The Evolution of Behaviorism in Early Psychology Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

The Origins of Behaviorism: A Synthesis Paper


Although behaviorism is now considered part of psychology, the scientific study of human behavior started out as its own investigative field. In fact, early behaviorists actively endeavored to set themselves apart from the psychology of their day. Many behaviorists believed psychologists—particularly Sigmund Freud--focused too much on the subconscious mind. Behaviorism was the first attempt to study human behavior using the scientific method. A multitude of research trends and influences in the biological and social sciences led to the emergence of behaviorism as a separate school of thought around the end of the nineteenth century. The most important theorists that contributed to the evolution of behaviorism as a separate school of thought presented their work as fundamentally different from the other life sciences like biology, but also different from psychoanalysis. Those early behaviorists, who laid the groundwork for future researchers, included John Watson, William James, Wilhelm Wundt, Edward Tichener, Ivan Pavlov, and B.F. Skinner. Each of these different researchers approached the scientific study of human behavior using different research questions and methodologies, and each contributed tremendously to the early evolution of the science of psychology.

Early Foundations: Structuralism and Functionalism

The earliest foundations of behaviorism were laid on the groundwork established by the structuralism versus functionalism debate. Structuralists wanted to study psychology empirically, with the primary research goal of understanding the various structures of the human mind. Those structures included consciousness, volition, and emotions (“Structuralism, Functionalism, Behaviorism,” 2009). In this sense, structuralism was akin to psychoanalysis, although the latter did not apply the scientific method or empiricism. Structuralism did, however, use introspection as a primary research methodology (“Structuralism, Functionalism, Behaviorism,” 2009). Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Tichener tried to show that they could use introspection as a scientific method with the goal of objectively understanding the structures of the human mind or consciousness. Early structuralists wanted to explore the study of human perception and cognition using scientific methods to measure human responses to stimuli.

Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Tichener were the pioneers of the study of perception and cognition (Moore, 2011). A little-known figure in early psychology, Wundt’s experiments involved perception and sensation domains of the human experience. While it seems commonplace now to consider human perception, sensation, and cognition, these were revolutionary fields of inquiry at the time. As Green (2009) points out, though, Wundt’s work and other research in perception and cognition was primarily structuralist in nature. Only recently has science evolved tools, measures, and methods that can be applied to study perception and cognition using empiricism.

Functionalism in many ways evolved as a reaction to structuralism, and as a further means of legitimizing the field of psychology. Because functionalism used unreliable tools of measurement, it was difficult to establish alongside the natural sciences. Introspective methods were viewed as particularly problematic. Early behaviorists, especially William James and John Watson, believed that introspection is not a valid tool for scientific research, particularly as experiments cannot be replicated (Watson, 1913). Watson also believed that psychology used “esoteric methods,” and could not establish itself as a natural science if it continued to use introspection and focus only on abstract concepts
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like consciousness (p. 163). Watson does not claim the structures of the mind are not a worthwhile subject, but that it is simply not a scientific subject. Functionalists sought to make psychology an even more objective endeavor, and to show that psychology had pragmatic applications too.

Functionalism was the movement that initiated what would later be known as behaviorism. William James and Chauncey Wright were a few of the founders of functionalism (Green, 2009). Later, the founding father of behaviorism, John Watson, drew heavily from functionalism by focusing not on the structures of the human mind (consciousness or emotion), but on how those structures functioned. In other words, functionalists were interested in what was observable and measurable using objective instruments and the five senses only—without introspection and the “esoteric methods” Watson alludes to.

As Green (2009) also points out, functionalism was also influenced heavily by Darwinism. Darwinism also sought to find logical, measurable, and provable answers using the scientific method. John Watson, William James, and Chauncy Wright were proponents of functionalism, which allowed researchers to apply the scientific method to behavioral science and behavioral psychology (Green, 2009). Another prominent functionalist who helped propel the early behaviorism movement was Edwin Burket Twitmeyer, who first started studying the human “knee jerk” reflex (Clark, 2004, p. 279). Twitmeyer’s study of the knee jerk reaction later became integrated with classical conditioning. The knee jerk reaction has become a household term, thanks to the early fathers of behaviorism. Building on Twitmeyer’s knee-jerk reactions, Ivan Pavlov became the first researcher to methodically study classical conditioning.

The drive to make psychology a more scientific field meant that the functionalists like Watson, and later Pavlov and Skinner, would dominate the psychological discourse throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Green (2009) points out some of the contributions functionalism: “Applications of psychology that emerged from the functionalist ethos included child and developmental psychology, clinical psychology, psychological testing, and industrial/vocational psychology,” (p. 75). To resolve the tension between psychology and the social sciences, and to infuse psychology with a semblance of credibility, Watson also advised that psychologists stop studying consciousness altogether. Watson suggested that researchers focus on behaviors instead, because mental states and consciousness are too ephemeral. Moreover, the methods used to study consciousness and other structures of the mind were too speculative. Interestingly, Watson even finds a problem with the study of sensation and perception, which was being studied at the time by Titchner. Watson points out, for example, that even sensations and perceptions have introspective components.

John Watson: The Founder of Behaviorism

Behaviorism was a whole new paradigm of psychological research that grew out of functionalism but took the principle a step further. Watson was one of the first psychological researchers to actively investigate the nature-nurture debate. For Watson, environment was everything. Watson also referred to the fact that he believed that through the right training using the methods of behaviorism, any infant could be trained to do anything—from being a doctor to being a thief. In 1920, Watson and Rayner conducted a now-famous experiment on an infant named Albert to prove some of his research hypotheses. The experiment was later criticized for its being ethically problematic, but it still made a strong…

Sources Used in Documents:


Clark, R. E. (2004). The classical origins of Pavlov's conditioning. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 39(4), 279-294.

Green, C. D. (2009). Darwinian theory, functionalism, and the first American psychological revolution. American Psychologist, 64(2), 75-83. doi: 10.1037/a0013338

Moore, J. (2011). Behaviorism. The Psychological Record, 61(3), 449-464.

“Psyography: John Broadus Watson,” (n.d.).

“Structuralism, Functionalism, Behaviorism,” (2009). Journals of a River Knight Apprentice.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158-177. doi:10.1037/h0074428

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