John B. Watson (1929)
When I innocently committed myself to meet Professor MacDougall
in debate, I understood that all that was required of me was
to give a brief account of the new Behavioristic movement
in psychology now rapidly forging to the front. Had I known
that my presentation was expected to take the present form
I fear timidity would have overcome me. Professor MacDougall's
forensic ability is too well. known, and my own shortcomings
in that direction are too well known, for me knowingly to
offer him combat. So I think the only self-protective plan
is to disregard all controversial developments and attempt
to give here a brief résumé of Behaviorism -- the modern note
in psychology [p. 8] -- and to tell why it will work and why
it will work and why the current introspective psychology
of Professor MacDougall will not work.
is the Behavioristic note in psychology? Psychology is
as old as the human race. The tempting of Eve by the serpent
is our first biblical record of the use of psychological methods.
May I call attention to the fact, though, that the serpent
when he tempted Eve did not ask her to introspect, to look
into her mind to see what was going on. No, he handed her
the apple and she bit into it. We have a similar example of
the Behavioristic psychology in Grecian mythology, when the
golden apple labeled "For the Fairest" was tossed into a crowd
of society women, and again when Hippomenes, in order to win
the race from Atalanta, threw golden apples in front of her,
knowing full well that she would check her swift flight to
pick them up.
can go through history and show that early psychology was
Behavioristic -- grew up around the notion that if you place
a certain thing in front of an individual or a group of individuals,
the individual or [p. 9] group will act, will do something.
Behaviorism is a return to early common-sense. The keynote
is: Given a certain object or situation, what will the individual
do when confronted with it. Or the reverse of this formulation:
Seeing an individual doing something, to be able to predict
what object or situation is calling forth that act.
psychology, then, strives to learn something about the nature
of human behavior. To get the individual to follow a certain
line, to do certain things, what situation shall I set up?
Or, seeing the crowd in action, or the individual in action,
to know enough about behavior to predict what the situation
is that leads to that action.
all sounds real; one might say it seems to be just common-sense.
How can any one object to this formulation? And yet, full
of common-sense as it is, this Behavioristic formulation of
the problem of psychology has been a veritable battleground
since 1912. To understand why this is so, let us examine the
more conservative type of psychology which is represented
[p. 10] by Professor MacDougall. But to understand at all
adequately the type of psychology which he represents we must
take one little peep at the way superstitious responses have
grown up and become a part of our very nature.
Background of Introspective Psychology. No one knows just
how the idea of 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
Behavioristic psychologists observers of human nature.
found that breaking boughs, thunder, and other sound-producing
phenomena would throw the primitive individual from his very
birth into a panicky state (meaning by that: stopping the
chase, crying, hiding, and the like), and that in this state
it was easy to impose upon him. These lazy but good observers
began to speculate on how wonderful it would be if they could
get some device by which they could at will throw in individuals
into this fearsome attitude [p. 11] and in general control
their behavior. The colored nurses down south have gained
control over the children by telling them that there is some
one ready to grab them in the dark; that when it is thundering
there is a fearsome power which can be appeased by their being
good boys and girls. Medicine men flourished -- a good medicine
man had the best of everything and, best of all, he didn't
have to work. These individuals were called medicine men,
soothsayers, dream interpreters, prophets -- deities in modern
times. Skill in bringing about these emotional conditionings
of the people increased; organization among medicine men took
place, and we began to have religions of one kind or another,
and churches, temples, cathedrals, and the like, each presided
over by a medicine man.
think an examination of the psychological history of people
will show that their behavior is much more easily controlled
by fear stimuli than by love. If the fear element were dropped
out of any religion, that religion would not survive a year.
