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The Balance Sheet of Behaviorism

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

Psychology has its fads and fashions as well as dress. Yesterday Freud was king and the knowing ones had complexes, uncovered surpressed desires, got “psyched,” and delved with wise head-shakings into other folk’s dreams. Today Freud is as passe as Mah Jong, and the initiate have discovered that they have glands and viscera and reflexes, and talk of being “reconditioned” in place of “psyched.” While Freudianism rides its witch’s broom into the sunset, behaviorism stands at the zenith in its noontide . . . and just over the horizon peeps gestaltism.

Freudianism is pre-war. It is a product of the estheti-cized, leisurely, and decadent world of Europe’s old culture capitals that was riding insouciant towards its doom in 1914.

Behaviorism is a child of the war period. It is the methodology of the automatic control of armed millions, of Taylorized factory phalanxes in mass-production industries, and of drive-and-propaganda-ridden civil populations. It is a product and tool of a period in which man has displayed the highest degree of activity in human history, but often unconnected with ends set by human values. It is a reflex of the goose step and the robot age and reveals the law of their being.

Gestaltism is post-war. It is a psychology based on the existence of syntheses in nature and meaning in situations. The philosophy underlying it is a reaction, largely unconscious, to systematic scepticism a la Bertrand Russell (the final fruit of the pre-war neo-Kantian movement), and to the behaviorists’ insistence on the accidental as the sole basis of interconnections in nature, where gestaltism finds real units having an objective existence.

Freudianism is Viennese. Gestaltism is unmistakably German, But behaviorism bears all over it the stamp: “Made in America.”

In an immediate sense, behaviorism is the theorization of the Taylor system, a by-product of machine industry, expressing its need of studying objectively the external behavior of the worker so as to control his movements and adapt them to the machine. Viewed in the longer perspective of American development, it is an expression of the pioneer emphasis on activity for activity’s sake, his militant disregard for the inner world of contemplation, re very, feeling and thought, his substitution of means for values and his equating of being with doing.

The balance sheet of behaviorism shows many assets and some fundamental capital liabilities. Undoubtedly, it has made fundamental contributions to psychology, the importance of which it is hard to exaggerate.

The psychology of the past two centuries was a science of the soul, subjective in method, with arm-chair introspection as its technique of investigation; it moved endlessly within the confines of the closed circle set for it by idealistic metaphysics.

Psychology’s acceptance of this metaphysical basis and method as unexaminable premises rendered impossible the development of an objective experimental science and reduced psychology to the status of a feeble, pallid younger sister of idealistic philosophy. If you begin with the postulate that the objective world is non-existent or at least unknowable, then it follows that you can observe nothing outside the world of your own sensations, emotions, ideas and thoughts. You cannot begin to observe your neighbor’s— much less an outside, objective world on which both may be based. Hence psychology groped its way for two centuries or more in a maze of first principles and problems from which it could not extricate itself. Psycho-physical parallelism, the possibility or impossibility of observing observation itself, the denial of real objects in nature, the scornful rejection of “vulgar” common sense and all its data—such were the hurdles over which psychology could not vault.

When the physical, chemical, and biological sciences grew up and began to whisper maliciously among themselves that old lady Psychology was no science at all, she made some timid efforts to change her ways—or at least her style of dressing. With Wundt and his followers she adopted the fashion of experiments, but only as pretty decorations. The experiments dealt with petty derivative problems. No one dreamt of experimental investigation of fundamentals.

Finding it oui of fashion to speak so familiarly of her soul, she substituted the term consciousness as a concession to secular fashion just as, with her petty experiments with “least observable sensations” and the like, she paid tribute to the methods used in the other sciences. She even tried to play with mathematics as big-brother Physics did, and elaborated meager and inconsequential data by far from meager mathematical methods appropriate to the physical laboratory. This seemed to offer an easy method for the obtaining of “results” which were impressive not by virtue of the data treated but the method of treating them. Nor was it any the less impressive because the data were not of the sort that make elaborate mathematical treatment significant.

While psychology was thus puttering around with nonessentials and trying to look scientific without being so, modern industry, developed to the point where it required scientific knowledge, not only of its technical materials (as provided by physics and chemistry) but also of its human material—the laborer. An objective science of human behavior became a necessity.

