In his paper “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” Watson (1913) points out what he believes to be the main issues of psychology as a growing science. Watson explains that psychology is concerned with the analysis of complex mental states and processes and reducing them to simple elements. An alternative approach includes taking several simple elements and constructing complex mental states from those elements. In both cases, the significance of external stimuli is often dismissed in studies, which also means no significance is attributed to behavioral data. That is why Watson argues that existing subject-matter in psychology should be dropped in favor of investigating simple behaviors until the frameworks and settings can support an empirical study of more complex phenomena.
Although behaviorism and structuralism can be considered opposing views in psychology because their methodologies and aims are different, Titchener (1914) supports Watson’s differentiation of psychology from other sciences. While it is possible to assume behavior can be studied as a consequence of physical and chemical determinants, Titchener commends the interpretation of behavior as a psychological form of adjustment to the environment. With that approach, it will be possible to distinguish psychology from biology and chemistry, rather than making it a sub-discipline of either one of those sciences.
Of course, Titchener (1914) does not support the rejection of introspection and any association between psychological studies and consciousness or mental processes. According to Watson (1913), introspection is untrained, which means that even if the apparatus or controlled stimuli are the same in two different experiments, it is possible to fail in reproducing findings simply because introspection is a flawed method. Likewise, mental processes and the components of consciousness are difficult to evaluate objectively, which results in high inconsistency rates between different studies.
In response, Titchener argues that Watson’s approach will reduce psychology from science to a form of technology because of its emphasis on controlling human behavior. It is also argued that there are already forms of psychology that are less dependent introspection psychology, such as legal psychology or education psychology, but those fields all began with introspection. Had Watson’s behaviorism eliminated introspection earlier, those fields would have never evolved gradually and stemmed into separate sub-disciplines.
It is also important to consider the fact that behaviorism is trying to exclude fundamental approaches based on brief and unsupported arguments made by Watson. While behaviorism can be an independent discipline, it cannot insist on removing elementary methodologies from general psychology. Watson’s approach is based on proving causality in behavioral patterns by studying only peripheral phenomena, but Watson does not consider or discuss the obvious limitation of false conclusions. Studying peripheral phenomena cannot prove the causality of certain behaviors.
Although Watson is clearly discontent with the current situation in the science of psychology, the arguments for removing certain elements from psychological studies and replacing them with behavioral data simply because he feels it is wrong to study intangible processes cannot be justified. Watson is correct when criticizing the lack of consideration for behavioral data in psychology, but it is wrong to argue against mental processes and other subject-matter because both internal and external factors account for shaping mental states.
For example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental state that results when individuals react to external stimuli that causes a change in their mental states. PTSD is known for the symptom of re-experiencing traumatic events, which suggests that intrusive memories become a part of the human mind, but it is also known that physical and emotional trauma is required to develop PTSD while external stimuli can trigger intrusive memories (Sullivan, 2012). Therefore, it is not possible to exclude or diminish the importance of external stimuli in shaping mental states and experiences.
Furthermore, the infamous Milgram’s (1963) obedience experiment proved that human beings have a self-preservation mechanism that adjusts their cognitive processes and behavioral patterns to external stimuli. The experiment was successfully repeated in several societies with different cultural backgrounds (Blass, 1999), so it is proven that authorities can apply significant pressure to individuals who in turn respond with obedience. That proves Watson’s assumption that external stimuli can predict human behavior and cognitive processes, so they should certainly be included in psychological studies.
On the other hand, it is becoming evident that biological factors are important factors in the study of human psychology because they can determine mental processes. Gosling (2001) explains that the future of psychology will rely more on using genetics and other biological factors to predict personality and behavior because animal studies are limited in terms of available frameworks and are reliable only when the chosen animals are genetically similar to humans. Watson’s assumption that dismissing vague subject-matter would make psychology an objective science is clearly wrong if internal traits are important determinants of behavior and personality.
Watson’s paper “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” had an important implication in the development of psychology as a science. By stating that existing behavioral studies on animals contributed little to the understanding of human behavior, Watson argues that there are two possible solutions. The first solution requires taking in account behavioral data, regardless of its relevance to the study of consciousness. The second solution requires establishing behaviorism as a separate branch of psychology.
It is possible to assume that the appeal for Watson’s propositions for establishing behaviorism as a distinct school of psychology was high because of the misunderstandings arising from poorly defined psychological terms at the time. Watson criticized various terms, such as emotion, affection, perceptions, and sensation, which were used by both functional and structural psychologists at the time, but the same terms used in different contexts with different interpretation were creating confusion rather than clarifying the objectives and perspectives of each approach.
That is probably why Watson’s proposal to create a new school of psychology focused on eliminating ambiguous terms, such as consciousness, mental states, imagery, and so on, in favor of focusing only on observable facts. That position is justified by the fact that scientific methods and equipment are not advanced enough to study complex behaviors, which include reasoning, imagination, and other processes studied by other psychologists at the time.
Consequently, behaviorism did become the dominant paradigm in psychology and remained in that position until the 1970s (Robins, Gosling, & Craik, 1999). However, it is important to note that Watson does argue that those restrictions for studying consciousness in behaviorism would apply only because of the existing limitations. Because psychologists lacked appropriate settings and apparatuses to monitor mental processes, Watson suggested that complex forms of behavior must be placed aside until better settings and different approaches become available.
In contemporary psychology, it appears that Watson’s prediction of returning to problems that could not be solved during the early stages of psychology was correct. According to Robins et al. (1999), current trends suggest that cognitive psychology is the leading school of psychology when measured in terms of scientific studies published while behaviorism declined during the 1970s. It is possible to assume that advances in the fields of technology and neuroscience enabled scientists to measure cognitive processes with better equipment and obtain reliable, empirical evidence for their studies.
Watson’s paper “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” had an important impact on the development of psychology. Even though it was wrong to exclude intangible subject-matter under the assumption that it cannot help scientists advance the field of psychology, Watson was correct in predicting that scientists will return to complex problems in psychology once more reliable methods for researching them became available.
Another interesting fact is that all schools of psychology at the beginning of the 20th century attempted to somehow differentiate psychology from its sister sciences biology and chemistry. With the increasing popularity of neuroscientific perspectives in psychology and the prediction that future psychology will rely more on investigating genetic and other biological factors to investigate mental processes, it is clear that psychology research will follow a path that both Watson and Titchener tried to avoid.
Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(5), 955-978. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1999.tb00134.x
Gosling, S. D. (2001). From mice to men: What can we learn about personality from animal research? Psychological bulletin, 127(1), 45-86.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.
Robins, R. W., Gosling, S. D., & Craik, K. H. (1999). An empirical analysis of trends in psychology. American Psychologist, 54(2), 117-128.
Sullivan, E. (2012). War-related PTSD, blast injury, and anosognosia. Neuropsychology Review, 22(1), 1-2. doi:10.1007/s11065-012-9188-z
Titchener, E. B. (1914). On "Psychology as the behaviorist views it". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 53(213), 1-17. Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Titchener/watson.htm
Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158-177. Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Watson/views.htm