In explaining how environmental events cause behavior, behaviorists adopted the doctrine of associationism that had been an integral part of E. B. Titchener’s brand of structuralism. As you learned in Section 4-4, associationism for Titchener meant that complex mental experience is formed by a passive and automatic combination of simple mental elements. Behaviorists, however, needed to revise Titchener’s concept because they had rejected the study of mental events. Thus, behaviorists needed to remove any mention of mental experiences or mental elements. For behaviorists, associationism meant that two environmental stimuli are linked automatically when they have been paired closely in time. That is, when two environmental events occur together, an association between them is formed — an association linked to changes in the central nervous system. In this way, animals acquire (learn) a behavioral tendency — a predisposition to act or behave in a particular way.
For behaviorists, the development of the association is due to the development of a neural connection in the central nervous system (CNS). When Stimulus 1 occurs, the area in the CNS that senses that stimulus becomes active (see Figure 1). And when Stimulus 2 occurs, the area in the CNS that senses it also will become active. If Stimulus 2 is a stimulus that produces a reflexive response, then the area that produces the response will be activated immediately after Stimulus 2 is presented, thereby automatically producing the response.
Repeated pairings of Stimulus 1 and Stimulus 2 was thought to cause a connection to develop between the brain areas activated by the two stimuli. Once this neural connection developed, Stimulus 1 became as effective as Stimulus 2 for releasing the reflexive response.
To help you understand the behaviorist version of associationism, let’s look at an example. The noise made by an alarm clock (an environmental stimulus) causes me to respond involuntarily by waking up (a reflexive response to the stimulus). Just before the alarm goes off, the clock makes a clicking noise (another environmental stimulus). This situation is illustrated in Figure 2.
I have acquired a behavioral tendency to wake up automatically (reflexively) in response to the clicking noise (Stimulus 1): the frequent pairing over time of Stimulus 1 and Stimulus 2 has caused the development of an association between the two stimuli.
The behaviorist version of associationism explains my learning to wake up to the clicking noise by assuming that an association has developed between two environmental stimuli — the clicking noise and the alarm — in a passive and automatic (machine-like) way. This differs from the structuralist version of associationism: Titchener would have assumed that an association had developed between two mental events — perceptions of the clicking noise and the alarm — in a passive and automatic way. Behaviorists rejected explanations such as Titchener’s: they would have argued that there is no way to verify the occurrence of these mental events. Instead, behaviorists believed that the pairing of stimuli had a direct effect on the CNS. They did not need to include mental events (perceptions) as intermediaries between the occurrence of environmental stimuli and changes in the CNS. They did not deny that these perceptions occurred, but they ignored them when explaining the development of learned responses.
The behaviorist version of associationism is based on the physiological concept of reflexes. The reflex concept states that a stimulus, such as a hammer tap just under the knee, causes an involuntary response, a knee jerk. Reflexes result from the normal development of the nervous system in each species. Behaviorist associationism states that the “reflexive stimulus” — the hammer tap under the knee — is preceded repeatedly by another stimulus — such as a light hammer tap to the forearm — this second, “nonreflexive stimulus” should eventually become associated with the reflexive stimulus. Once the association forms, the hammer tap to the forearm will cause the activation of the same spinal-cord area activated by the hammer tap below the knee and, therefore, the hammer tap to the forearm should also cause the knee to jerk up involuntarily. According to this view, the repeated pairing of the two stimuli causes a neural connection to form between the CNS area activated by the forearm tap and the CNS area activated by the knee tap. In essence, behaviorists conceived of humans as “learning machines,” just as Titchener did: learning happens automatically and passively when environmental events are paired — there is no need to think consciously about what is being learned. In this way, behaviorists incorporated the structuralist assumption that humans are acted upon by the environment (that is, our conscious minds do not actively participate in our learning).
Associationism & Biological Causes
For behaviorists, the human ability to learn from experience is the central characteristic of human nature and, hence, psychology should focus its research on understanding the processes underlying the development of learned responses to stimuli. Most behaviorists believed that humans have a few inborn biological reflexes (but see Kuo, 1921, 1976, who argued that all reflexes are learned, even those we’re born with). They believed that nearly all the behavior of newborns consisted of random movements and that infants did not show intentional movements (goal-directed movements, such as reaching for a toy) until they had learned the separate responses making up these movements through the pairing of environmental stimuli. In other words, behaviorists claimed that, over time, humans gradually learn a vast number of new responses to environmental stimuli through simple forms of learning, which quickly outnumber our inborn reflexes: virtually all of our behavior is learned.
