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Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner on Behaviorist Theory

Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner on Behaviorist Theory

Author: Erick Taggart

Distinguish between the major contributors to theories of behaviorism.

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Hello, class. Today we're going to be talking about another theory in psychology that's important for you to know. And that's called behaviorism. Now, if you recall from our definition of psychology earlier, we said psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. So behaviorism, as you can see from the name, focuses specifically on that second aspect, on behavior, which is to say, they try to focus on the scientific aspects of psychology in trying to find out what's measurable and observable specifically.

So behaviorism is the theory that studies the overt, observable behaviors of people to understand their mental processes. Behaviorism also focuses specifically on the environment and its effects on the individual. It's trying to decide if the environment influences behavior and causes people to react or act in certain ways.

Now, in a lot of ways, behaviorism is a reaction to some of the other theories that you'll study in this course, because a lot of other theories, according to behaviorists, are often too philosophical. They're not scientific enough. They're more introspective. They're trying to decide what they think is occurring, whereas behaviorism is very specifically observing and measuring what's occurring from individuals.

So we're going to be looking over three specific individuals that are important to the history of behaviorism. So the first individual that we want to talk about in regards to behaviorism is Ivan Pavlov. Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist who in 1870 changes studies to physiology and the natural sciences. You may recognize his name because of his famous experiments with dogs, including bells and bringing food out to the dogs, and seeing whether they salivated in response to it. We're going to be covering these in more detail later.

But the important thing to remember about Pavlov is that he studied the different reflexes and the stimuli responses that different animals and, in turn, people, had in regards to the environment around them. So he was studying the reactions that people had to their environment, their behaviors, as it were, and how they reacted to those things.

The second person we want to talk about in regards to behaviorism in psychology is John Watson. Now, John Watson was the first person to actually coin the term "behaviorism" in his 1913 paper, "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It." And what John Watson was able to do was he was able to take the work of Pavlov, who was a physiologist and a natural scientist, and adapt it to psychology to try to explain why people behaved in the ways they did.

He was able to take the ideas of the stimulus response-- the response to something that's going on in their environment-- and adapt it to human learning to say that there are certain conditioned responses, which are responses that people learn, due to experience over time with different stimuli in their environments. They're able to learn those behaviors, and to eventually adapt those and to grow those into more complex behaviors in a way that we can understand the entire range of human behaviors and understanding, and to adapt it to more difficult things.

So one of the famous experiments that you may want to remember in regards to John Watson is his Little Albert experiments, in which he was able to condition a certain phobia in a child by showing him different white fluffy animals, and then banging loud objects together behind him, so he was able to grow afraid of those white objects because of the noise that he anticipated as result of that.

And the last person we want to talk about in regards to behaviorism is B.F. Skinner. B.F. Skinner was a psychologist in the 1950s all the way through the '70s who is able to take the work of his predecessors, from Pavlov and from Watson, and take it one step further to explain human behavior.

You may recognize his name in regards to the Skinner box. Skinner box was a tool that he used with his animal experiments, in which he placed an animal inside of it and was able to give them some kind of treat or some kind of punishment to shape the way that they behaved. And that led to his major contribution to behaviorism, which was the idea of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning said that the use of reinforcement or rewards or positive things to influence behavior, as well as punishment, which is to say negative things, like physical violence or something like that, are forces that can particularly be used to influence the way that people behave and to either make it more likely for something to occur or less likely for something to occur.

Skinner is what we would call a radical behaviorist. Now, what is radical behaviorism? Radical behaviorism is a term used to describe certain types of behaviorists which say that the mental events-- part of psychology that we talked about, or the mental processes-- are completely unnecessary to describing why people behave the way they do.

They essentially try to think of it as a sort of black box, if you want to think of it that way, a black box, meaning whatever's going on inside the mind is irrelevant. There's simply stimuli that are coming in and influencing the way that people behave, and then there are responses, which is to say the behaviors that the people actually do in regards to the stimuli. Everything that's going on up inside of their head is completely irrelevant to psychology, and it's not something that should be studied, according to a radical behaviorist.

Now, there are varying degrees of behaviorism, and you'll be learning about a few of those later on in the course, as well as learning in depth what each of these contributions means to psychology as a whole.

Terms to Know

A theory in psychology that studies observable actions or behaviors, not internal mental states.

Cognitive Behaviorism

A theory that combines both behavioral learning theories and cognitive theories.

Radical Behaviorism

A school of behaviorism that believes that internal mental states are unnecessary to explain behavior. Behavior is determined entirely by outside stimuli and learned responses.

People to Know
B. F. Skinner

Founder of Operant Conditioning.

Ivan Pavlov

Developed the concept of Classical Conditioning.

John Watson

Founder of Behaviorism, 1878-1958.