020. Thorndike & Watson: Founding fathers of behaviorism

Introspection forms no essential part of its methods.

Posted Aug 29, 2010

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.

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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