Figures in the history of Behaviourism

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov 

(1849-1936): Russian physiologist (Nobel prize for work on digestion, 1904)Biography. Pioneer of the theory of "classical conditioning".

Burrhus Frederic Skinner

(1904-90): Best known of all behaviourists, and explorer of operant conditioningThe Skinner site: the process whereby the probability of behaviour being repeated is increased if it is reinforced.Positive reinforcement (in sloppy language reward) is more effective in learning than punishment. Negative reinforcement can also be effectiveMy thanks to the correspondent who pointed out that I originally discussed negative reinforcement in misleading terms, and apologies to anyone who was misled ; i.e. the removal of an unpleasant accompaniment or consequence. Skinner developed early "teaching machines", and even described a behaviourist utopia in Walden Two (1961). Various attempts were made to create Walden Two in practice. They all failed. 

 Skinner did say some useful things, among them: 

Edward Lee Thorndike 

(1874-1949) US animal and later educational psychologist, More on Thorndikedeveloped the theory of trial and error learning through experiments with animals having to escape from puzzle boxes. His law of effect describes the establishment of learned responses through "trial and success". The law of exercise ...and in the context of the history of behaviorism as a wholedescribes how learning improves with practice. As an educational psychologist he published a paper in 1901 with Woodworth, undermining the idea of the (necessary) transferability of learning. 

John Broadus Watson 

(1878-1958): Apostle of Behaviourism, building on Pavlov's ideas to maintain that the reflex was the basic unit of behaviour. He famously claimed: 

"Give me a dozen healthy infants ... 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, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." 

He later qualified this view. 

The quotation is of course reminiscent of the claimed Jesuit maxim: "give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man" (Loyola, 1557), but as my partner points out, what is the Jesuits' record on pre-school education? Typical male view, she says!

Nevertheless it is interesting to note the final phrase: at a time when racism was routine, Watson treated it as irrelevant. The extreme environmentalism of the early behaviourists was politically liberal, or even radical.

More on Watson

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Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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