chief medicine man in a family [p. 12] group is, of course,
always thc father. In the still larger group God or Jehovah
takes the place of the family father. Thus even the modern
child from the beginning is confronted by the dicta of the
medicine man -- be that his father, the soothsayer of the
village, the God or Jehovah. Having been brought up in this
attitude of authority, he never questions their written or
spoken statements. He accepts them at their face value. He
has never deviated from them, neither have his associates,
and hence has never had an opportunity to prove or doubt their
worth. This accounts for the hold religion and superstition
have upon our life. It accounts for the psychology current
to-day in practically every university. It partly accounts
for the convincingness of Professor MacDougall's argument
Example of Such Concepts. One example of such a concept
is that every individual has a soul. This dogma has been present
in human psychology from earliest antiquity. No one has ever
touched the soul, or has seen one in a test tube, or has in
any way come into a relationship [p. 13] with it as he has
with the other objects of his daily experience. Nevertheless,
to doubt it is to become a heretic and once might possibly
even have led to the loss of one's head. Even to-day for a
university man to question it in many institutions is to sign
his own professional death warrant.
philosophy not only accepted the concept of the soul, but
tried to define it, to deal with it as they dealt with objects
of everyday experience. Consequently, in the philosophy of
the Middle Ages we find such questions hotly debated as to
the number of angels which can stand on the point of a needle.
the development of the physical sciences which came with the
renaissance, a certain release from this stifling soul-cloud
was obtained. A man could think of astronomy, the celestial
bodies and their motions, of gravitation and the like, without
involving soul, although the early scientists were as a rule
devout Christians; nevertheless, they early began to leave
soul out of their test tubes. Psychology and philosophy, however,
in dealing as they [p. 14] thought with non-material objects,
found it difficult to sidestep, and hence the concepts of
mind and soul come down to the latter part of the nineteenth
century. It was the boast of Wundt's students, in 1869, when
the first psychological laboratory was established, that psychology
had at last become a science without a soul. For fifty years
we have kept this pseudo-science exactly as Wundt laid it
down. All that Wundt and his students really accomplished
was to substitute for the word "soul" the word "consciousness."
Examination of Consciousness. From the time of Wundt on,
consciousness becomes the keynote of psychology. It is the
keynote to-day. It has never been seen, touched, smelled,
tasted, or moved. It is a plain assumption just as unprovable
as the old concept of the soul. And to the Behaviorist the
two terms are essentially identical, so far as their metaphysical
implications are concerned.
show how unscientific is the concept, look for a moment at
William James' definition of psychology: "Psychology is the
description and explanation of states [p. 15] of consciousness
as such." Starting with a definition which assumes what he
starts out to prove, he escapes his difficulty by an argumentum
ad hominum. "Consciousness -- oh, yes, everybody must
know what this 'consciousness' is." When we have a sensation
of red, a perception, a thought, when we will to do something,
or when we purpose to do something, or when we desire to do
something, we are being conscious. In other words, they do
not tell us what consciousness is, but merely begin to put
things into it by assumption, and then when they come to analyze
consciousness, naturally they find in it just what they put
into it. Consequently, in the analysis of consciousness made
by certain of the psychologists you find, as elements, sensations
and their ghosts, the images. With others you find not only
sensations, but so-called affective elements; in still others
you will find such elements as will -- the so-called conative
element in consciousness. With some psychologists you will
find many hundreds of sensations of a certain type; others
will maintain that only a few of that type exist. [p. 16]
And so it goes. Literally, millions of printed pages have
been published on the minute analysis of this intangible something
called "consciousness." And how do we begin work upon it?
Not by analyzing it as we would a chemical compound, or the
way a plant grows. No, those things are material things. This
thing we call consciousness can be analyzed only by self-introspection,
turning around, and looking at what goes on inside.
other words, instead of gazing at woods and trees and brooks
and things, we must gaze at this undefined and undefinable
something we call consciousness. As a result of this major
assumption that there is such a thing as consciousness, and
that we can analyze it by introspection, we find as many analyses
as there are individual psychologists. There is no element
of control. There is no way of experimentally attacking and
solving psychological problems and standardizing methods.
Advent of the Behaviorists. In 1912 the Behaviorists reached
the conclusion that they could no longer be content [p. 17]
to work with the intangibles. They saw their brother
scientists making progress in medicine, in chemistry, in physics.
Every new discovery in those fields was of prime importance,
every new element isolated in one laboratory could be isolated
in some other laboratory; each new element was immediately
taken up in the warp and woof of science as a whole. May I
call your attention to radium, to wireless, to insulin, to
thyroxin, and hundreds of others? Elements so isolated and
methods so formulated immediately began to function in human
so with psychology, as we have pointed out. One has to agree
with Professor Warner Fite that there has never been a discovery
in subjective psychology; there has been only medieval speculation.
The Behaviorist began his own formulation of the problem of
psychology by sweeping aside all medieval conceptions. He
dropped from his scientific vocabulary all subjective terms
such as sensation, perception, image, desire, purpose, and
even thinking and emotion as they were originally defined.
has he set up in their place? The Behaviorist asks: Why
don't we make what we can observe the real field of psychology?
Let us limit ourselves to things that can be observed, and
formulate laws concerning only the observed things. Now what
can we observe? Well, we can observe behavior -- what the
organism does or says. And let me make this fundamental
point at once: that saying is doing -- that is, behaving.
Speaking overtly or silently is just as objective a type of
behavior as baseball.
Behaviorist puts the human organism in front of him and says:
What can it do? When does it start to do these things? If
it doesn't do these things by reason of its original nature,
what can it be taught to do? What methods shall society use
in teaching it to do these things? Again, having taught it
to do these things, how long will that organism be able to
do them without practice? With this as subject matter, psychology
connects up immediately with life.
have known for a long time that we cannot get our animal to
introspect and [p. 19] tell us about its consciousness, but
we can keep it without food, we can put it in a place where
the temperature is low, or the temperature is high, where
food is scarce, where sex stimulation is absent, and the like,
and we can observe its behavior in those situations.
We find that without asking it anything, we can, with this
systematic, controlled observation, tell volumes about what
each animal does, both by reason of its unlearned activities
and through activities which it has to learn. We soon get
to the point where we can say it is doing so and so because
of so and so.
rule, or measuring rod, which the Behaviorist puts in front
of him always is: Can I describe this bit of behavior I see
in terms of "stimulus and response"? By stimulus we mean any
object in the general environment or any change in the physiological
condition of the animal, such as the change we get when we
keep an animal from sex activity, when we keep it from feeding,
when we keep it from building a nest. By response we mean
that system of organized activity that we see [p. 20] emphasized
anywhere in any kind of an animal, as building a skyscraper,
drawing plans, having babies, writing books, and the like.
Behaviorist's psychology is based upon reflexes such as the
neuro-physiologist studies. First then we must make clear
what these are. Let us assume (until observation gives us
an exact formulation) that there are at birth a large number
of ontogenetic, embryologic responses or "reflexes." I prefer
the term "squirmings." Even if there were only a hundred to
start with (and there are many thousands), the process of
"conditioning," working according to the law of permutations
and combinations, would establish many millions of total responses
-- a far greater number than the environment ever calls on
even the most versatile human being to make.
what do we mean by "conditionmg" embryologic responses? The
process of conditioning is familiar to all. It plays a much
more important rôle in human behavior than is generally supposed.
I need only summarize a few facts here. We start with the
assumption expressed above [p. 21] that the infant exhibits
certain definite unconditioned responses or "squirmings"
at birth (U) R. Now some definite stimulus must call out each
of these responses. So far as known from observation of the
infant, this stimulus can call out this response in advance
of any training. Let us call such stimuli unconditioned
stimuli (U) S.
let us interject the possibility here that even this relationship
between unconditioned stimulus and unconditioned response
[p. 22] may not be a biologically given datum. Intra-uterine
conditioning may have been the process which established it
in embryologic life. All we mean by unconditioned stimuli
and unconditioned responses is that, as observers, we find
at the moment of birth that certain stimuli will cal! out
certain responses. In the diagram above, A is such
an unconditioned stimulus, 1 is such an unconditioned response.
Now if we take B (which, so far as we know, may be
any object in the universe), and let it stimulate the organism
simultaneously with A for a certain number of times
(sometimes even once is enough), it also there-after will
arouse 1. In the same way we can make C, D, E call
out 1; in other words, we can make any object at will call
out 1 (stimulus substitution). This does away with the old
hypothesis that there is any inherent or sacred connection
with or association of one object with another.
in the universe is merely a matter of conditioning. We
start to write at the left of the page and go to the right.
