Critically evaluate the impact behaviourism has had on psychology For hundreds of years philosophers speculated about “the mind” and in around the 1880’s the popular method of psychology dealt only with the conscious mind. The experiments carried out at this time were criticised for their lack of objectivity and by the 1920’s a new brand of psychology emerged in the form of behaviourism.
Psychology became a recognised discipline in around 1897 when Wilhelm Wundt started the first psychology lab in Germany. Wundt, along with others, attempted to investigate the mind through introspection, and observed their own conscious mental processes. While analysing their thoughts, images and feelings, they recorded and measured their results under controlled conditions and aimed to sort conscious thought into its basic elements as a chemist would with a chemical compound. This theory was known as structuralism.
A particular critic of this method, in the early 1920’s was John Broadus Watson (1878-1958), who felt that introspection was subjective and therefore erroneous. He also felt the only way forward was by using methods that could be observed by more that just one person and this could be achieved by studying behaviour. He wrote that “Behaviourism claims that ‘consciousness’ is neither a definable nor a usable concept; that it is merely another word for the ‘soul’ of more ancient times.” (Watson 1924)
Behaviourist theories of learning are often called “stimulus-response” (S-R), and though only classical conditioning fits the S-R model, the other major form, operant conditioning, is often included under the same heading, though it is significantly different. Classical conditioning is triggered involuntarily by a particular environmental stimulus. This means that a stimulus that does not normally produce a particular response can be paired with another stimulus that does, eventually resulting in both stimuli inducing the same effect, even when used separately.
A good example of this was shown in the first experiments by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936) in the early 20th Century. During other research work he noticed that dogs often salivated before they were given any food, and even when they looked at food. This sometimes went as far as the dog salivating when he heard the approaching footsteps of the laboratory assistant bringing the food. Pavlovs observations used food as an unconditional stimulus and the salivating was an unconditioned response, an automatic reflex response. During the experiment a bell was paired with the food and referred to as a conditioned stimulus. It was neutral to begin with and got no response from the dog except for a passing interest. After the bell and food had been paired for some time the dog began to salivate at the sound of the bell and before the food was shown. The salivation was then a conditioned response as it was produced by the bell (conditioned stimulus).
In 1920 Watson took this work further when he attempted a similar study on an 11month old boy called Albert. He used a rat as the original stimulus, and Albert showed no fear of it. He paired the rat with an unconditioned stimulus, which in this case was a hammer hitting a four foot steel bar close to Alberts head, which frightened the child and made him cry. After about 50 pairings Albert was afraid of the rat which had by this time become the conditioned stimulus. The conditioned response (fear) spontaneously transferred to other items which included a white rabbit, a sealskin coat, cotton wool, Watsons hair and a Santa mask. Though it was less severe, the conditioning persisted even after a month and Albert’s mother removed him from the hospital.