Mid-Twentieth Century Behaviorism

Behavioral psychologists at mid-century (1930s to 1950s) hoped to find powerful laws that would do for psychology what E=MC-squared had done for physics. They hoped psychology would be able to explain and control all human behavior, just as Watson promised. In order to follow the example of physics (and leave behind the problems of introspectionism) behaviorists thought it was very important to study only measurable things. They believed that (as in physics) they would find mathetmatical laws that could be tested in the laboratory. For this reason, psychologists were said to suffer from "physics envy," a playful reference to a Freudian theory.

Where was behaviorism popular? In what way did psychologists imitate physicists?

I observed how this rigor was enforced, in a first-year graduate course. The professor announced that in classroom discussions he would allow us to refer only to things a researcher could measure directly. When we talked about animals or humans, we were to refer only to behaviors. Students were not to use words like "mind" or "think" or "feel" or anything else that did not refer to observable behavior.

A student in my class slipped up and referred to a rat "deciding" to do something. The professor stopped her and said, "The rat WHAT?" The student looked startled and rephrased her statement. "The rat made a decision to..." but she was interrupted by the professor, who shouted, "WHAT??" The student fell silent, looking embarrassed, and the professor explained that we should speak only about behavior, not about thoughts, decisions, or any other inferred mental activity. He was trying to get us to act like good behavioral psychologists, at least while we were in his class.

How did some professors encourage students to act like behaviorists, in class?

As we saw on the previous page, Watson apparently felt he had all the tools he needed to create geniuses or criminals out of any baby, as early as 1913. However, the behaviorists of mid-century recognized that Watson had been over-optimistic, and they had an explanation. Watson had only used Pavlov's laws of learning (classical conditioning) and a few other principles such as trial and error learning. By the mid-twentieth century, there was another, complementary system that seemed to make behavioral psychology even more potent: the approach of B.F. Skinner.

B.F. Skinner is the most cited (referenced) researcher in psychological literature. We will discuss his theory in Chapter 5 (Conditioning). Skinner emphasized the role of reinforcement and punishment in learning. By the 1940s and 1950s Skinner was joined by many American and British and South African psychologists who embraced behavioral psychology. Clark Hull, for example, set out to explain all behavior of all animals using only a few behavioral concepts and formulas. His theory of motivation is discussed at the beginning of Chapter 9 (Motivation). Hull's work established the stereotype of the experimental psychologist as a lab-coated figure running rats through mazes.

By the 1970s, behaviorism had dominated experimental psychology for 50 years. The dramatic advances promised by people like Watson and Hull had not occurred. Behavioral psychologist had defined an effective set of procedures for training animals and modifying human behavior, popularly known as behavior modification, but they were far from attaining Watson's dream of total control over human behavior. Nevertheless, their rhetoric or "hype" continued to be extreme.

For example, Professor James V. McConnell, who taught a course in behavior modification at the University of Michigan, became notorious for an article published in Psychology Today titled, "Prisoners can be Brainwashed Now!" If people bothered to read the article, they discovered that McConnell was proposing something very reasonable: a positive reinforcement system for encouraging prisoners to learn society's rules. However, following the example of famous behaviorists like Watson, Skinner, and Hull, McConnell exaggerated the power of behaviorism and (in the title at least) made the techniques sound powerful and, so some people, sinister.

What started to happen after 50 years of "hype" about controlling behavior?

Eventually, people outside the field of psychology started to believe the hype about behaviorism, and they became frightened by it. One day in 1971, as I was walking through a campus building at the University of Michigan, I spotted several copies of a poster announcing a forum to denounce behavior modification.

I thought, "This is interesting...someday it will show my students how people misunderstood the term 'behavior modification'" so I removed one of them. I had taken Professor McConnell's class titled Behavior Modification, and I knew he emphasized only positive reinforcement and other benign operant conditioning techniques, not punishment or drug adminstration. Yet the poster erroneously equated behavior modification with "electric shock, solitary confinement with sensory deprivation, and forced administration of such drugs as LSD...."

I wondered how much of the misunderstanding was due to behavior psychologists own self-promotion. They had talked about their goal of "controlling human behavior" for so long that people were starting to equate behavior modification with any technique that changed behavior, no matter how drastic.

What terms are used today in place of "behavior modification"?

Later I heard that McConnell had attempted to speak at the forum, to correct the misinformation, but he was shouted down before he could be heard. Other psychologists, at other schools, started to notice that the term "behavior modification" was being seriously misunderstood. Within several years behavioral scientists largely abandoned that label in favor of less tainted terminology like operant conditioning and applied behavior analysis, terms we use in Chapter 5.

By the end of the 1970s, extreme forms of behaviorism were disappearing. Only a few decades earlier behaviorism had seemed utterly dominant in experimental psychology. In fact, many psychologists were dissatisfied because it seemed that psychology was offering students and researchers only two alternative theories. If you wanted to do therapy, you had to study Freud's rather eccentric theory (described in Chapters 11 and 13). If you wanted to do research, you had to endorse behaviorism. Given these two alternatives, many psychologists hungered for a third alternative. Out of that concern was born "the third force" or humanistic psychology.

Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey