History of Psychology – The First Behaviourist

Despite Thorndike discovering one of the fundamental principles of behaviourism, he was not the first behavioural psychologist- that honour goes to John Watson.

Watson was – as many of the early psychologists and scientists seem to be- a precocious student, starting college at the age of 16. The combined influence of two of his teachers, especially their belief that all behaviour could be explained by chemistry and physics with no spiritual or moral driving force, led Watson to develop his philosophy of psychology.

“Psychology as the Behaviourist views it”, otherwise known as the “Behaviourist Manifesto”, rejected the old Structuralist methods by stating that “introspection forms no essential part of its method”. It also stood opposite the psychodynamic thinkers, who saw humans as uniquely complex: the Manifesto saw humans as simply more refined animals- “the behaviourist…recognizes no dividing line between man and brute”.

The Manifesto was largely ignored by psychologists when it was first written, as the only principle of behaviour Watson had at the time to support his views was Pavlov’s discovery of reflexes. However, it became more prominent after Watson applied his philosophy to raising children.

Watson’s views on children were criticised for two reasons; the first being because he believed that parents should limit the amount of affection shown to children (however, he was not alone in this). The second was because of the behaviourist (and philosophical view that children are a tabula rasa, a “blank slate” (a belief found from the Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke). This led him to make his famous quote;

“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 – 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”

Watson tested the “blank slate” theory in one of the most controversial psychological experiments of the 20th century- the “Little Albert” experiment. In this, Watson and his  assistant  used classical conditioning to cause an 8-month-old baby to have a fear of white rats by showing him the rat and then scaring him-which was successful.

(However, Albert’s parents removed him from their care before they could reverse the phobia, which then extended to a phobia of anything white and fluffy).

Unfortunately, Watson was then fired from his university teaching post for  having an affair with the above-mentioned assistant (who would later become his wife) and in anger burned many of his papers and letters, leaving us with little knowledge about his other studies.

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