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Behavioral psychology, also known as behaviorism, is a perspective that became dominant during the early half of the 20th century thanks to prominent thinkers such as B.F. Skinner, and John B. Watson. The basis of behavioral psychology suggests that all behaviors are learned. Conditioning is the process of learning to react to the environment. Many theorists contributed to the theories of classical and operant conditioning, some theorists being Skinner, Watson, and Tolman. Each theorist contributed their own theories proven to impact a part of psychology. Many behaviors have been previously conditioned in the human species by the environment. Skinner, Watson, and Tolman all made their contributions to psychology with theories and proven statistics.

John B. Watson

John Watson proposed the idea of an objective psychology of behavior called “behaviorism.” He saw psychology as the study of people’s actions with the ability to predict and control those actions. His idea became known as “the behaviorists” theory (Goodwin. 2008). Theorists such as Skinner, Watson, and Tolman all had one common idea; that psychology was defined as the natural science of behavior, objective in its study, and was a pattern of adjustment functionally dependent upon stimulus conditions in the environment, and was emphasized in theory and research. Watson also used animal subjects to study behavior. Later he turned to the study of human behaviors and emotions. He wanted to develop techniques to allow him to condition and control the emotions of human subjects.

He argued that organizations like the Boy Scouts and YMCA lead to homosexuality, and girls in particular were susceptible because they held hands, kissed, and slept together in the same bed at pajama parties (Watson, 1920). He was famous for the experimental study on baby Albert, which he theorized that children have three basic emotional reactions: fear, rage, and love. He wanted to prove that these three reactions could be artificially conditioned in children. Watson used baby Albert to test his theory. He repeatedly presented Albert with a rat in conjunction with a sudden, loud noise to classically condition fear of the rat (Goodwin, 2008).

In 1920, he published his most famous conditioning experiment; the “Little Albert” study in which he produced, in a small child, conditioned fear of a white rat by repeatedly presenting it paired with the loud “clanging” of a metal bar. A leading expert on child-rearing in his time, Watson called for minimal physical contact between parents and children, including no hugging and no lap-sitting. In wildly unethical “Little Albert” experiments circa 1920, Watson used loud noises to condition an infant child to fear rats. This conditioned fear was then shown to generalize to other white furry objects (Watson, 1920). While some believe the experiment with baby Albert to be unethical and harmful, Watson proved his theory that an individual can be trained to produce fears, love, phobias, and rage.

B.F. Skinner

Skinner believed that we do have such a thing as a mind, but that it is simply more productive to study observable behavior rather than internal mental events. He believed the best way to understand behavior was to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach operant conditioning. His theory of operant conditioning was based on the work of Thorndike (1905). Edward Thorndike studied learning in animals using a puzzle box to propose the theory known as the ‘Law of Effect’. Skinner is known today as the father of Operant Conditioning, but his work was based on Thorndike’s law of effect.

Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect, which was called the reinforcement behavior. He believed reinforcements tended to be repeated behavior which was not reinforced and died out, or extinguished. Skinner (1948) studied operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals which he placed in a “Skinner Box” which was similar to Thorndike’s puzzle box. B.F. Skinner was, and continues to be famous for his research on operant conditioning and negative reinforcement. Skinner performed many experiments to prove both animals and humans can be trained with or without various motives. He developed a device called the “cumulative recorder,” which showed rates of responding as a sloped line. Using this device, he found that behavior did not depend on the preceding stimulus as Watson and Pavlov maintained.

Instead, Skinner found that behaviors were dependent upon what happens after the response (Goodwin, 2008). Skinner called this operant behavior. B. F. Skinner’s entire system was based on operant conditioning. Skinner believed operant conditioning was the behavior followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modified the organism’s tendency to repeat the behavior in the future (Goodwin, 2008). To perform his experiments, Skinner would put the rat in the cage (now known as the “Skinner box”) that had a bar or pedal on one wall and when pressed, caused a little mechanism to release a food pellet into the cage.

The rat would bounce around the cage, and when it would accidentally press the bar a food pellet would fall into the cage. In this case, the operant was the behavior before the reinforcer, which was the food pellet. Eventually, the rat would begin to peddle at the bar, hoarding the pile of pellets in the corner of the cage. Skinner’s experiment was later proven to be controversial, yet some still believe it to be credible while others argue his statistics and facts. Skinner recommended that psychologists concentrate on observables, that is, the environment and our behavior in it. Although his theory may have been controversial to some, Skinner’s contributions remain remembered, as well as practiced today.

Edward C. Tolman

Edward Chance Tolman was an American psychologist who made significant contributions to the studies of learning and motivation. Today, he is considered a cognitive behaviorist. Tolman developed his own behaviorism when Watson was proving his theory. He created a cognitive theory of learning, developed his theory from his knowledge and cognitions about the environment and how the organisms related to it. Tolman conducted several classical rat experiments. One of his most well known studies involved maze running.

He examined the role that reinforcement plays in the way that rats learn their way through complex mazes. The experiments eventually led to the theory of latent learning which describes learning that occurs in the absence of an obvious reward (Goodwin, 2008). The initial learning that occurred during the “no reward” trials was what Tolman referred to as latent learning. He argued that humans engaged in this type of learning everyday as they drove or walked the same route on a daily basis, and learned the locations of buildings and objects.

Despite his theory of latent learning, he was also opposed to the behaviorism of Watson. He was known for initiating his own kind of behaviorism which he referred to as “purposive behaviorism (Hothersall, 1995). He felt that a motive drives an organism’s behavior until some internal state is rectified and until that happens, the organism continues to behave. He also believed, like most psychologists at that time, that behavior could be generalized across species and explained by the behavior of the rat.

Although Tolman proved his theories, he never believed that psychology should be set in its ways and theories; and that theories in psychology were always changing, and should always remain that way. He is remembered for being a pioneer in cognitive psychology during a time when behaviorists dominated the field. He is classified as a cognitive behaviorist today, and the originator of the cognitive theory. His idea of cognitive maps is one of his theories that are still used today.


Skinner, Tolman, and Watson each had their own theories and beliefs in regards to psychology. Each theorist was proven with experiments, yet not all theories were seen eye-to-eye, and some were proven to be controversial. Although each theorist had their own opinions, they all contributed to various parts of psychology whether it was learned behavior, reactions, or environmental learning, each theorist had many things in common that contributed to psychology as we know it today.


Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A History of Modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hothersall, D. (1995). History of Psychology. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Murphy, G. (1930). A Historical Introduction to Modern Psychology. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc.

Watson, J. (1920). The ways of behaviorism. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Pub.

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