Classical Behaviourism1

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 19 September 2023

The "radical" behaviourism of John B. Watson and Burrhus Frederic Skinner denied the relevance, if not the very existence, of everything that their objective science could not deal with. Watson famously brushed “religion, the life hereafter, morals, love of children, parents, country, and the like” aside as “the trouble”. The (in)famous passage in which Watson wrote this amazing opinion is well-known, but worth repeating in full:

Human beings do not want to class themselves with other animals. They are willing to admit that they are animals but ‘something else in addition’. It is this ‘something else’ that causes the trouble.  In this ‘something else’ is bound up everything that is classed as religion, the life hereafter, morals, love of children, parents, country, and the like. The raw fact that you, as a psychologist, if you are to remain scientific, must describe the behaviour of man in no other terms than those you would use in describing the behavior of the ox you slaughter, drove and still drives many timid souls away from behaviorism.(Watson, 1929, p. v)

The rather baffling assumption that his colleagues spent their days slaughtering oxen was not an isolated lapse of common sense. In the beginning of the first chapter of the same book Watson first dismissed consciousness as "neither a definable nor a usable concept" and then wrote under the heading "The Religious Background of Current Introspective Psychology" the following:

No one knows just how the idea of a soul or the supernatural started. It probably had its origin in the general laziness of mankind. Certain individuals who in primitive society declined to work with their hands, to go out hunting, to make flints, to dig for roots, became keen observers of human nature.
They found that the loud noise from breaking limbs, thunder and other sound-producing phenomena, would throw the primitive individual from his very birth into a panicky state.(Watson, 1929, p.3)

One might have expected that the dismissal of religion, morals and love as nothing but ‘trouble’, the rather baffling assumption that his colleagues spent their days slaughtering oxen, and the casual listing of "the loud noise from breaking limbs" as a "sound-producing phenomenon" would have been sufficient to alert any sensible reader that something was seriously amiss with the founder of Behaviorism. To recommend that people look at their fellow human beings as at the ox they slaughter is not just a neutral statement of method; it is a sign of serious, and potentially dangerous psychopathology. Strangely enough, Watson was not sidelined at all. On the contrary, his Behaviorism became one of the founding texts of modern psychology. And Watson was not alone.

In 1938, Tolman, another well-respected American psychologist, wrote in the Psychological Review:

I believe that everything important in psychology (… save such matters as involve society and words) can be investigated in essence through the continued experimental and theoretical analysis of the determiners of rat behavior at a choice point in a maze.2 (Tolman, 1938, p. 34.)

Not to be outdone, Skinner, who was till the end of the last century considered by many as one of the greatest psychologists of all time, formulated in 1953 the same idea in somewhat more covert terms:

The objection to inner states is not that they do not exist, but that they are not relevant in a functional analysis. (Skinner 1953, p. 35).

Skinner is intelligent enough not to deny the existence of “inner states”, but declaring inner states irrelevant “in a functional analysis” comes effectively to the same thing, and it is plain nonsense: will a human being react to the same "stimulus", say an insult, in the same way when he is self-confident and happy, as when he is depressed and irritated? Given the dominant role of science in our collective and even individual lives, such errors are not inconsequential.

It may be useful to stand still for a moment at the enormity of the statements quoted in the previous paragraphs, and ponder how they could ever have passed intelligent peer-review, or, what is even more amazing, how they could have been tolerated for so long as part of the mainstream view. For these three authors where no freaky characters somewhere at the lunatic fringe of society, they were amongst the most highly respected social scientists of their time and together they had a defining influence on how mainstream academic psychology developed during the twentieth century. Even now, more than a century after the first publication of Watson’s ideas, it is still hard to find any mainstream psychology textbook that does not include the term “behaviour” in its core definition of what psychology is about. But that is not all. One of the most popular introductory psychology textbooks in India, Introduction to Psychology by Clifford Morgan and Richard King, begins its second chapter with a sentence that at first sight may seem to do no more than echo the statements of Watson about the ox and of Tolman about the rats. It says: "We may think that we are only a little lower than the angels, but we must never forget that we are a species of animal." The subtle change that has taken place between what Watson said and what we find in the textbook is, however, deadly serious: Watson's ideas have been internalised, and what started as a statement about methodology, has ended as a declaration on what we are.

And this matters, because in most "enlightened", "secular" countries, science has a virtual monopoly on how public institutions, including education, look at human nature. So what happens if a teacher takes her Psychology classes seriously and carries her newly acquired scientific attitude forward to her classroom? Will she remain her good old human self, or will she force herself to observe her students objectively as “the ox she slaughters”? Even if we forget for the time being about the poor oxen, which sane human being would like children to be treated as animals ready to be slaughtered? For that is what it leads to: there is only a tiny step from “objective” observation to “objective” treatment.3 And what happens to the rest of society when this objective, materialist, reductionist way of looking at people gradually seeps from the dominant knowledge system into all other aspects of life? What happens to us as human beings when we are told that inner states are irrelevant? Will we do as science tells us and believe that it is “unscientific” to take love, empathy, care and responsibility serious? Will we obediently ignore the “irrelevant” inner state that tells us what is right or wrong?

The denial of whatever it is that differentiates human beings from rats “at a choice point in a maze”, and the lump-sum dismissal of inner states as irrelevant “for a functional analysis”, is not innocent. Our choice of method is not a simple, technical issue. The method we use to study ourselves determines what we can see, and given the importance the newly arising global civilization attaches to the scientific world view, this has a major influence on which aspects of reality are developed and fostered. Reductionist explanations, if carried through to their logical end, cannot but come to the conclusion that matter is the only “relevant” reality, and that everything else which moves people — values, love, freedom, agency, subjective experience — is at best ephemeral, if not illusionary. From here it is only a very small step to the denial of all that is best in humanity, and to a lowering of our ethical standards. Given the role of science in society, limiting ourselves to what can be studied objectively in rats (and computers) cannot but have a debasing influence on our collective understanding of what it means to be human. It is perhaps no incident, that the twentieth century has been one of the most destructive in known history.

All this is not to say that there is no place for reductionist explanations and objective methods, they have a legitimate role to play, even in psychology, but collectively we have hugely exaggerated their scope and applicability, and to limit ourselves to them is a recipe for disaster. To grow a beautiful garden, a basic understanding of biochemistry may help once in a while, but a good “feel” for plants and an intuitive sense of natural harmony and aesthetics is what is indispensable.

One could argue that all this is fighting straw men as the heydays of classical Behaviourism are long over, but, as said, its effects are far from gone. Even today, there is hardly a psychology textbook that does not describe the subject area of psychology in terms of “behaviour” and the tendency to allow only for bottom-up and outside-in causality remains. We accept the effect of physiology on the mind, from the social environment on the self, and from the parents on the child, and in the interdisciplinary field of Consciousness Studies, it is at present the majority view that higher-order realities like consciousness are "causally ineffective epiphenomena". In other words, it should be considered "unscientific" to believe in agency or to believe that people must and can take responsibility for their own lives.

Morally and ethically there is clearly something deeply wrong with these theories. But even on a simple pragmatic level they don't hold. Where reductionism does not seem to work, where there remains an explanatory gap, a jump of level, something that simply cannot be explained bottom-up, the mainstream has now embraced the notion of “emergence”, forgetting that emergence doesn't offer an acceptable explanation of reality. It is an attempt at stowing away into some “functionally irrelevant” corner all those elements of reality that don’t fit into what is essentially a preconceived materialistic belief system. Though our knowledge of the brain has grown, as far as consciousness goes, mainstream academic psychology has not moved as resolutely away from Watson, Tolman and Skinner as it should have.

To conclude

Those at home with recent discussion in the fields of consciousness studies, philosophy of science, or transpersonal, cross-cultural and Indian psychology will be familiar with the issues mentioned and appreciate their complexity and far-reaching implications. While amongst psychology professionals outside academics much has happened, mainstream university research and teaching have not kept up, and this is not a small theoretical issue: In our global civilization, psychology is the official science of the human mind and it has a profound influence on education, public opinion, business management, and government decisions. As a civilization we cannot afford such arrogant ignorance.



1This text is based on the Preface to Joshi, Kireet & Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.), (2004). Consciousness, Indian Psychology and Yoga, (Project on the History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, Vol. XI, Part 3). New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations.

2In many of these studies rats were motivated to learn by secondary rewards in the form of food-pellets. Their motivation was then regulated by starving them and measured — objectively — in terms of the proportion of their "free-feeding weight" to their actual weight. Shocking as this is by itself, the results were generalised without much further thought to humans, and applied in education where, gracefully, children are not physically starved, but still far too often starved of natural stimulation, friendliness and respect which they then need to "earn" by giving correct answers in "objective" tests. For the corrupting influence this has on motivation as well as judgment, see next footnote.

3 For the effects of behaviourist psychology on education, one could have a look at "Is schooling injurious to health?"