior progression. Tolman’s main contribution was the cognitive map to explain behavior modification by changing the learning environment. Tolman viewed learning and behavior as separate entities, and learning can occur without reinforcement and is a continuous process (Ribes-Inesta, 2004).

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Thus, Watson, Skinner, and Tolman do not represent three different schools; rather they represent three development stages of behaviorism from a psychological perspective (Lecas, 2005).


Watson, Skinner and Tolman were eminent psychologists. Their theories added knowledge to how behavior should be seen from a psychological perspective, and helped to develop forms of behavior modification. Their theories influenced the modern understanding of learning.


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