Special Issue: Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto

The Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis (Revista mexicana de análisis de la conducta) has  published a special issue celebrating the centennial of John B. Watson’s behaviorist manifesto. The full issue is freely available in both Spanish and English. Guest guest edited by Kennon A. Lattal and Alexandra Rutherford, the issue includes articles by a number of prominent historians of psychology. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“John B. Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto at 100,” by Kennon A. Lattal and Alexandra Rutherford. The abstract reads,

In this introduction to the special issue of the Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis on Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto, we consider Watson’s seminal 1913 Psychological Review article “Psychology as the behaviorist views it” as a contribution in its own time, and reflect on the significance of the article in both contemporary psychology and contemporary behaviorism. Despite its lukewarm reception at the time of its publication and the mixed reviews of its impact even today, it remains one of the touchstone articles in psychology and an undeniably important text in understanding the evolution of 20th century American psychology. The different contributors to the special issue consider Watson’s article in the context of a number of subdisciplines of psychology.

“John B. Watson’s Early Work and Comparative Psychology,” by Donald A. Dewsbury. The abstract reads,

John B. Watson’s 1913 “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” the so-called behaviorist manifesto, is examined in the context of its time and of its influence on the history of comparative psychology. The key ideas in the article were, a.) reliance on the experimental method, b.) prediction and control as goals of psychology, c.) elimination of the construct of consciousness d.) the importance of continuity of species, e.) direction of knowledge not solely toward humans, and f.) a role for instinctive behavior. These ideas can be seen to have been present before Watson and in the literature of his day. The article itself did not have a great immediate impact on psychology. Comparative psychology around 1913 had been strong but was entering a period of partial dormancy from which it recovered during the 1920s and 1930s. It was then that Watson’ early work, and other work of the time, had their greatest impact. Comparative psychology matured in subsequent decades. The impact of behaviorism varied through different phases of its development. Watson’s primary role was to integrate assorted ideas so as to form a fairly coherent package that he, a master salesman, could label and promulgate first to other psychologists and then to a broader public. His specific influences on comparative psychology are sometimes difficult to evaluate.

“‘It is not Elementary, My Dear Watson’: The Strange Legacy of the Behaviorist Manifesto,” by M. Jackson Marr. The abstract reads,

J. B. Watson’s “Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It” marks its centennial in 2013. It is commonly recognized as the birth of behaviorism, a perspective in various forms to dominate theory and experiment in American psychology for the subsequent 50 years or so and still very much alive. What is not so clear in the light of both history and the substance of Watson’s behaviorism is why he is considered the founder of this movement. While a current assessment of Watson’s manifesto might be subject to a charge of whiggishness, in fact, well before and certainly during Watson’s career as a spokesman for behaviorism others had much more sophisticated behaviorist views, some of which are reflected in modern formulations. Watson’s naïve behaviorism however, was to be considered by many, especially those outside the experimental psychologist community, as the behaviorism, with decidedly negative impact that continues to the present day.

“Influences of John B. Watson’s Behaviorism on Child Psychology,” by Hayne W. Reese. The abstract reads,

Watson’s 1913 manifesto, and later elaborations of it, changed child psychology into a natural science based on experimental research and stimulus-response theorizing. These influences probably resulted partly from the philosophical and theoretical attractiveness of a natural science approach, partly from the objectivity and persuasiveness of an experimental approach, and partly from misunderstandings and misrepresentations of his behaviorism. These points are discussed in the first two major sections of this paper, respectively on Watson’s influence on child psychology in general and, as a concrete illustration, his influence specifically in the domain of emotions and emotional development. The latter section shows, for example, that misinterpretations of Watson’s theory of emotions led to many experimental investigations in an area that had been overwhelmingly nonexperimental. The final section is a ruminative summary in that its conclusions come largely from considerations given in the first two sections but also partly from considerations not covered there.

“The Evolving Behaviorist/Mentalist Disagreements,” by Philip N. Hineline. The abstract reads,

While introspective structural analyses of consciousness faded from psychological discourse, awareness and rationality within psychological interpretation were issues of contention throughout much of the 20th century. Behaviorist positions evolved, with neobehaviorism adhering to Watson’s position and the Skinnerian system (behavior analysis as method; radical behaviorism as philosophy) providing alternatives. Mentalistic psychology evolved as well, with the ”cognitive” label appearing after mid-century along with theoretical constructs modeled upon the digital computer. Debate raged over behaviorists’ experiments on the reinforcement of verbal behavior: Behaviorists found no necessary role of awareness in this; cognitivists vociferously objected. Then in recent decades, with cognitivist’s own experiments yielding data on nonconscious functioning, discussions of implicit (thus, nonconscious) processes — memory, attitudes, etc. — have become typical fare in the literature. Cognitivist interpretations of these phenomena show no recognition of their contradicting a major premise of past cognitivist critiques of behavioral work. Recently, the term, “behavioral” has been rather widely adopted — notably in behavioral economics, where assumptions of psychological rationality have been discredited, but with little recognition that core concepts originated within (or at least were anticipated by) behavior analysis. Thus, the behaviorist and cognitivist traditions remain distinct, albeit perhaps with less heated disagreement. The continuing separation may be attributable to constraints within the patterns of explanatory language that we all share.

