A Short History of Behaviorism

Vic Napier


The origins of behaviorism grew out of the ideology of the American Progressive Movement of 1880 to 1920.  Although the Progressive movement is often associated with political reform its’ affects were felt much more broadly.  The Progressive Movement is a natural evolution of the liberal philosophies that began with John Locke and put into practice by Thomas Jefferson.   The defining concept is the idea that society is bound together by an implicit social contract permitting political autonomy and individual rights in exchange for an obligation of stewardship of the social needs of others. 

Although this sounds obvious to us today, it was a radical idea in the days of the American Revolution.  Less than a century after American Independence the Industrial Revolution had created an economy that was cleaving society into two groups – those who owned the means of production, and those who labored to produce.  Social Darwinism was taken very seriously at this time, and there was no guarantee that politics and society would not slip back into a model similar to that before the concept of liberal democracy.  It was feared that updated versions of institutions similar to serfdom and the Divine Right of Kings could re-emerge if the essence of liberal democracy were not asserted (Smith 1985).

One of he aims of the Progressive Movement was to bring the benefits of science to the challenges of social needs.  This was defined generally as increasing the material comfort of people who had been left disadvantaged by the Industrial Revolution.  To this end, the American Social Science Association was established in 1863 to organize the growing number of academics in the emerging American university system.  The association published the first American scholarly journal dedicated to social science, The Journal of Social Science.   (Mills, 1998)

From the time of the inception of the American Social Science Association to the end of the 19th century, psychology had not emerged as a discipline in its own right, but was considered an emerging moral philosophy.  However, the realities of budgets and legislators created pressure on early proponents of psychology – mostly professors of philosophy and theology – to create research that might lead to practical applications.

This led William James – a leading academic champion of psychology whose training was in philosophy – to advocate for a separation of philosophy and psychology.  While James was not suggesting that psychology abandon philosophy, he wrote a number of books and scholarly articles at the turn of the century calling for its’ inclusion as a natural science.  Traditional philosophers were very happy to assist in psychologies’ move to independence; the pressure to produce pragmatic results moved the discipline of psychology deeper in to the laboratory, a place where philosophers were decidedly uncomfortable.  (Sexton, 1978)

Nascent Behaviorism

As early as 1897, the roots of behaviorism can be found in the laboratory of sociologist Franklin Henry Giddings who created a “sympathy scale”, purporting to measure the levels of sympathy between races. (Mills, 1998).  Mills knew that his scale was inherently racist, but this was not a problem of political correctness as much as it was a problem of measurement.  To overcome criticisms of lack of objective measurement Giddings rejected states of mind, internal mental mechanisms, and the unconscious and operationally defined behaviors that he believed represented sympathy (Mills, 1998).

Giddings’ sympathy scale contained all the elements that behaviorism needed.  Sympathy was defined in terms of observable and measurable behavior, there was no assumption that underling feelings or other meant constructs was involved, it was pragmatic in that it addressed the problem under examination and nothing else, and it held the promise of application to a broad range of social questions (Mills, 1998).

By the time, that Giddings updated his sympathy scale in 1907 psychology was undergoing a transition phase.  John Dewey, William James, and other American philosophers and psychologists were breaking with their German mentors over the issues of functionalism and structuralism this time.  Dewey, while working with James, advanced the “law of effect”; at the same time the drive to pragmatic applications were modifying and integrating theories of functionalism and structuralisms towards a single concept (Manicas, 2002).  What this single concept would become, however, was not clear.  Periods of transition are often periods of chaos and uncertainty, and this was the state of psychology in the early 1900’s.

James Angell, who had studied under both Dewey and James, was not only the president of the American Psychological Association, but also James Watson’s dissertation adviser.  By happenstance, Watson found himself standing amid a discipline waiting for leadership and direction when Angell declared in his presidential address to the APA in 1906 that behavior and its results were the focus of psychology (Manicas, 2002).  Thus, Angell moved American psychology firmly in the direction of behaviorism and broke completely with German functionalism and structuralism, while giving Watson the opportunity to redefine the discipline.

Watson Leads the Way

Watson earned his PhD in 1903, and wrote what is considered the first definitive book on behaviorism, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” in 1913.  It was a landmark book for a number of reasons.  For the first time behaviorism was given definitive goals, methods and parameters.  The structure that Watson illustrated for the behaviorism was a discipline based heavily in rationalist thought, and on the precept that learning is the major influence on development and behavior (Rilling, 2000).  At the same time, he severed any relationship with philosophy, abandoning philosophical terms and concepts, in favor of language that reflected the pragmatism and immediacy of behaviorism (Sexton, 1978).