At the same time psychology began to broaden its field of investigation to regions where the soul and even consciousness were scarcely to be “conceded” and where introspection was impossible. Animal psychology, child psychology, abnormal psychology, the psychology of primitive peoples— these are precisely, the fields where objectivity is an inescapable necessity. Here the assumption of developed forms of consciousness, feeling, and thought similar to those of the observer are so many deceptive traps. New techniques had to be developed, and once acquired were eagerly applied to general psychology, often with more zeal than discrimination.

It was at this juncture that the behaviorists, above all Watson, came forward with an aggressive ballyhoo campaign for the ousting of metaphysical idealism, for the introduction of investigation, experiment, and objective study of behavior, for the questioning of moldy assumptions, for the re-examination of even the terminology derived from these assumptions. For all the ballyhoo, there was a core of earnest scientific determination and an attempt to develop an objective science that contrasted favorably with the hypocritical lip-service that other schools were paying to objectivity.

Behaviorism introduced new material, raised fresh problems, swept away much rubbish and opened up choked pathways which might provide an avenue of escape from the blind alley of metaphysical idealism and scholasticism that shut in the older psychology.

The new psychology insisted upon treating man as a behaving animal, living in and reacting to a real environment. It developed the revolutionary concept that man and his environment must be treated as interacting. It enlarged the concept of environment to include “hunger contractions, bladder distentions, palpitating heart, rapid breathing, muscular changes and the like . . . just as truly objects of stimulation as are chairs and tables . . . a part of man’s environment usually left out in all discussions of the relative influence of environment and heredity.” (Watson)

But at the same time that it was so detailed and insistent in its description of this additional “inner” region that it had added to the concept of man’s environment, it was curiously vague and casual about the rest of environment, leaving it to gestaltism to investigate the real nature of environment in psychological terms. Behaviorists like Watson didn’t even seem to realize that there was a problem here.

Behaviorism dealt severely with many of the pet traditions of rival schools of psychology. With its insistence on regarding man as a behaving animal, it broke down the sterile division between the so-called passive and active aspects of mind (on the one hand feeling and cognition, on the other will). It consigned the instinct psychology, with its list of thirteen to fifty-two primary instincts, to the same limbo as the faculty psychology of which the instinct theory was but a refined version.

By means of the same careful objective observation of child behavior which enabled it to dispose of the instinct theory, it also brushed aside the last cobwebs of the “tiny man and woman” theory of the nature of infancy, along with the Calvinist theory of infant damnation and its modern Freudian echo, the “polymorphous perverse” conception of childhood.

Watson and the other behaviorists do not seem to have realized how fundamentally they are at variance with Freud and his theories, yet there is hardly, a single one of the basic concepts of Freudianism that they have not attacked. Thus Watson offers his concept of unverbalized reactions as a substitute for most of the properties the Freudians lump together in their mystic chamber of horrors—the unconscious. Again he leaves little room for the Freudian concept of adjustment and maladjustment so basic to their theory, when he advances a dynamic concept of adjustment as a temporary relative equilibrium in an unending chain of responses to a changing environment. “The only adjusted person,” writes Watson, “is a dead person—one from whom no response can be called out to any stimulus. . . . The organism is not and cannot be adjusted for longer than a period corresponding to a mathematical point. . . . The term ‘adjustment,’ however, is convenient and we may still use it provided we mean by it the momentary point where the individual by his action has quieted a stimulus or has gotten out of its range.”

Thus these apparently casual differences with Freud are not matters of secondary import for, if you dispose of its concept of the unconscious, its treatment of the problem of adjustment and maladjustment, and its theory of the infant as “polymorphous perverse,”—what is there left of Freud-ianism?

Nor does traditional racial “psychology,” with its imperialist apologetics and its myths of blonde nordic or teutonic superiority, fare any better at the hands of the behaviorists. Rousseau and Jefferson and the equalitarian credos of the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man find their justification in Watson’s conclusion, drawn from his observation of infant behavior that “. . . within the limits of individual variation man is born with the same general set of responses . . . . regardless of the station of his parents, regardless of the geological age in which he was born and regardless of the geographical zone in which he was born.” And there is a conscious echo of the Declaration of Independence in Watson’s statement that “. . . all healthy individuals . . . start out equal. . . . It is what happens to individuals after birth that makes one a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, another a diplomat, a thief, a successful business man or a far-famed scientist.”

