in #psychology6 years ago

John Broadus Watson was an American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism. Watson promoted a change in psychology through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, which was given at Columbia University in 1913. Through his behaviorist approach, Watson conducted research on animal behavior, child rearing, and advertising. In addition, he conducted the controversial "Little Albert" experiment and the Kerplunk experiment. Watson popularized the use of the scientific theory with behaviorism. He was also editor of Psychological Review from 1910 to 1915.
A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Watson as the 17th most cited psychologist of the 20th centur.

Behaviourism is a perspective of learning that focuses on changes in individuals’ observable behaviours changes in what people say or do. The behaviourist theory of learning says that learning can only be said to have taken place when there is a change in the outward behaviour of the learner. This is founded on the belief that scientists study only observable, measurable outward behaviour change. The main proponents of this theory are Watson and Skinner who sought to prove that behaviour can be predicted and controlled, and that learning is affected by changes in the environment. Watson based his work on the findings of Ivan Pavlov who experimented on a dog. Skinner, on the other hand, did further studies on the findings of Thorndike who observed the behaviour of a cat put in a box. According to Cherry (2014), behaviourism is founded upon the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning and that our responses to the stimuli the environment produces, shapes our behaviours. The behaviourist argues that there is no need to consider the internal or mental processes of the learner, because they are considered to be too subjective.

Behaviorism, as to developed by Watson in his lectures at Columbia in 1912 and in his earliest writings, was an attempt to do one thing—to apply to the experimental study of man the same kind of procedure and the same language of description that many research men had found useful for so many years in the study of animals lower than man.

Watson’s initial research focused on animal subjects such as rats (1903), rabbits (Watson & Watson, 1913), birds (e.g., 1907; 1908a; 1910), and monkeys (1908b; 1909). But by the year 1919 he had been able to apply the same experimental procedures to the study of man—the goal he had established for himself in his 1913 article. This article has come to be referred to as the Behaviorist Manifesto.

Through his own efforts and through the reports of other researchers working in the same field, Watson collected data through “daily observation of several hundred infants from birth, through the first thirty days of infancy and of a smaller number through the first years of childhood”. From this data he concluded that “young children taken at random from homes of both the poor and of the well-to-do do not make good subjects” because their behavior was too complex. His solution to this problem was to study hospital-reared children belonging to wet nurses. Perhaps his most famous experiments were those conducted to establish conditioned emotional responses in “Little Albert” by exposing him to various small animals and simultaneously sounding a loud noise that had been found to elicit crying. Through repeated pairing of the animals with the noise, the animals themselves came to elicit responses of fear, crying, and avoidance behavior—where previously they had not. Several other experiments conducted with children are accounted in Watson’s 1930 publication entitled, Behaviorism.

Watson’s perspective on learning—i.e., his theory of habit formation—is illustrated in the following example generalized from his observations of several children in similar situations:

To make the whole process a little more concrete, let us put in front of the three-year-old child, whose habits of manipulation are well established, a problem box—a box that can be opened only after a certain thing has been done; for example, he has to press inward a small wooden button. Before we hand it to him, we show him the open box containing several small pieces of candy and then we close it and tell him that if he opens it he may have a piece of candy. This situation is new to him. None of his previously learned formed manipulation habits will completely and instantly work in this situation. None of his unlearned reactions will help him very much. What does he do? That depends upon his previous organization. If well organized by previous handling of toys, he goes at the problem at once—(1) he picks the box up, (2) he pounds it on the floor, (3) he drags it round and round, (4) he pushes it up against the base-board, (5) he turns it over, (6) he strikes it with his fist. In other words, he does everything he has learned to do in the past in similar situations. He displays his whole repertoire of acts—brings all of his previously acquired organization to bear upon the new problem. Let us suppose that he has 50 learned and unlearned separate responses at his command. At one time or another during his first attempt to open the box, let us assume that he displays, as he will, nearly all of them before he pushes the button hard enough to release the catch. The time the whole process takes, we will say, is about twenty minutes. When he opens it, we give him his bit of candy, close up the box and hand it to him again. The next time he makes fewer movements; the third time fewer still. In 10 trials or less he can open the box without making a useless movement and he can open it in two seconds.

Watson explained this instance of learning—the ability to open the box with increasing speed and with fewer and fewer useless movements—as a function of frequency and recency. The act that is performed most frequently persists while the rest die away. The act that has been performed most recently is more likely to appear sooner in the next succeeding trial. Watson’s explanation of recency and frequency as the basis for habit formation was criticized by some writers, and specific experiments were performed to demonstrate the inadequacy of these two factors alone to account for learning. However, these factors do not form Watson’s complete picture of learning. In his introduction to a republication of Watson’s Behaviorism Kimble lists nine hypothetical laws of learning identified by Watson. The first two are frequency and recency. The remaining seven are;

  1. Conditioning is a process of stimulus substitution: “The [conditioned stimulus] now becomes a substitute stimulus—it will call out the [response] whenever it stimulates the subject”.

4.The process of conditioning is ubiquitous, “So far as we know we can substitute another stimulus for any stimulus calling out a standard reaction”. Thus, learning never produces truly new responses. “The organism starts out life with more unit responses than it needs”. The process that appears to establish new responses “concerns itself really with stimulus substitutions and not reaction substitutions.

Laws 5-9 came from Pavlov, by way of G. V. Anrep.

  1. “Conditioned responses [may be] temporary and unstable. After periods of no practice they cease to work [but they can] be quickly reestablished.”

  2. “The substituted stimulus can be made [so specific that no] other stimulus of its class will then call out the reflex.” But, in apparent contradiction to this idea, Watson also noted that conditioned responses generalize (transfer) to similar conditioned stimuli.

  3. “The magnitude of the response is dependent upon the strength of the [conditioned] stimulus”.

  4. “There is a marked summation effect. If a dog is conditioned separately to [two stimuli], there is a marked increase in the [strength of the response] if the stimuli are given simultaneously.”

  5. “Conditioned responses can be ‘extinguished’”

Watson thoughts on language, speech, and memory

Watson argued that mental activity could not be observed. In his book, Behaviorism, Watson discussed his thoughts on what language really is, which leads to a discussion of what words really are, and finally to an explanation of what memory is. They are all manual devices used by humans that result in thinking. By using anecdotes that illustrate the behaviors and activities of mammals, Watson outlined his behaviorist views on these topics.
Watson called language a "manipulative habit." He called it this because when we speak language, the sound originates in our larynx, which is a body instrument that we manipulate every time we talk in order to hear our "voice." As we change our throat shape and tongue position, different sounds are made. Watson says when a baby first cries, or first says "da" or "ma," that it is learning language. Watson also used an experiment that he and his wife conducted, in which they conditioned a baby to say "da-da" when he wanted his bottle. Although the baby was conditioned and was a success for a short while, the conditioning was eventually lost. Watson does say, however, that as the child got older, he would imitate Watson as a result of Watson imitating him. By three years old, the child needed no help developing his vocabulary because he was learning from others. Thus, language is imitative.

Watson goes on to claim that, "words are but substitutes for objects and situations". In his earlier baby experiment, the baby learned to say "da" when he wanted a bottle, or "mama" when he wanted his mom, or "shoe-da" when he pointed to his father’s shoe. Watson then argues that "we watch our chances and build upon these", meaning human babies have to form their language by applying sounds they have already formed. This, Watson says, is why babies point to an object but call it a different word. Lastly, Watson explains how a child learns to read words: a mom points at each word and reads in a patterned manner, and eventually, because the child recognizes the word with the sound, he or she learns to read it back.

This, according to Watson, is the start of memory. All of the ideas previously mentioned are what Watson says make up our memory, and that we carry the memory we develop throughout our lives.

Watson thought on emotions

Watson was interested in the conditioning of emotions. Of course behaviorism putting an emphasis on people's external behaviors, emotions were considered as mere physical responses. Watson thought that, at birth, there are three unlearned emotional reactions: Fear, rage and love.

Fear: According to Watson, there are only two stimuli evoking fear that are unconditioned: A sudden noise and the loss of support (physical support). But because older children are afraid of many things (Different animals, strange people etc...) it must be that those fear provoking stimuli are learned. Watson stated that fear can be observed by the following reaction with infants: Crying, breathing rapidly, closing their eyes or jumping suddenly.

Rage: Rage is an innate response to the body movement of the child being constrained. If a very young child is held in a way that she cannot move at all then she will begin to scream and stiffen her body. Later this reaction is applied to different situations. Children get angry when they are forced to take a bath or clean their room. These situations provoke rage because they are associated with physical restraint.

Love: Watson said that love was an automatic response from infants when they were stroked lightly, tickled or patted. The infant then responds with smiles and laughs and other affectionate responses. According to Watson, infants do not love specific people but they are conditioned to do so. Because the mother's face is progressively associated with the patting and stroking it becomes the conditioned stimulus eliciting the affection towards her.

Watson Popular Quote

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years”.

Implication of Watson Theory

The behaviourist theory of learning will, like other theories, have certain implications in the learning since it will inform the teacher of how learning takes place, the purpose of teaching and serve as a guide to the way teaching is done.