One of the most memorable of Watson’s views on the nature of behaviorism was the dictum that its focus was on the causes and control of human behavior.  At the dawn of the 20th century, this was an important construct.  In an era when progress and security of individuals, business and countries was seen as being dependant on the productivity of people this was seen as a virtue of overriding importance.  Applied behaviorism, in Watsons view, was the key to success of men, business and nations.  

Watson eventually had the opportunity to prove his point, and was very successful.  After leaving academia, he brought the promise of behaviorism to the pragmatic and demanding world of business.  He went to work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising company, was quite successful and became very wealthy.

Watson’s Mystery

A very significant and somewhat mysterious event occurred in 1920 that put behaviorism on a new course and effectively ended Watson’s direct influence over it.  It is well known that Watson was fired from his faculty position at Johns Hopkins University in 1920 in the wake of national attention to his affair with a much younger woman and subsequent divorce.  (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).   Subsequently he was not able to get a job anywhere in academia, and began his career in advertising.  The dismissal, combined with being blackballed from academia, seems harsh but has been ascribed to very conservative attitudes in the 1920’s.

There is something wrong with that explanation, however.  The 1920’s were anything but conservative.  Women had earned voting rights, were venturing into non-traditional jobs in government and academia and were making steady progress in areas as diverse as contraceptive availably, business ownership and political office (Smith 1985).  Certainly, affairs and divorce did not warrant such reactionary measures as blackballing a famous and promising academic professional who had achieved celebrity status while at Johns Hopkins, not to mention recently ascending to the presidency of the American Psychological Association, and the recipient of a 50% bonus only a few months before his fall from grace.  (Benjamin, Whitaker, Ramsey, & Zeve, 2007)

It seems there is more to the story.

For years, rumors have circulated that the real reason for Watson’s excommunication form psychology was not a simple extra marital affair, but rather sex studies that he undertook with the assistance of “the other woman”, Rosalie Rayner.  Furthermore, these sex studies involved measurements of physical attributes during the act of sexual intercourse.  The story might have remained a hushed rumor had it not been for the discovery of instruments used to measure sexual response found in a collection of Watson’s effects in a Canadian museum in 1978.  (Benjamin, et. al.)

The evidence remains unconvincing, and the “sex experiments” are no longer mentioned in psychology textbooks or histories.  Just the same, if such experiments did exist they would make Watson’s harsh treatment more rational and easily understood.  A private sexual peccadillo and consequent divorce are one thing, but using the universities’ assets for clandestine sexual research is quite another, particularly when the investigators are also the experimental subjects and one of them is married to someone who is not an experimental subject.

We will likely never know how much truth there is to Watson’s alleged sexual escapades, but the possibility brings a refreshing bit of humanity to the otherwise dryly academic study of the history of behaviorism.  It also makes for a much more interesting introduction to BF Skinner, who enters the behaviorism story shortly after Watson left, or more accurately, was yanked form the stage.


Enter BF Skinner

BF Skinner graduated from college with a degree in literature in 1926, but quickly became disenchanted with professional writing, and earned a PhD in Psychology in 1931 from Harvard University.   Although he never took a psychology class as an undergraduate, he was intensely interested in the field and read a number of books and research papers.  

While Skinner was earning his PhD behaviorism was experiencing something of a doldrums after the loss of Watson.  Before his abrupt departure, Watson had cleanly excised cognition from the study of behavior.  Researchers in the 1920’s and early 30’s saw behaviorism as the study of mechanical responses.  Kao (cited in (Moxley, 1992) had this to say about cognition and behaviorism in 1928:

Behaviorism . . . cannot be anything more than a science of mechanics dealing with the mechanical movements of [organisms].  The S-R formula of behaviorism is directly derived from the basic principles of physics. . . . The basic principles that . . . explain the behavior of a stone should be sufficient to explain human behavior. (p. 1302)


The mechanical nature of human behavior was not without its’ critics.  In the same year, that Kao wrote the words above Bertrand Russell countered with a typically droll observation, “Science is . . . developing a philosophy which substitutes for the old conception of knowledge the new conception of successful behavior" (cited in Moxley, 1992, p. 1302).


As a graduate student in the late 20’s and early 30’s, advances in physics and the work of Ernst Mach, (the creator of the Mach scale), influenced Skinner.   Frustrated with the huge amount of data generated in a small rat experiment Skinner recalled IP Pavlov’s admonishment to “control your conditions and you will see order” (Iversen, 1992, p. 1318).  This line of thinking brought Skinner to an entirely new view of behaviorism.  Rather than view each individual stimulus-response, (S-R), as a discrete component of the entire organism being studied he began to think in terms of studying the entire organism. 

This small change in perspective led Skinner to examine the behavior of his animal subjects between experiments.  Rather than removing them from their experimental cage, for example. Skinner began recording the behaviors between experiments.  This led Skinner to believe that at all behavior is controlled mechanistically, and convinced him of the value of orderly well-controlled experiments.  These insights were to frame his work – and the influence of his work – for the rest of his life (Moxley, 1992).