The Japanese starts at the top of the page and [p. 23] goes
down. The behavior of the European is just as orderly as the
behavior of the Japanese. All such so-called connections are
built in. This shows how the stimulus side of our life gets
more and more complicated as life goes on; how one stimulus
comes soon to be able to call out not only 1 in the scheme
in the diagram above, but many other responses as well.
how do reactions become more complicated? Neurologists
have studied integrations but mainly their number and complexity,
and how they are called out in an organization already developed,
what their sequences are (for example, in the scratch reflex),
what neural architecture is involved in them, and so on. But
they have not been particularly interested in their origin.
In the following diagram we assume that at birth A
will call out 1, B will call out 2, C will call
out 3. When the three stimuli are applied in quick succession,
they will still call out a pattern reaction, the components
of which are 1, 2, 3 (if mutual inhibitions do not enter in).
So far there is no integration. Suppose, however, I apply
a single stimulus X each [p. 24] time I apply A,
B and C. In a short time the single stimulus X
can function alone in place of stimuli, B and C;
in other words, the single stimulus X can call out
all three responses "1, 2 and 3."
example, the sight of your wife entering the room may call
out the integrated social response which we will call Y,
consisting of (1) rising from your chair, (2), bowing, (3)
offering her a chair. I would call this an integrated response.
Our problem in social conditioning therefore is to find the
kinds of individual responses we want brought together to
form some pattern [p. 25] of response demanded by society,
then to locate the individual stimuli which will call out
these responses and substitute for that whole group of stimuli
a single stimulus -- often a verbal one. All verbal
commands are of this type, for example, "Right front into
line!" The verbal stimulus is X of our diagram, the
separate movements necessary to execute this maneuver illustrate
the "1, 2, 3," of our diagram.
this way, which may seem a little complicated unless one is
familiar with the establishment of conditioned responses the
Behaviorist tries to take the old vague concept of habit formation
and to give it a new and exact scientific formulation in terms
of conditioned responses. On this basis the most complicated
of our adult habits are explicable in terms of chains of simple
Behaviorist finds no scientific evidence for the existence
of any vitalistic principle, such, for example, as Prof.
MacDougall's "purpose," in his explanation of the increasing
complexity of behavior as we pass from infancy to adulthood.
It [p. 26] is a truism in science that we should not bring
into our explanation any vitalistic factor. We need nothing
to explain behavior but the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry
There are many things we cannot explain in behavior just as
there are many things we cannot explain in physics and chemistry,
but where objectively verifiable experimentation ends, hypothesis,
and later theory, begin. But even theories and hypotheses
must be couched in terms of what is already known about physical
and chemical processes. He then who would introduce consciousness,
either as an epiphenomenon or as an active force interjecting
itself into the chemical and physical happenings of the body,
does so because of spiritualistic and vitalistic leanings.
The Behaviorist cannot find consciousness in the test-tube
of his science. lie finds no evidence anywhere for a stream
of consciousness, not even for one so convincing as that described
by William James. He does, however, find convincing proof
of an ever-widening stream of behavior.
understand this stream of behavior [p. 27] we must first survey
the activity of the new-born infant, and enumerate the unconditioned
responses and the unconditioned stimuli that call them out.
Not all unconditioned responses are present at birth. Certain
of them appear at fairly definite intervals afterwards. And
this inquiry is not being undertaken for the purpose of classification.
The information is sought because these stimuli and responses
are the "raw material" out of which our child, adolescent
and adult, is to be built up. Love, fear and rage behavior
begin at birth, just as do sneezing, hiccoughing, feeding,
movements of the leg, larynx, grasping, defecation, urination,
crying, erection of penis, smiling, defense and other movements.
Reaching, blinking and others begin at a later stage. Some
of these embryologic responses persist throughout the life
history of the individual, others disappear.
important of all, conditioned responses are almost immediately
built on these embryologic foundations. For example, the child
will smile at birth (U) R; stroking the lips and other skin
[p. 28] of the body (U) S (and certain intraorganic stimuli)
will evoke it. So the birth situation may be represented diagrammatically
fear. Our work has shown that the fundamental unconditioned
stimulus (U) S calling out a fear reaction is a loud sound
or loss of support. Every child I have examined, with one
exception, [p. 29] in approximately a thousand, will catch
his breath, pucker his lips, cry, or, if older, crawl away,
when a loud sound is given behind his head, or when the blanket
on which be is lying is suddenly jerked forward. Nothing else
in the whole universe will produce fear in early infancy.
