During the early 20th century, when psychology was mainly oriented on mental processes, behavioral psychology was established to improve the ability of the psychologists to make decisions by using better experimental methods. Some of the first pioneers of behaviorism were Watson, Skinner, and Tolman. While cognitive psychology relied on introspective methods to explain human behavior and cognitive processes, those psychologists considered visible behavior the most important element for studying and understanding human behavior. However, their perspectives are different in terms of the emphasis they place on studying different elements of human psychology, and they also have different approaches to predicting and shaping human behavior.
The beginning of behaviorism can be traced to “The Behaviorist Manifesto,” an article published by Watson in 1913, in which Watson first mentions behaviorism and defines it as a purely objective experimental science that aims to study, predict, and control behavior (Goodwin, 2008). Watson was the first psychologist who rejected introspection and emphasized experimental methods, so his perspective in psychology is often referred to as methodological behaviorism.
While participating at John Hopkins as a researcher in 1908, Watson established a variety of animal behavior research programs. As a result of experimenting with rats, Watson realized that animal behavior and practical implications of conditioning can be tested on animals because there were no significant differences between human and animal training (Goodwin, 2008). To prove that the same mechanisms of correlation and remembering experiences exist in both humans and animals, Watson created an experiment in which he made sure an infant learned to fear a white rodent.
Although Watson was a significant contributor to behaviorism with his essay “The Behaviorist Manifesto” and a proponent of tangible research methods that can be verified and repeated, Watson also worked as a marketing executive because his scientific knowledge could be used to allocate resources more effectively and target the marketing efforts to maximize results (Goodwin, 2008).
In his scientific work, Watson placed an emphasis on child development, and his approach was mainly focused on observing development through conditioning. For example, in the experiment Little Albert, Watson proved that the child can become afraid of a rodent if it associated it with an unpleasant sound. With that result, Watson proved that parents can affect the behavioral development of their children through external stimuli, and that research served as the basis for other discoveries, such as systematic desensitization (Goodwin, 2008).
With Watson’s work establishing the fundamentals of Skinner’s perspective also considers animal behavior similar to human behavior. In addition, Skinner emphasizes his view that consciousness is non-existent, but he also considers the events that occur in human behavior can be scientifically analyzed and correlated with underlying processes (Schneider & Morris, 1987).
Skinner (1984) proposed that psychology should be based on observing behavior in animals and humans because it is tangible, unlike cognitive processes or theoretical constructs that aimed to clarify how thoughts and beliefs work. Skinner also improved the methods proposed by Watson, so the methodology used in psychological experience was more reliable, and several scientists were able to repeat experiments to test the results because Skinner supported rigorous documentation and isolating variables observed to make sure the experiment was conducted in a controlled environment.
The behavioral analysis of children and the development in their learning is similar in all theories. Watson was the first behavioral psychologist who studied child development and examined how conditioning affected it. Skinner expanded Watson’s theory by establishing operant conditioning and the theory of verbal development and behavior. Although Skinner's language development theory was not widely accepted or applied frequently in academic research until the 1990s (Sundberg, & Michael, 2001), the verbal behavior theory defines verbal operants in compliance with basic behavioral principles.
The basic behavioral principles introduces by Skinner (1950) are constant stimuli, which are methods used to impact behavioral patters, that can be divided into positive and negative stimuli that reinforce or punish a certain form of behavior. While operant conditioning was a known phenomenon in Skinner’s time, Skinner’s approach was the first to use constant reinforcement.
Skinner later applied that principle to his verbal behavior theory, and he was the first person to expand behavioral psychology to language learning and linguistics. According to Skinner (1957), there are five categories of verbal communication, and examining how children use them can be effective for analyzing their verbal behavior and developing a treatment strategy through functional analytic psychotherapy.
Unlike Watson and Skinner, Tolman was a graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, being influenced by the writings of William James, Tolman decided to enroll in philosophy and psychology classes. After becoming familiar with Watson’s principles of behaviorism, Tolman could not argue that human behavior can be reduced to stimuli and reactions. Instead Tolman suggested that cognitive purpose was the key motivational factor that determined human behavior, so Tolman’s perspective is also sometimes referred to as purposive behaviorism (Goodwin, 2008).
Because Tolman valued both cognitive and behavioral psychology, the perspective of purposive behaviorism has elements of the Gestaltist approach to studying behavior. According to Tolman (1934), it is not possible to define human behavior only through studying isolated elements of stimuli or muscular response. Instead, Tolman proposes considering the entire body and mind involved in learning.
