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Mid-Twentieth Century Behaviorism

Behavioral psychologists at mid-century (1930s to 1950s) hoped to find powerful laws that would do for psychology what E=MC2 did 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.

Behaviorists believed that, like physi­cists, they would find mathematical laws testable in the laboratory and powerful in the outside world. Critics said the behaviorists suffered from physics envy, a playful reference to a Freudian theory.

In what way did behavioral psychologists try to imitate physicists?

I observed how this rigor was enforced in 1974, in a first-year graduate course. The professor asked that students in class refer only to behaviors: things a researcher could measure directly.

This was (he pointed out) a course in animal behavior. In this class, whether we talked about animals or humans, we should refer only to behaviors. We should not 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 interrupted: "The rat WHAT?" The student looked startled and rephrased her statement. "The rat made a decision to..." but again she was interrupted by the professor, who shouted, "WHAT?"

The student fell silent. The professor explained again: this was a class in behavioral analysis of animal behavior, so we should speak only about behavior, not thoughts, decisions, or other inferred mental activity. He was trying to get us to act like traditional behavioral psychologists while we were in his class.

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

Years earlier, Watson argued that behaviorism provided tools necessary to shape human behavior in any direction (e.g. create geniuses or criminals out of any baby). By the 1940s, behaviorists knew Watson had promised too much.

Watson used Pavlov's laws of learning, called classical cond­itioning see (Chapter 05, Part One) plus a few other principles such as trial and error learning. This did not seem to be enough to explain all of human behavior.

By the mid-twentieth century, there was another behavioral analysis system. It promised more potent tools. This was the approach of B.F. Skinner.

Behaviorists in the 1950s hoped Skinner's operant conditioning theory would fulfill the promise of behavioral psychology. For the second half of the 20th Century, B.F. Skinner was the most cited (referenced) researcher in psychological literature. We will discuss his theory in Chapter 5, Part Three.

Skinner "hyped" his theory much like Watson promoted behaviorism, claiming it could influence all behavior. For example, Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two, published in 1948. It was about an imaginary society run using insights from operant conditioning principles, emphasizing reinforcement of desired behavior.

By the 1950s almost all American, British, and South African experimental psychologists were behaviorists. In America, Clark Hull was using behaviorism to try to explain all behavior of all animals. Hull's theory of motivation is discussed at the beginning of Chapter 9 (Motivation).

Hull established the stereotype of an experimental psychologist as a lab-coated figure running rats through mazes. Decades passed, with thousands of experiments using behavioral principles to probe animal and human learning.

By the 1970s, behaviorism had been dominating experimental psychology for over 50 years. It became clear that dramatic advances in understanding and shaping human behavior, promised by Watson and Skinner and Hull, were not occurring.

That is not to say behavioral psychology was useless. Far from it. The techniques devel­oped by behaviorists remain some of the most useful in psychology for changing the behavior of non-humans and humans alike.

For example, if you take a dog to an obedience class, almost everything you learn is a form of operant conditioning, Skinner's approach. This set of techniques became popularly known as behavior modification.

Behavioral techniques never gave behavior­ists the extreme degree of control over human behavior predicted by Watson and Skinner. However, the rhetoric of some behaviorists continued to be boastful. They proclaimed the "power" and "control" enabled by conditioning techniques.

One person who did not mind hyping behavior modification was Professor James V. McConnell. I took his course in behavior modification at the University of Michigan in 1971. The year before, McConnell became notorious for an article in Psychology Today titled, "Prisoners can be Brainwashed Now!" (McConnell, 1970).

If people actually read the article, they discovered McConnell was proposing something reasonable: prisoners should not just be warehoused in prisons. They should be taught to learn and follow society's rules, using positive reinforcement.

A version of this approach was actually tried in the mid-1970s. The setting was a maximum security correctional institution in Maryland, the Patuxent institution

The prison was divided into four areas (tiers) and inmates were allowed more privileges if they behaved themselves. That was the "brainwashing" McConnell described: gentle but consistent positive reinforcement of socially desirable behaviors.

As described in Chapter 14, this technique worked well. The prisoners learned to behave better in order to earn extra privileges. This research stands as one of the few successful examples of prison rehabilitation in the literature.

However, following the example of famous behavior­ists like Watson, Skinner, and Hull, McConnell exaggerated the power of behaviorism. He made the techniques sound powerful to the point of being sinister, especially with his title, "Prisoners can be Brain­washed Now!"

People outside the field of psychology started to believe the hype about behaviorism being powerful. They became frightened by it, and they started conflating behavioral conditioning with sinister techniques like torture.

What started to happen after 50 years of "hype" about the power of behavioral conditioning?

One day in 1971, around the time I was taking McConnell's course, I spotted several copies of a poster, stapled onto bulletin boards on the University of Michigan campus. It was announcing a forum to denounce behavior modification, to be held in my dormitory: East Quad. Here it is:

Poster denouncing behavior mod

I thought, "This is interesting. If I become a teacher, maybe I can use this someday to show students how people misunderstood the term behavior modification."

I knew that in Professor McConnell's class titled Behavior Modification, he emphasized only positive reinforcement and other benign operant conditioning techniques, not punishment or drug administration.

However, the poster equated behavior modification with "electric shock, solitary confinement with sensory deprivation, and forced administration of such drugs as LSD...."

It was bizarre, but it revealed an emerging public relations problem for behaviorism. The term behavior modification had been spoiled by extreme claims of forced behavior change. People now regarded behavior modification as equivalent to torture.

I wondered how much of this was due to behavior psychologists own self-promotion. They talked about their goal of "controlling human behavior" for so long that people started 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 learned McConnell had attempted to speak at that forum. He intended to correct the misinformation, but he was shouted down before he could be heard.

Other psychologists, at other schools, started to abandon the term "behavior modification." Within several years behavioral scientists dropped the label in favor of alternative terminology like operant conditioning and applied behavior analysis


McConnell, J.V. (1970, April) Criminals Can Be Brainwashed - Now. Psychology Today, pp. 14-16.

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