Individual Perspectives in Beahiorism

Although the ideas of John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner and Edward C. Tolman all have merit, there was a radical element to some of these perspectives which made them somewhat unacceptable in their day, not to mention unethical then, and now. However, each of the famous psychologists has contributed invaluable knowledge in the form of behavioral theories that have helped form the basis of behavioral research and therapy in the present day. For some, like John B. Watson, the method of discovery was purely observational, for others, the explanation of certain behaviors was a little more complicated.

For John B. Watson, the idea of psychological research based on introspection was a ridiculous notion. Watson argued that results based on anything other than visual observation could not possibly be accurate, and therefore could not be replicated in the future (Goodwin, 2007). He argued that the idea of perception was purely subjective, and only his brand of observable data could be relied on for future reference. Watson was a man of unshakable conviction. In addition, some of his experiments were looked upon unfavorably; but his brand of behaviorism was one that helped build a strong foundation for behavioral psychology.

According to Watson, no research could be considered valid if the introspective method of validating behavior was used. He scoffed at the idea of using untrained people who pondered their own thoughts and placed them in record, as research that was bound to be a failure. Watson decided that it was time to “turn to behavior as the data to be observed” (Goodwin, 2007, p. 343). Watson made it his life’s work, to study behavior from a predictability and control viewpoint. Previous studies using laboratory animals convinced Watson he was on the path to gaining the same understanding of human behavior, and how it could be manipulated.

When speaking of John B. Watson, it is difficult to ignore the ethical ramifications of some of his experimental methods of research. In particular, Watson’s famous Little Albert experiment raised eyebrows in the scientific community, as well as the public. The experiment successfully showed that fear can be a learned response. Little Albert was subjected repeatedly to unpleasantries in conjunction with the appearance of a white rat. Eventually, Albert “learned” the response of becoming terrified whenever the rat was presented, so long as it was accompanied with a loud bang. The loud bang, of course, is what had startled Albert. However, the association of the loud noise when seeing the rat caused Albert to become afraid of the rat. In future experiments, Albert became distressed at the mere sight of the rat, despite the absence of the loud noise (Goodwin, p. 347). Watson had proved his point, but not without some criticism from all who became aware of the Little Albert fiasco. These days, no such experiment is permitted for fear of causing long-term and possibly irreparable damage to a child. Watson, however, was not alone when it came to psychological controversy.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner, a radical behaviorist and a man known for his strong will, is known to many for his novel, Walden Two. Unfortunately, many people know little of his more formal work in the field of psychology, including the existence of his great work, The Behavior of Organisms (1938). Skinner argued, “some behavior is emitted by the organism and is controlled by the immediate consequences of the behavior, not by an eliciting stimulus” (Goodwin, 2007, p.385), and therefore disagreed with a huge amount of earlier research on conditioning methods by the now famous Pavlov. Instead, Skinner asserted that his brand of operant conditioning produced a more predictable response. In operant conditioning, a reward is given for a desired behavior, which in turn elicits future desired behaviors. It was this train of thought that Skinner used as the basis for Walden Two.

According to Skinner’s operant conditioning procedure, desired behaviors could be produced if reward was given to solicit the desired behaviors. Based on this notion, that the environment can successfully manipulate behaviors, Walden Two became a virtual large-scale experiment using the very same methods. Babies would be taken from parents and raised in communal fashion, and each child, as it grew was encouraged to pursue his or her interest. Reinforcement was given for desired behaviors –that is, the environment was manipulated, and Walden Two became the Utopia that Skinner believed it could be in reality (Goodwin, 2007). Unfortunately for Skinner, the idea of such a large-scale manipulation fell on many thousands of people who believed such an absurd notion was not only impossible on a grand scale, but that it was also a violation of rights. Only during war times of the last century did radical anti-war protestors see Walden Two for what it could be. In their eyes, Walden truly was Utopia.

Edward C. Tolman

Unlike Watson and Skinner, Edward C. Tolman’s ideas about behavior took a more subtle view at why behaviors occur, and for what reason. Not only did Tolman look at behavior from a cognitive point of view, he was also curious about why behaviors were produced, and not how they could be produced by artificial means. For Tolman, behavior was all about goals and purpose, something that was not entertained by Watson, or Skinner.

Tolman’s idea of goal-directedness was that behaviors are all produced for a reason, and the reason is a desired result. He believed that goals were important for establishing behaviors, and that with goals firmly in place, a behavior was likely to occur. He argued that for anyone to behave in a certain way, they must have a reason for doing so. People do things for a reason he argued, and a goal was the attainable end reward for acting a certain way, or doing a certain thing. Watson would not have been too amused with Tolman’s ideas. They were not observable, and therefore could not be successfully observed and recorded for future reference. He would also scoff at the notion of expectancy; something that Tolman believed was a significant part of behavior and its development. Despite one’s assumption of what Watson’s and probably Skinner’s views might have been, it is interesting to note that all views have merit, and that the goal-directedness approach that Tolman touted as significant, is used successfully today in behavior modification programs, and also with great success in the workplace.

While on the subject of behavior and mechanisms for reproducing them, it is important to note some of Tolman’s interesting research on learning, which Tolman labeled, “latent learning”(Goodwin, 200, p.369). Tolman believed that the process of learning could occur without manipulation, the introduction of a reward, the fear of punishment or by manipulating the environment in some way so as a desired behavior was produced. In fact, Tolman discovered, learning takes place in the absence of all of the above. He created an experiment using laboratory rats, to demonstrate that they could learn how to navigate a maze, whether food was given as a reward or not. Some rats were given food as a reward, while others were given no food at all. A third group of rats were given no food for the first ten days of the experiment, and still managed to learn how to navigate the difficult maze. However, when food was introduced on day 11, their “performance improved immediately” (Goodwin, 2007, p. 369). Tolman’s assumption was indeed, correct.

The field of behavioral psychology has arguably attracted some of the most colorful characters of all. Watson, with his black and white views about something not existing if it cannot be visually observed, and Skinner with his lofty ideal of a Utopian world where everyone behaves perfectly, and for the good of all humankind. And Edward C. Tolman, whose ideas of cognitive maps and latent behavior would surely have made the former two a little disgruntled.

According to an article by Stuart, (1985), psychologists used to become famous for one of two reasons – either they ruthlessly banished common sense from their theories or they surreptitiously brought it back. B. F. Skinner, with his denial of mental processes, belonged to the first group; Edward C. Tolman, who at the height of the behaviorist movement insisted that rats formed cognitive maps, belonged to the second (para. 1).


Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Stuart, S., & Stuart Sutherland, a. (1985). THAT’S USING YOUR HEAD. New York

     Times Book Review, 12. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.