Now it is very easy to make the child fear every other object
in the universe. All one has to do is to show the object and
strike a steel bar behind his head, repeating the procedure
once or twice. Thus:
far I have described the process of conditioning or building.
Possibly the process of breaking down or unconditioning is
the more important one. Work on it has hardly begun, so I
can only sketch the process [p. 30] roughly in a few words.
Suppose I set up a conditioned fear-reaction to gold fish
in a glass bowl, in an infant eighteen months old who is just
beginning to talk, by means of the process already described.
The moment the child sees the fish bowl he says "Bite." No
matter how rapid his walk, he checks his step the moment he
comes within seven or eight feet of the fish bowl. If I lift
him by force and place him in front of it, he cries and tries
to break away and run. No psychoanalyst, no matter how skillful,
can remove such a fear by analysis. No advocate of reasoning
can remove it by talking to the child about the beautiful
fishes, how they move, live and have their being. So long
as the fish is not present, you can, by such verbal organization,
get the child to say "Nice fish, fish won't bite;" but immediately
you show him the fish, the former reaction recurs.
another method. Let his brother, aged four, who has no fear
of fish, come up to the bowl and put his hands in the bowl
and catch the fish. No amount of watching a fearless child
play with these [p. 31] harmless animals will remove the fear
from the toddler. Try shaming him, making a scapegoat of him.
Your attempts are equally futile. Let us try, however, this
simple method. Place the child at meal time at one end of
a table ten or twelve feet long, and move the fish bowl to
the extreme other end of the table and cover it. Just as soon
as the meal is placed before him remove the cover from the
bowl. If disturbance occurs, extend your table and place the
bowl still farther off, so far away that no disturbance occurs.
Eating takes place normally, nor is digestion interfered with.
Repeat the procedure on the next day, but move the bowl a
little nearer. In four or five days the bowl can be brought
right up to the food tray without causing the slightest disturbance.
Then take a small glass dish, fill it with water and move
the dish back, and at subsequent meal times bring it nearer
and nearer to him. Again in three or four days the small glass
dish can be put on the tray alongside of his milk. The old
fear has been driven out by training, unconditioning has taken
place, and this unconditioning [p. 32] is permanent. I think
this method is based on re-training the visceral component
of a total bodily reaction; in other words, to remove the
fear the intestine must be conditioned. Now I think one reason
why so many psychoanalytic "cures" are not permanent is because
the intestine is not conditioned simultaneously with the verbal
and manual components. In my opinion, the analyst cannot re-train
the intestine by any system of analysis or verbal instruction
because in our past training words have not served as stimuli
to intestinal response.
Behavior Psychology leave out anything? Professor MacDougall
will doubtless tell you that the Behaviorist selects his problems.
He will admit that the kind of work I have sketched is valuable
to society, but he will tell you that there are many other
phases in psychology which the Behaviorist studiously and
possibly ignorantly dismisses. One such prob1cm is "thinking."
How can you explain "thought" in Behavioristic terms? To do
so requires considerable time.
increasing dominance of language [p. 33] habits in the behavior
of the developing child leads naturally over into the behaviorist's
conception of thinking. The behaviorist makes no mystery of
thinking. He holds that thinking is behavior, is motor organization,
just like tennis playing or golf or any other form of muscular
activity. But what kind of muscular activity? The muscular
activity that he uses in talking. Thinking is merely talking,
but talking with concealed musculature.
ask you to take any child (as I have been doing with two lately)
when he first begins to talk. Peep through the keyhole and
watch him in the early morning. He will sit up in bed with
his toys, talk aloud to his toys, talk about them. When a
little older, he will plan out his day aloud, say aloud that
his nurse is going to take him for a walk, that his daddy
is going to bring him an auto. In other words, he talks overtly
when alone just as naturally as he works overtly with his
hands. A social factor comes in. The father gets to the point
when his own morning nap is disturbed. He yells out "keep
quiet." The child begins then to mumble to himself -- a [p.
