Behaviourism was a movement based in the realm of psychology that arose during the late 19th and early 20th century – the word ‘behaviourism’ first appeared in a paper written by John Watson in 1913.
Behaviourists focused on the links between environmental stimuli and the behaviours that these would cause. Put more simply, they focused on the link between stimulus and response, two terms that you may have heard used together before. Behaviourist analyses tend to ignore physical changes and the mental workings of people, focusing more on clearly observable behaviour.
One can identify three clear historical reasons that led to the rise of behaviourism as well as a cultural reason.
In the time period prior to the rise of behaviourism, psychology as a science had stopped progressing. This was due to the failure of self-examination, which was the technique that had dominated psychology up until that point. Self-examination would produce an entirely subjective report, because the researchers would record data on themselves. This led to a lack of verifiable information, which meant that progress could not be made in psychology. Due to the failure of this technique, psychologists were searching for other perspectives which would allow psychology to advance; the time was ripe for a new movement.
The second reason is connected to the first. While psychology as a science had stalled, other sciences were quickly progressing. Major discoveries had been made concerning atomic theory in the field of physics, the periodic table had been mapped in chemistry, and Darwin’s work on evolution
had taken place. This ‘pushed’ psychology to do better.
The third reason involves the success of research on animal behaviour which provided insights into learning, habits, and behaviour in general. These successes were often made in other fields – a famous example is Pavlov’s work. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, set out to study the workings of digestive systems in dogs and ended up exploring what would later be termed classical conditioning, a part of behaviourism.
Once behaviourism was explored a bit more, it proceeded to gain popularity with the public because it fit in with the cultural mood at that time. One of behaviourism’s claims is that each person is born equal, and that any differences in people are purely due to their life experiences. This fit in well with the American public, since the Declaration of Independence states that ‘all men are born equal’. It also caught hold in Russia, where the newly established the government was based around the idea of equality. The world was turning towards the idea of equality, and behaviourism rode on the popularity of this idea.