The goal-directed behavior Tolman suggested was proven by an experiment in which rats were not given stimuli every time. However, they did learn the maze eventually, but they learned it at a different pace and intensity, depending on the reward they thought was waiting for them. That experiment served as the basis of Tolman’s (1934) latent learning theory, which claims that organisms develop expectations during their learning process, so it was concluded that learning did not depend on reinforcement. Instead, learning happens at an unconscious level and is affected by cognitive processes and purpose-driven.
While the perspectives of Watson, Skinner, and Tolman are all grounded in the principles of behaviorism, it is possible to notice that they have little common ground because they all focus on different aspects of human behavior and interpret processes and motivations differently. For example, Watson and Skinner consider only external stimuli in their work because all behavior is considered conditioned and predetermined while Tolman considers the impact of personal choices in the learning process. However, it is possible to also notice that those three perspectives all remain leading theories in contemporary research, so they can all be considered valid and important for researchers because they enable them to observe research results from different angles and reach reliable conclusions.
When it comes to studying human behavior, all perspectives follow the scientific method and emphasize the value of empirical evidence over theoretical ideas about the cognitive processes in humans. All perspectives also assume that behavior can be translated from animals to humans because operant conditioning and the impact of conditioning on development are universal across different species.
While operant psychology became the underlying principle used in the radical behaviorism school of psychology, principles from other schools of psychology are not used because radical behaviorism rejects the common deductive model for formulating and testing the hypothesis and considers all behavior predetermined. Unlike Skinner and Watson, Tolman’s perspective is the only one that does not place the entire emphasis of research on investigating the type of stimuli used to determine behavior, but the perspective also considers how the stimuli were applied.
Watson and Skinner both used conditioning in their experiments to explain human behavior. On the other hand, Tolman did not use conditioning exclusively because he proved that personal motivation plays a role in learning. All three perspectives also used different applications of stimuli in their experiments. While Watson used simple positive stimuli to cause a reaction in experiments such as Little Albert, Skinner used constant reinforcement in his experiments. Because Tolman investigated how personal choices impact behavior, he also included different methods of administering stimuli to rodents.
The differences between the theories in their application are also evident because Watson, Skinner, and Tolman all decided to specialize in different areas of human development. Watson established the groundwork for researching child development, in which his later work specialized after he established the main principles of behaviorism in general, but his research was generalized to all children and types of conditioning parents can use to raise their children.
On the other hand, Skinner specialized in verbal behavior and was the first scientist to expand behaviorism to speech and linguistics. Although both perspectives utilized operant conditioning in their work, Skinner narrowed down the application of his theory to verbal development and created methods for analyzing and shaping verbal behavior by using operant conditioning.
Tolman also valued the application of stimuli in learning, but his perspective did not observe the results through conditioning as did Watson and Skinner. Tolman instead focused on the efficacy of learning when stimuli are applied differently. Tolman also focused on independent decision-making in learning efforts, something Skinner never considered because radical behaviorism considered behavior exclusively predetermined. Watson also considered behavior determined by conditioning and avoided considering independent cognitive processes in his research because they were considered intangible and abstract, so there was no way of reaching unified conclusions.
Finally, the presence of the principles of cognitive psychology is completely lacking in Watson’s and Skinner’s perspectives while Tolman’s perspective is the only one that considered the implication of unconscious thoughts and beliefs in determining human behavior. Although behaviorism mainly ignores cognitive processes, Tolman’s research has great significance because the latent learning theory proves that cognitive processes do play a role in the efficacy of the learning process in both animals and humans.
Overall, it is possible to notice that each researcher followed a common set of rules that could be generalized in controlled environments. For example, all behavioral psychologists considered animal models valid because they could be associated with human research models. However, each perspective emphasized a different approach to explaining human behavior. Watson and Skinner share some more common ground with each other because they both observe behavior as a conditioned response to circumstances and investigate the implication of conditioning to change human behavior in practice. Tolman was the only behaviorist concerned with cognitive processes because he believed factors that determine behavior should not be separated in scientific experiment, and his perspective explained how unconscious motivational determinants impact human behavior in addition to external stimuli.
Goodwin, J. C. (2008). A history of modern psychology. (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Schneider, S. M., & Morris, E. K. (1987). A history of the term radical behaviorism: From Watson to Skinner. The Behavior Analyst, 10(1), 27-39.
Skinner, B. F. (1950). Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.
Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B. F. (1984). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7(4): 547–581.
Sundberg, M. L., & Michael, J. (2001). The benefits of Skinner's analysis of verbal behavior for children with autism. Behavior Modification, 25(5), 698-724.
Tolman, E. C. (1934). Theories of learning. In F. A. Moss (Ed.), Comparative psychology (pp. 367-408). New York, NY: Prentice-Hall.