“John B. Watson’s 1913 ‘Behaviorist Manifesto’: Setting the Stage for Behaviorism’s Social Action Legacy,” by Richard F. Rakos. The abstract reads,

John B. Watson’s 1913 article “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” is widely known as the “behaviorist manifesto” that initiated behaviorism as a discipline and academic field of study. While the intent of the paper was to present behaviorism as psychology’s path to becoming a natural science, Watson also insisted that empirical data and principles generated by such a natural science must be applied to solving human and social problems if the science was to have substantial meaning and validity. He suggested several areas of social interest (education, medicine, law, business) that were ripe for an application of behavioral principles. In subsequent writings over the next decade, Watson expanded his focus on social problems and their behavioral remedies, culminating in his 1924 book Behaviorism, which aggressively confronted the eugenic fervor sweeping the United States during the first quarter of the century by espousing an extreme and at times polemical environmentalism. Watson’s environmentalism and advocacy of social interventions reflected his comfort with the Progressive ideology of the time — a heritage that embodied Skinner’s work and the rise of operant interventions in the 1960s, and now is found in the work of the many contemporary behavior analysts who are applying scientific principles to increasingly complex social problems.

“Disseminating Behaviorism: The Impact of John B. Watson’s Ideas on Brazilian Educators,” by Sergio Dias Cirino, Rodrigo Lopes Miranda, Robson Nascimento Cruz, & Saulo De Freitas Araujo. The abstract reads,

The reception of John Broadus Watson’s writings in Brazil during the early part of the 20th century is analyzed by exploring how his ideas were manifest in the works of two Brazilian intellectuals, Lúcio José dos Santos (1875-1944) and Manoel Bergström Lourenço Filho (1897-1970). These authors were important in Brazilian educational and psychological debates during the first decades of the 20th century. During this period, psychology and education were pivotal to discussions of the modernization of Brazil. This paper reviews the aforementioned authors’ personal histories and divergent perspectives on Watson’s behaviorism. In this context, we trace the reception and dissemination of Watson’s ideas in the Brazilian intellectual milieu, underscoring the local idiosyncrasies of the development of psychology in Brazil.

“From Watson’s 1913 Manifesto to Complex Human Behavior,” by Andrés García-Penagos & John C. Malone. The abstract reads,

Watson’s 1913 “behaviorist manifesto” had little effect in the years immediately following its publication. The inconspicuous but indefatigable rise of behaviorism was more of a barbarian invasion than a revolution, and the manifesto played the role of crystallizing sentiment and unifying diverse and tentative efforts under one flag. It also provided traditional psychology, the “low road,” with a favorite punching bag to spar with for mainstream favoritism, a situation which has not changed now a century later. Watson’s views often are misrepresented as naïve and simplistic and as a mere extrapolation of findings based on crude experiments with animals. But it was the objective methods of animal research, not the specific findings, that he sought to apply to human research. Critics and followers alike have often minimized his struggle as Watson tried to provide a psychology that could really account for complex human behavior. In this respect, one hundred years after the publication of the manifesto, behaviorism has yet to fulfill Watson’s promises for a genuinely scientific understanding of our complex subject matter.

“The Legacy of John B. Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto for Applied Behavior Analysis,” by Edward K. Morris. The abstract reads,

This paper addresses the legacy of John B. Watson’s (1913b) article, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” for applied behavior analysis, in particular, for four of its dimensions: the conceptual systems, behavioral, analytic, and applied dimensions. I begin with brief histories of behaviorism, behavior analysis, and applied behavior analysis. I situate Watson’s article in the psychology of his day. And, I locate the defining features of his behaviorism in its opening sentence: “Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science” (p. 158). The legacy of “natural science” is the conceptual systems dimension of applied behavior analysis. The system was a metaphysical behaviorism and descriptive positivism, not a methodological behaviorism and a logical positivism. The legacy of “objective” is the behavioral dimension of applied behavior analysis. Objectivity was not objectivism. The legacy of “experimental” is its analytic dimension. Prediction and control were means for understanding behavior, not goals in themselves. Application was not a defining feature of Watson’s behaviorism, but he addressed experimental research on behavior of societal importance and mentioned its application in vocational bureaus. Thus, its legacy was, in part, the applied dimension of applied behavior analysis. In conclusion, I comment on the misrepresentation of the article’s legacy in mainstream psychological science and its actual legacy for applied behavior analysis.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

1 thought on “Special Issue: Behaviorism at 100: The Legacies of Watson’s Behaviorist Manifesto

  1. For anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing, there’s a new musical currently in production based on the life of JB Watson. Set to open September 12 at the Sacred Fools Theatre in Hollywood, the piece documents Watson’s tempestuous life, beginning with his youth in South Carolina, through his academic heyday at Johns Hopkins, and on through to his later work in advertising and childcare advice. Produced in association with Center Theatre Group – who originally commissioned the piece in 2010 – I’m posting about it here because the show makes an effort to engage not only Watson’s life but his continuing legacy. If you’re interested, please spread the word.
    Show info at: http://www.sacredfools.org/mainstage/14/broadus/

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