34] great many individuals never pass this stage, and they
mumble to themselves all through life whenever they try to
think. The father does not like the child's mumbling any better
than his talking aloud, and so he may slap him on the lips.
Finally, the parents get the child to the point where he talks
silently to himself. When his lips are closed, it is nobody's
business what is going on below. Thus we come to behave as
we please if we do not give any external motor sign of it
-- in other words, our thoughts are our own.
a further question comes up for serious consideration: Do
we think only in terms of words? I take the position to-day
that whenever the individual is thinking, the whole of his
bodily organization is at work (implicitly) -- even though
the final solution shall he a spoken, written or subvocally
expressed verbal formulation. In other words, from the moment
the thinking problem is set for the individual (by the situation
he is in) activity is aroused that may lead finally to adjustment.
Sometimes the activity goes on (1) in terms of implicit [p.
35] manual organization; (2) more frequently in terms of implicit
verbal organization; (3) sometimes in terms of implicit (or
even overt) visceral organization. If (1) or (3) dominates,
thinking takes place without words.
diagram will make clear my present convictions about thinking.
In this diagram I take it for granted that the body has been
simultaneously organized to respond to a series of objects,
manually, verbally, and viscerally. I take it for granted
further that only one of the objects, the initial one, S1,
is at hand, and that it starts the body to work on its problem
of thinking. The object actually present may be a person asking
the individual a question. "Will X leave his present
job to become Y's partner?" By hypothesis the world
is shut off, and he has to think his problem out.
diagram shows clearly that thinking involves all three sets
of our organized reaction system. Note that RK1 can
arouse VK2, RR2, RG2; whereas RV1
may call out RK2, RV2, RG2; and RG1
calls out RK2, RV2 or RG2; and that all
[p. 37] of them serve, respectively, as kinesthetic, laryngeal
or visceral substitutes for S2, the next real object in the
series of objects originally producing the organization. Note
that, in accordance with the diagram, thinking activity may
go on for a considerable time without words. If at any step
in the process the RY organization does not appear, thinking
goes on without words.
[alone on p. 36]
seems reasonable, does it not, to suppose that thinking activity
at successive moments of time may be kinesthetic, verbal or
visceral (emotional) ? When kin-esthetic organization becomes
blocked, or is lacking, then the verbal processes function;
if both are blocked, the visceral (emotional) organization
becomes dominant. By hypothesis, however, the final response
or adjustment, if one is reached, must be verbal (subvocal).
line of argument shows how one's total organization is brought
into the process of thinking. I think it shows clearly that
manual and visceral organizations are operative in thinking
even when no verbal processes are present -- it shows that
we [p. 38] could still think in some sort of way even if we
had no words!
thus think and plan with the whole body. But since, as I have
already pointed out, word organization is, when present, probably
usually dominant over visceral and manual organization, we
can say that thinking is largely subvocal talking-provided
we hasten to explain that it can occur without words.
are thus the conditioned (C) S substitutes for our world of
objects and acts. Thinking is a device for manipulating the
world of objects when those objects are not present to the
senses. Thinking more than doubles our efficiency. It enables
us to carry our day world to bed with us and manipulate it
at night or when it is a thousand miles away. Psychoanalysts
when taking an individual out of a bad situation often forget
that the patient carries the bad verbal situation to the new
location. Most of the happy results of analysis are due to
the fact that the analyst builds up a new word world correlated
with a new visceral and a new manual world. There can be no
virtue in analysis per se.
is the end of my little story. I have had opportunity only
to hurl at the reader a few Behavioristic words; it is beyond
reason to expect him to react favorably to a scientific formulation
which throws out of adjustment so much of his previous organization.
If it serves to make you only a little more critical of our
present easy-going psychological formulations, I shall rest
content. To accept Behaviorism fully and freely requires a
slow growth -- the putting away of old habits and the formulation
of new. Behaviorism is new wine that cannot be poured into