The behaviorists are the embattled protagonists of “scientific method” in psychology. Envious, and with reason, of the accomplishments of physics, chemistry, biology, and physiology, they are determined to introduce the methods of these sciences (which they term “scientific method”) into the field of psychology. But it does not seem to have occurred to them to examine the whole question of scientific method. That would be philosophy, and philosophy, as Watson confidently informs us, is “gradually disappearing” before the triumphant advance of behaviorism.

There are certain generalizations common to all sciences, and psychology, if it is to be a science, must either consciously apply them, or at the very least, and worst, unconsciously assume them. But that is not what the behaviorists mean, or at any rate not what they usually mean, when they denounce psychology, as unscientific and propose to introduce “scientific method.”

In addition to the general method and basic generalizations (the philosophy) common to all the sciences, each of them has its particular field, its specific methods, a technique of its own. At the border lines these fields overlap and the specific methods and techniques may do likewise. But that method is no scientific one which fails to see the specific peculiarities, the peculiar terms of its own field and to develop the corresponding methods and technique. It seems absurd to remind serious scientists that one does not investigate colloids with a telescope, analyze hysterics in a test tube, or look for the causes of Bolshevism with a microscope. Yet that is exactly the abc hurdle over which behaviorism seems unable to leap. It is pathetically determined to reduce the complexities of the mind and behavior of human beings to physics and chemistry and physiology, and literally to apply the methods of those sciences to the study of human behavior.

“We need nothing to explain behavior,” declares Watson in his debate with MacDougall, “but the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry.”

Hunter, a behaviorist who is far more cautious than Watson (he impressively calls himself an anthroponomist to differentiate himself from the latter), makes a modest statement of the behaviorist case: “Man’s learned behavior, his language responses and his social activities are events in nature, in the environment, and as such are partially illuminated by the general laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry.” [Emphasis mine here and throughout article.]

And Pavloff, who deals scarcely at all with human psychology except in side remarks, declares with truly scientific caution: “The results of animal experimentation [with conditioned reflexes] are of such a nature that they may, at times, help to explain the hidden processes of our own inner world.”

But Watson knows no such doubtings. What he cannot explain in terms of physics, chemistry, and physiology he denounces as mystical, religious, metaphysical, and unfit for scientific interest. Woodworth has rightly described behaviorism as a “set of taboos—touch not, taste not, handle not the unclean thing.” And a few of the things that are “unclean” are consciousness, memory, attention, feeling, knowing, imagination, and reason!

“I cannot agree with Watson,” writes the not unsympathetic Koehler, “in his method of condemning all difficult-looking problems in the nervous system as pure mysticism. That gives a simple science with only a few concepts; but a good deal of the world of behavior does not occur in this science.”

Watson boasts continually of his lack of interest in the phenomena of consciousness. Sometimes he ignores consciousness, sometimes he denies it, always he denies its importance and its active participation in the influencing of behavior. One cannot but wonder why he addresses his books to other human beings as if they were possessed of consciousness and in an aggressive propaganda tone as if he expected their consciousness to influence their conduct.

He would reduce all behavior to the simplest form of behavior—the automatic reflex—”muscle twitchism,” Tolman calls it. He deliberately ignores the fact that even apes, as Koehler has proved, react not merely to stimuli but also to situations as a whole.

He would reduce all learning to the simplest form of learning—entirely meaningless learning—learning by accidental trial and error and gradual elimination of the errors. Again he ignores the facts demonstrated by Koehler that even apes are capable of learning not only by, trial and error but also in “jumps” by sudden perceptions of whole situations and whole solutions.

Koehler’s classic experiments on the intelligence of the apes led him to the conclusion that in their solutions of problems set for them “. . . none is performed twice over in the same way—and indeed, the movements by which any single one of them is performed vaiy very much—the only limit is the sense of the proceeding. For this reason no observer, even with the best of efforts, can say: ‘the animal contracts such or such a muscle, carries out this or that impulse.’ This would be to accentuate an unessential side issue, which may change from one case to another; which muscles carry out which action is immaterial.”