Let’s look at an example so that you might better understand the behaviorist view. Newborn infants salivate reflexively to the taste of their mother’s milk. Because the taste of milk (Stimulus 1) is paired with the sight of an approaching nipple (Stimulus 2), babies soon learn to salivate to the sight of an approaching nipple alone. The repeated pairing of Stimulus 1 and Stimulus 2 causes an association to develop between them, and since the taste of milk causes salivation, the newly formed association between the sight of the approaching nipple and the taste of milk causes the baby to salivate automatically to the sight of the approaching nipple. Figure 3 illustrates this example.
Behaviorists stated that the constant development of new associations between environmental stimuli continues for the rest of our lives, eventually resulting in the complex intentional movements of adults (such as the movements involved in driving a car or flying a plane). Thus, early behaviorists concluded that biological heredity (genes) has virtually nothing to do with the development of human behavior and personality — that learning is primary for this development. By 1920, behaviorists had succeeded in virtually eliminating from experimental psychology the study of genetic and evolutionary explanations of human behavior. As you’ll see in a later section, later behaviorists reintroduced the idea that evolutionary factors were important for behavioral responses, although in different ways (Breland & Breland, 1961; Skinner, 1974). And it wasn’t until about 1960 that a small group of experimental psychologists began to seriously investigate genetic and evolutionary explanations of human and animal behavior (e.g., Fuller & Thompson, 1960; Hirsch, 1967).
Behaviorism’s adoption of its version of associationism led experimental psychologists to assume that humans are essentially nothing but automatons passively molded by environmental experiences (just as a sculptor molds a statue out of clay) — a disturbing assumption indeed. On the other hand, by emphasizing the fundamental importance of environmental factors (and the almost nonexistent influence of genetic and evolutionary factors), behaviorism represented a viewpoint that, perhaps, was more optimistic and egalitarian[∂] regarding the ability to change human behavior. By assuming that we humans learn most or all of our behavior (and that even our personalities are completely learned), behaviorism implied that “bad” behaviors can be changed simply by changing the environment in ways that allow the learning of new, better associations. Thus, no one is born inherently better than others, and anyone can improve if given the right kinds of experiences. As John Watson (the behaviorist introduced in Section 4-6) put it, all possibilities are open to each and every person at his or her birth and during the rest of his or her life:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, activities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (Watson, 1930, p. 65)
Watson’s optimistic assertion fit in well with the optimistic view inherent in American culture then and now. Furthermore, his assertion that people can be molded to fit into any niche resonated well with the view that scientific research should focus on practical and, it was hoped, simple solutions to the problems faced by American businesses (Buckley, 1989). The optimistic and practical bent of behaviorism probably was the major reason why it was quickly accepted by experimental psychologists and why it became so popular with the American public for many decades. In fact, its influence is still with us today in many self-help books and products that promise relatively quick changes in behavior and personality.
Study Questions for Section 4-7
- How did the behaviorist concept of associationism differ from the structuralist (Titchenerian) concept?
- In what way(s) were the two concepts similar?
- Given your answers to #1 and #2, when two people discussing a complex issue (such as the causes of personality development), why is it important that they define the central terms they are using?
- Given your answers to #1 and #2, is it possible for two people to agree about a complex issue but actually disagree without knowing it? Is it possible for them to disagree about the issue but actually agree without knowing it? Can you think of some examples to support your answers (real or fictional)?
- According to behaviorism, how is biology important for the forming of associations between stimuli?
- According to behaviorism, why is the reflex concept important for understanding the forming of associations between stimuli?
- According to behaviorism, what is the most important characteristic of human nature?
- IAccording to behaviorism, how are inborn biological reflexes important for the development of behavior during the first few months of life?
- According to behaviorism, how do our personalities develop and become more complex as we get older?
- What happened to the study of hereditary influences on behavior within experimental psychology after about 1920?
- According to behaviorism, are we the “authors of our own lives”? That is, are we responsible for our successes and failures? If so, how are we responsible? If not, who or what is responsible?
- What claim did John Watson make in 1930 regarding the development of abilities and skills in individuals? Do you agree with his claim? Why or why not?
Breland, K., & Breland, M. (1961). The misbehavior of organisms. American Psychologist, 16, 681-684. Retrieved October 9, 2011, from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Breland/misbehavior.htm
Buckley, K. W. (1989). Mechanical man: John Broadus Watson and the beginnings of behaviorism. New York: Guilford.
Fuller, J. & Thompson, W. R. (1960). Behavior genetics. New York: Wiley & Sons.
Hirsch, J. (Ed.) (1967). Behavior-genetic analysis. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kuo, Z.-Y. (1921). Giving up instincts in psychology. Journal of Philosophy, 18, 645-664.
Kuo, Z.-Y. (1976). The dynamics of behavior development: An epigenetic view (enlarged ed.). New York: Plenum.
Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Knopf.Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.