In 1930, two years before being conferred his doctorate, Skinner published his first academic paper that demonstrated the value of orderly well-controlled experiments and had unknowingly set behaviorism along an unswerving path away from cognition and consciousness (Iversen, 1992).  

Skinner began to move away from his attachment to a mechanical view of behavior as his experiments became more complex.  For years, it had been held that respondent involved correlation between stimulus and response.  As result of his more complicated experiments, Skinner began referring to operant.  An operant was a consequence in a three-tiered reinforcement schedule: a stimulus, a response, and the resulting reinforcing stimulus, (or consequence).

This began a line of reasoning that eventually led to the idea that a stimulus may result in more than one kind of response.  Skinner started thinking in terms of “contingencies” rather than biological necessities or drives.  This was the beginning of Skinners movement away from mechanistic philosophies of human behavior and towards a functional view.  Skinner began to see behavior as functional in the sense that it mediated the competing needs of the organism. 

Marketing Behaviorism

Skinner did not spend all of his time in the laboratory collecting data on rat behavior.  His first love was writing, and he put his talents to work in the popular press gradually moving from the halls of academia into public consciousness.   Although it was not his intention, Skinner was able to his name synonymous with behavioral psychology through his writing, and became an enduring influence on American society as well as the discipline of psychology.

Skinners first foray into popular print was an article he wrote for Atlantic Monthly in 1934 in which he took an account of “automatic writing” to task.  The article that he responded to was the story of a woman who kept her conscious mind focused on a story or recording, while her hand was allowed to write.  This, it was purported, a way to access Freud’s subconscious.  Predictably, Skinner did not attempt to hide his disdain for the experiment or contempt for the idea of a subconscious (A. Rutherford, 2000).      

Skinner stayed out of the popular press for about ten years, but then came back vigorously.  Ladies home Journal carried his account of a Skinner Box for babies, “Baby in a Box”, in 1945, and Walden Two was published in 1946 (A. Rutherford, 2000).  These articles came out at a time when Skinner and behaviorism were being viewed as full of potential, but a bit eccentric.  Throughout the 1940’s and 50’s Skinner had attempted to bring behaviorism to the marketplace, contracting with the government to use birds to guide bombs, inventing and marketing a mechanical teacher, and the previously mentioned “baby box”, or Air Crib (Benjamin & Nielsen-Gammon, 1999). 

Although the Air Crib enjoyed some limited commercial success, the net result of Skinners foray into commercial applications of behaviorism was mixed.  This was an era with high concern about mind control and free will, especially in the context of recently displaced fascist governments, and the constant fear of Communist subversion.  At the same time post war exuberance and faith in technology brought Skinner and behaviorism some support (Rutherford, 2003).     

Pragmatism and Controversy

However, Skinner and behaviorism received widespread support in areas in which behaviorism was applied to specific needs.  The new approach was called Applied Behavior Analysis and was became a very effective teaching technique for difficult to train populations.  Token economies were first applied to humans in 1936 when they were used to help autistic children learn basic skills associated with daily living.  Token economies and behavior modification soon found widespread use in a wide range of institutional settings, including schools and hospitals (Mills 1998).

However, behavior modification was not as successful when applied outside the highly controllable confines of institutions.  This shortcoming was magnified when Skinners book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity hit the bookshelves in 1971.  Skinner was immediately ensconced in a cloud of controversy.  Comparisons were made to Hitler and Stalin, and Skinner received threats against his life.  More troubling to Skinner, his research funding was put at risk, but that threat soon passed.   Even Vice President Spiro Agnew got in the act branding Beyond Freedom and Dignity as “completely at odds with our basic belief in the dignity and worth of the individual" (cited in Rutherford, 2000).

The 1960’s and 70’s were a time when theories that had been overshadowed by behaviorism began emerging into academic and public consciousness.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was a topic in every Psych 101 course, and would eventually make its way to boardrooms HR departments.  Humanistic psychology was beginning to gain traction, as was client-centered therapy, but only as a placeholder for positive psychology.   Victor Frankls’ “Mans Search for Meaning”, published in 1946 served as a poignant counterpoint to the mechanistic nature of Skinner and behaviorism.

Parting Thoughts

Behaviorism brought objectivity and the scientific method to psychology, but it also offered a glimpse into what might happen when psychologists lose sight of human qualities that cannot be observed or measured.  Highly trained mental health professional should look to the story of behaviorism as a constant reminder to keep a balanced view of both the value of objectivity and the wonder of human dignity.




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Rutherford, A. (2003). B. F. Skinner's technology of behavior in american life: From consumer culture to counterculture. Journal Of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 39(1), 1-23.


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 Smith, P.  (1985).  America enters the world. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill


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