Yet it is precisely these “unessential side issues” that Watson would make the whole of scientific description not oniy of animal behavior but also of human.

The behaviorist description of the motor and neural reactions involved in the act of copying a poem would differ but little from the description of the act of writing that poem as an original. But the difference in the two activities interests us vastly more than the resemblance, and this difference must be investigated in its own terms, not in terms of an extra twitch or two of certain muscles. There are qualitatively new phenomena and principles involved.

But Watson is inexorable. “Until he has reduced them to electrical and chemical processes,” he declares of certain complications of behavior which are being investigated by physiologists, “I am afraid he cannot help us very much.”

Weiss, yet more ardent and of a more logical cast of mind than Watson, having accepted this viewpoint proceeds to work out an electron-proton description of behavior:

“Human conduct is a form of motion. The behaviorist investigates it on the basis of physical monism of which the ultimate aspects are the electron-protons. Human conduct is thereby rooted in: (a) various groupings of electron-protons, and (b) in movements which arise through the replacement of one group by another.”

By the consistent, unswerving application of this method, Weiss produces the following description of a child hearing the ringing of a bell:

“The aggregate of electron-protons that is known as a bell alters the aggregate that is known as a child. . . . This is observed by the aggregate which is known as a behaviorist.”

If one did not find this solemn jargon set forth in his most serious and in many ways admirable work, “The Theoretical Basis of Human Behavior,” one would think that Professor Weiss was writing a parody outline of behaviorism.

Certainly, there is a profound and valuable element of truth in the insistence on the physical-chemical nature of the human body and its processes. And a belligerent attack is in order upon those who try, to make an unbridgeable chasm between man and the rest of nature, who refuse to recognize man as material and animal, who would have us regard all processes occurring in human beings as super-physical, super-chemical, super-animal, just because they take place in man.

But it is naively childish to want to subsume the whole manifold complexity and richness of the psychological under the thin and one-sided concepts of its physical or physiological features. Thereby, behaviorism is seeking to dissolve the specifically psychological in the general physiological or physical. The only result is that much is lost that is specifically human and nothing gained in the way of explanation of that which, in the field of psychology, is most necessary of explanation. The true field and proper province of psychology is simply abandoned as “unscientific,” not subject to explanation, not of interest to the scientist.

The behaviorists hope thereby to “simplify” the problems of psychology and facilitate their solution. But that method is no scientific method which tries to get simple solutions by denying the complexity of the problems it is solving and by “simplifying” the problems themselves out of existence. Such “simplification” can only seem desirable to those who get dizzy when they look down from the little height to which science has climbed and become utterly terrified when they think of the heights to which science must climb. For all its proud boasts behaviorism does not seem to be a climber of mountains but rather to breathe a Philistine sigh of relief when it has found its speedy justification for climbing down to the flatlands again and saying, “the mountain is unclimb-able,” or “the mountains do not interest me,” or “there are no mountains to be climbed.”

The tragic irony of Watson’s “scientific method” lies in the fact that it defeats the very object dearest to his heart. He set out to drive metaphysics, religion, supernaturalism, out of the field of psychology, and indeed, out of existence altogether. But he began his campaign by bellicosely abandoning the field of battle. The order of phenomena in which metaphysics, religion, and supernaturalism were entrenched, he proclaimed outside the field of scientific investigation. By mere ostrich-strategy and nay-saying he sought to rid himself of his chosen foe. He thus narrowed immeasurably the scope of his science and left precisely those phenomena of most interest to man to be the happy, hunting ground of all his opponents’ views, and of every form of quackery masking under the guise of “popular psychology” as well.

Science—the capacity of the human being to wrest from nature its secrets (including the secrets of the nature of the mind of man), to understand himself and his surroundings, to adapt his surroundings to himself and himself to his surroundings—Science may leave many phenomena unexplored at any given historical moment (since it cannot do everything at once or solve some problems without previously having solved others), but it cannot admit any order of phenomena as unexplorable without delivering a death blow to itself.


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