Monday, 23 January 2012 11:06

The Behaviorists: Men Of Ideas - Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, B. F. Skinner

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Ivan Pavlov Ivan Pavlov

Pavlov accidentally discovered that animals can be conditioned to respond, at the physiological level, to stimuli that ordinarily one would not expect them to do so. For example, one would expect actual food to make animals intestines release digestive juices but a bell associated with food could make animals release such digestive juices.


(Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, B. F. Skinner)

Ozodi Thomas Osuji

Since the inception of psychology there have been two trends in it: looking inside people to understand why they do what they do and looking outside people to understand them. Looking inside leads to introspection and speculation regarding human motives and that often does not lend itself to verifiable conclusions. Looking outside seems more promising in the sense that it yields material that can be tested. What is outside can be seem by all observers and attested by all hence seem empirical and perhaps objective.

Science is predicated on that which can be seen by all (empiricism) and verified by all (and, as Karl Popper added, is falsifiable). Obviously, what we all can see lends itself to science.

Psychology wants to become a science and, therefore, tends to prefer what can be verifiable to what is speculative.

Much of psychoanalysis is speculative hence not really scientific. Those who desire a science of human behavior tends to prefer looking at the exterior behavior than interior behavior, for the former can be observed and tested.

We all know that much of what we know is learned. Learning is real otherwise there would be no need for schools. We have schools and send our children to them so that they are taught all kinds of subjects and learn them. Children do not have apriori knowledge; as far as we know they obtain knowledge from those who have it and can teach it. If you want to know physics you learn it from those who have studied physics. When you are sufficiently learned in physics you can then teach others what you have learned. You do not know physics without studying it and learning it.

Living is learning. If one stops learning one becomes stagnant, stunted and dies.

There are those who would like to believe that we first think and then behave, that we know about phenomena by thinking about it.  Okay, what is thinking?

Is thinking not a biological phenomenon? Is thinking not the dance of electrical ions and neurotransmitters in the human brain, nervous system?

Is thinking more than biological processes? Some would like to believe that there is a spiritual part of us whose mind does the thinking through our brains. The problem with this view is that no one can verify that supposed thinking agent in us.

Empirical evidence would seem to suggest that thinking is biological in nature. Or is it? These questions have preoccupied mankind for thousands of years.


The Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was performing experiments on his animals when he accidentally discovered a phenomenon that is now called classical conditioning. If a dog had had a certain type of food before and sees that food or smells it, it salivates. Even when it had not yet eaten the food the animal’s body reacts to it (salivates, its intestinal tracks releases digestive juices).

Additionally, if the animal is summoned to food by ringing a bell it associates that sound with food and salivate upon hearing it.  What does this mean?

It means that animals physiological responses do learn their activities; it means that animals past learning makes their bodies, in the present, react in a certain manner.

For example, an agent that is not necessarily fear arousing could be paired with a fear arousing object and it becomes an independent source of fear.

The implication is that human beings can be trained or conditioned to all sorts of behaviors. If so, where is their alleged thinking? If thinking is independent of behavior how come people can be conditioned to respond in a certain manner to neutral stimuli?

Pavlov’s experiments suggested that even human physiological responses are learned variables. This means that every thing about our bodies could have been learned in the past. Evolution means learning and what we now call our physiological responses were probably learned in the past millions of years.

This could also mean that thinking is learned? Pavlov did not go that far, after all he was not a reductive psychologist; he was a biologist (he won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1904). It is left to American psychologists to extrapolate from Pavlov and suggest that thinking is a learned behavior.


Chance, Paul. (1988) Learning and Behavior. New York: Wadsworth Pub. Co.

John Watson was insistent that behavior is learned through classical conditioning and is attributed with founding the behavioristic school of psychology.

Pavlov showed that human beings are prone to classical conditioning. In America John B. Watson (1878-1958) built a new school of psychology that he called behaviorism around Pavlov classical conditioning. Mr. Watson even went on to boast that even thinking is a conditioned reflex and performed experiments to show that the vocal chords can be taught to make sound in a certain manner.

Watson, the father of the so-called behaviorist school of psychology, set out to show that thinking is not an independent activity but a biological variable and a learned phenomenon. If he could demonstrate his thesis he would have destroyed most of religion and philosophy; he would have demonstrated that man is strictly an animal that his environment produced. More to the point at hand, he would have proved that man’s most defining characteristic, thinking, can be studied in a scientific manner, and since psychology studies thinking it is therefore a science.

Behaviorism’s goal is to prove that psychology is a science, just like the king of the sciences, physics, is.

Having convinced himself that he is correct, that our behaviors and personalities are learned, John Watson (as opposed to James Watson of DNA fame) went on to boast that if he is given twelve infants that he could condition them into any personality he wants them to become; he could make them behave as he wants them to. Good for him. Talk is cheap. Fools boast but wise mean areJohn Watson cautious.

In the meantime Watson is an alcoholic and could not condition himself out of his self destructive behavior!

It is really amazing how academic psychologists talk rot and make claims that they cannot possibly carry out. Folk who are like children and are paid and supported by others and have  no independent mind talk about what they can do when all you have to do is threaten to fire them from their idle jobs and like monkeys they grovel and do as you asked them to do.

The great Watson was caught having affair with one of his graduate students and fired from Johns Hopkins University. His reputation was shattered and he could not obtain another faculty position and had to work as an advertising executive. Apparently, he could not condition the school authorities not to behave as he wanted them to, keep him in his idiotic behaviorist job, so that he made silly noises about what he could do.

For our present purpose, Watson began the school of psychology called behaviorism. The idea in behaviorism is that most human activities are learned and not from some innate propensities.


Watson, John B. (1914) Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.

Skinner added to Watson’s classical conditioning operant conditioning, the idea that we can deliberately reinforce desired behaviors by rewarding it when it is practiced and ignore undesired behaviors by not focusing on them.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) continued the work of Watson. B.F. Skinner was a salesman for behaviorism and, more or less, managed to get most American universities to embrace it as their methodological approach to psychology (until they were thrown out as the charlatans they are by neuroscience).

Skinner’s contribution to behaviorism is adding what he called operant conditioning to Pavlov’s classical conditioning. Basically, this entails figuring out a way to get somebody to repeat a behavior that one deems positive.

If a child does something that is deemed appropriate, say, study his books, how do you get him to repeat that behavior in the future? Skinner talks about rewarding that behavior? May be you could praise him for studying. May be you could reward him with material things that he desires (and pair the reward with studying); may be you could take him to a movie or to whatever it is he likes?

The idea is to find a way to positively reinforce a desired behavior; the belief is that if behavior is reinforced that such behavior would be repeated in the future. You habituate a person to doing something by positively reinforcing it whenever he does it.

Praise and material gifts (brownie chips) are two known positive reinforces.  Since the beginning of human history, parents have been bribing their children to get them to behave as they are expected to behave.  B.F. Skinner really did not say anything that parents do not already know, he just made a lot of noise about it, and as they say, squeaky wheels get the attention.

If you want somebody to extinguish an undesirable behavior you find a way to discourage it. May be you accomplish your goal by not paying attention to him when he engages in the undesired behavior. Punishment does not get people to change behaviors, it merely makes them figure out other ways to do what they want to do, B. F. Skinner said.  If behavior isn’t positively reinforced it isn’t repeated.

Having convinced himself that he has at last found a winner, a way to change human behavior, Skinner constructed what he called behavior technology, and set out to modify people’s behaviors. If they behaved as desired they are positively reinforced; if not they are not rewarded. Behavior modification technique was the buzz word at psychology departments all across America until neuroscience chased these idle noise makers out.

Skinner’s hope is that with his behavior technology that he could change all sorts of undesirable behaviors. Skinners students descended on America’s jails and prisons trying to modify inmate’s antisocial behaviors. Alas, after millions of dollars were wasted not one inmate was made to change his behavior through Skinner’s social engineering. Similarly, Skinner and his disciples spanned the school globe teaching teachers how to use positive reinforcement to get students to improve their learning. Alas, the more these snake oil sales men tried the less well American students learned.

