Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders

A critical review of fact, fiction, and speculation in the field of autism

020. Thorndike & Watson: Founding fathers of behaviorism

Introspection forms no essential part of its methods.

Psychology... is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods. JB Watson; "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" (1913)

Picking up where we left off last time: The late 19th and early 20th century were a heady time (no pun intended) for cognitive science. In an effort to pull psychology out of the realm of hucksterism, one branch of psychology elected to restrict itself entirely to outwardly observable behavior, and factors that could be shown to influence it (hence the name for this field of endeavor: Behaviorism). Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) and John Broadus Watson (1878-1958) are the "fathers" of American behaviorism.

Thorndike studied the way animals escaped from cages. Over many trials, the animals in his experiments needed less and less time to escape. Thorndike postulated that getting out of the cage was attractive to the animal, so the experience of getting free reinforced whatever behavior had occurred right before the escape. He called this the law of effect, writing, "Of several [possible] responses...those which are...closely followed by satisfaction to the animal will...be more likely to recur. Those which are...followed by discomfort to the animal will...be less likely to occur." (Thorndike, E. Animal Intelligence. 1911. Available on line from: Classics in the History of Psychology: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Thorndike/Animal/chap2.htm .) Thorndike never said anything about the animal "thinking" its way to a solution, since "thinking" was not something he could observe or measure. (Thorndike also was interested in seeing if animals escaped more quickly if they had a chance to observe another animal first. For this he studied cats; he found that letting one cat watch another cat escape was no help, when the second cat's time came to get out of the cage. This will be important later in our discussion.)

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Watson studied children rather than animals. His most famous experiment, conducted in 1920, involved conditioning a 1 year old infant ("Little Albert") to become afraid of rats, by presenting the lad with a white rat simultaneously with a painfully loud noise (clanging two iron pipes together) - similar to Pavlov's classical conditioning experiment with dogs (who were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, by presenting the bell repeatedly with the dogs' food). You can view the Little Albert film here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FKZAYt77ZM&feature=related

Watson was dismissed from his university post a few months after publishing his Little Albert results, due to personal indiscretion - an extramarital affair with the graduate student who worked with him on the Albert study. After leaving the academic world, Watson worked in advertising (an industry whose sole purpose is to influence people's behavior), and wrote an influential book on child rearing: Psychological care of infant and child, which he dedicated "To the first mother to raise a happy child." In his book, Watson denied the existence of innate qualities such as "anger, resentment, sympathy, fear, play, curiosity, sociability, shyness, modesty, jealousy, love, capacity, talent, [or] temperament," declaring that all child behavior was the product of prior conditioning: "We build in at an early age everything that is later to appear." He also took public education to task because it was based on the assumption that children could develop from within, if teachers could tap each child's creative potential: "I think this doctrine has done serious harm...behaviorists believe that there is nothing from within to develop." (emphasis added).

I find this declaration rather sad. It is certainly at variance with the facts as we know them today (take, for example, the massive body of data on identical twins reared apart, and how similar they end up, despite having vastly different home environments).

Next time, we will review the contributions of Behaviorism's most famous figure, BF Skinner.

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Follow Dr. Coplan at http://www.DrCoplan.com, or on Facebook at James Coplan, MD - Developmental Pediatrician / Autistic Spectrum Disorders

Dr. James Coplan is a developmental pediatrician, with four decades of experience caring for children with special needs and their families.

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