First of all, in the Mathematics classroom for example, the teacher will enforce a lot of practice in line with Thorndike’s laws of learning. This is because the behaviourist teacher believes the adage that “practice makes perfect” and “learning is by doing”.
Students in such a classroom will be given a lot of exercises to practice in and out of the classroom. Students who are not able to achieve high scores will be asked to redo the exercise until they get it right. The teacher’s emphasis on exercise may overshadow other classroom activities such as discussion, discovery learning and asking questions. The teacher will focus on the students’ ability to answer questions correctly and not necessarily the ability to understand or explain the concepts taught. Many Mathematics teachers use the behaviourist approach in this regard since they emphasize learning by doing.

To add to this point, the teacher will encourage rote learning through drills and recitation. The behaviourist teacher will use repetition as a tool for teaching. This is because of the view that learners imbibe by repeating a task and that extinction will take place if the task learnt is not repeated. For example, in the basic schools, the teachers use recitation to teach the multiplication tables. Many students just memorize the ‘times tables’ without even understanding the concept of multiplication.

The third implication of the behaviourist theory of learning in the Mathematics classroom is based on the law of readiness. This law says that the learner must be prepared mentally and emotionally for learning to take place effectively. In this regard, the teacher will always try to assess the mental or emotional state of the student and respond to it. A student, who, for example, is bereaved will not be in the right frame of mind to learn in the classroom. In addition to this, students who are exhausted will find it difficult to concentrate in the classroom. Perhaps, it is for this reason that many Mathematics teachers advocate for the subject to be taught as the first lesson in the morning, when students are well rested from the previous night. Again, under the law of readiness, the teacher will make the objectives for each lesson clear to the student. Since the behaviourist teacher looks out for a change in behaviour as an evidence that learning has taken place, he or she will frame the objectives for the lesson around behaviours. For example, in a lesson where quadratic functions are taught, the lesson objectives will be something like: “By the end of the lesson, students should be able to sketch quadratic graphs”. The teacher will ensure that the students are made aware of the lesson objectives, before or at the beginning of the lesson.

The next implication is also based on the law of readiness. There is the belief that a certain background and aptitude is necessary for learning to take place effectively. This may lead the teacher to always look out for students with a certain aptitude for Mathematics in the classroom. Such students may be selected for further Mathematics (Elective Mathematics) since the belief is that, because they have a higher aptitude for the subject, they will perform better in it. This implication is seen in a lot of senior high schools where entrance examinations are written to place students in the Elective Mathematics option.
The next implication is based on the law of effect and also the law of operant conditioning. This law states that the feelings of the learner during the learning process are very important and that positive reinforcement encourages the learner to repeat a particular behaviour. Motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic are important for learning to take place. Under this law, one of the implications in the classroom is that the teacher will use positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviour. Undesirable behaviours will be ignored or discouraged. Students who answer questions correctly in the classroom, for example will be applauded or given gifts to encourage others to do so. Since the behaviourist teacher is results oriented, he or she will create an atmosphere for healthy competition to encourage learning in the classroom. This is an implication under the law of effect. For example, the scores of students in an examination will be ranked and published on the notice board. This will create the ambition in students to do better than their peers. Finally, the behaviour theory of learning makes the learner passive. As a result of this, the teacher will be pressured to always be well prepared for the lesson. In the Mathematics classroom, the behaviourist teacher gives the information to the students who receive it without questioning or contributing. The teacher will hardly ask students to research on a given topic and present their findings. To conclude, the behaviour theory of learning has many implications good and bad in the Mathematics classroom. Some of them will have a positive impact on learning while others may be detrimental to the learning process. It is the responsibility of the teacher to be aware of the implications his or her learning theories have in the classroom


Beck, H. P., Levinson, S. & Irons, G. (2009). Finding Little Albert: A journey to John B. Watson's infant laboratory. American Psychologist. 64, 605–614.

Bush, G. (2006). Learning about learning: from theories to trends. Teacher Librarian, 14-19.

Hartley, J. (1998). Learning and studying: A research perspective. London: Routledge. 80-82.

Seifert, K. &. (2009). Educational Psychology. Zurich: Global Tect Project, 55-68.

Thorndike, E. (1932). The fundamentals of learning. New York: Teachers college press, 44-70.

Watson, J. B. & Rayner ,W. R. (1921). Studies in Infant Psychology. The Scientific Monthly. 13 (6), 493–515.

Watson, J. B. & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 3, 1–14.
Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158–177

Weeger, M. J. (2012). A comparison of the two theories of learning - Behavioural and Constructivism as applied to face - to - face and online learning. E - Leader, 3-10. ![john-watson-1-1-638.jpg]


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