Behaviorism

What comes to your mind when you come across the term “psychology”? For most of us, we tend to think of mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia. As well, we think of abstract concepts such as personality, emotions, and consciousness. But probably the very first thing that we think of when we see the word psychology is the concept of mind.

While applied psychology is most commonly seen in clinical contexts, it is not all that the field has to offer because psychological disorders only form the subfield of abnormal psychology. Similarly, it is difficult to grapple with the idea that psychology is more than just about the mental processes that take place in our heads – it extends to observable behavior, which forms much of the basis behind the study of psychology. One of the earliest approaches to psychology was behaviorism, the dominant school of thought in the first half of the 20th century.

Behaviorism first flourished under the intellectual leadership of psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, emphasizing the scientific study of observable behavioral responses and their environmental determinants. Behaviorism provides that our behavior is influenced entirely by environmental factors; in the process, it discounts the importance of cognitive processes. For example, a child who always throws tantrums in public could be doing so because his parents give in to him every time he makes a scene, so he now knows how to get his way. Meanwhile, a teen who studies consistently for her exams might be willing to do so only because she gets rewarded whenever she does well. A famous quote from Watson captures the essence of behaviorism best:

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 suspect that this might be a preposterous idea to most of us now. How can it be right to suggest that we are influenced to the extent that we cannot exercise free will? Don’t we get a say?

The main reason that behaviorists chose to approach psychology from this perspective is that it allowed the world to look upon psychology as a real science: only by moving away from “nonscientific” methods such as introspection in favor of empirically observable results would people start taking psychology seriously. While contemporary behaviorists still adopt the same approach in research, most do not deny the role of cognition and biology in behavior.

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