Skinner, like most behaviorists, is pure noise. It is true that we are learning animals but that is not all there is to human beings, or is it? Reductionism to learning is simply too much.B. F._Skinner

Skinner wrote many books, including Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. In Walden Two (borrowed from Thoreau’s Walden) he visualized a utopian commune where the principles of his operant conditioning were practiced. He imagined that such a society would be a well ordered and productive society. Here is a problem: who is the person who knows what are appropriate behaviors and would be dolling out the positive conditioning? Would it be the leader of the commune?  If so, would that not make the leader a totalitarian dictator? And who is that leader?  Would it be Skinner? Who judged Skinner possessing leadership qualities and elected him a leader? Himself of course! In real life, like most college professors, Skinner would not be made a dog catcher for he knows not a damn thing about how to lead people in work.

It is not cynical to say that Skinner’s methodology would be excellent instrument for a dictator to control the people. Thank God it does not work!

You can try to condition children to do what you want them to do (and those with strong wills would rebel and you call them opposition defiant disordered children, for in your misguided world all persons must be complaint dolls.)

In the adults world one adult does not condition other adults to do what he wants them to do; he negotiates with them and they both agree on what to do. Skinner and his behaviorists are paper dictators.

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity Skinner argues that human beings do not really have freedom since they are conditioned creatures. They do not exercise freedom for their choices are made for them by either their biology or social upbringing. Since they do not have freedom to choose, therefore, they do not have dignity.

As Skinner sees it, human beings are robots doing what they were programmed to do by nature and society. This, incidentally, was the belief of Adolf Hitler and other fascists; people are nothing; train and use people to accomplish your (fuehrer prince) will. It does not matter if they died in the war to accomplish your (national) goals, for you, they are mere animals. Indeed, people’s value lies in obeying the will of the dictator.

If we apply Skinners view to him it follows that everything he did he did not have freedom to do; his actions were determined by his genes and social learning; he was a robot and should not take credit for his so-called achievements.

Behaviorists are like little children playing with fire. They really do not know what they are doing in trying to say that man does not have freedom of choice and that he is a determined variable. If men have no dignity, why not kill them off? Why keep the unproductive alive? Why do we spend money on developmentally delayed children, mentally ill persons, and all the unproductive elements of society, why not just get rid of them.

If man is a mere animal, a dictator like Hitler can rationally do away with all the undesirables of society, including professors of psychology who do not produce anything useful for society, who merely talk rubbish and the tax payers support them at our universities.

Luckily, most people take behaviorists as the fools they are and leave them alone. Let them try to condition rats to do as they desire but if they tried conditioning real human beings to their foolish wills they would be slapped down quick. They would be taught how the real world words, a world where wills clash.

If human beings do not have free will and dignity we ought to invent it for them, for that is what makes decent society possible. It is like the idea of God. We do not know for sure that God exists. But every rational person, including Machiavelli, knows that if God does not exist we ought to invent one for people, for without God there can be no moral absolutes, and if there are no moral absolutes there can be no organized human society. (America is increasing finding out, what cultural relativism does: lead to demise of societies, for now every absurd behavior is approved. Such absurd behaviors as homosexuality, pedophilia, bestiality etc would all be approved and the people drown themselves in a sea of diseases).

Skinner claimed to be a radical behaviorist; apparently, by that he meant that his operant conditioning went beyond Watson’s classical conditioning based behaviorism.

As one sees it, Skinner did not say anything that any parent and teacher don’t already know. We all know that human beings are creatures that are capable of learning and been taught. Teach people and they will learn.  However, you must also understand that human beings are more than the sum of their learning. Henri Bergson may not have proved his thesis that there is a vital energy, a life force, a non material spirit force in people but rational persons keep their fingers crossed and do not dismiss that possibility, for it is what makes human beings unique.


Skinner, B.F. (1948) Walden two.

___                 (1953) Science of Human Behavior.

___                (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

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