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John B. Watson, B. Skinner and Edward C. Tolman Works Research Paper

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John B. Watson, B.F Skinner and Edward C. Tolman are behaviorism theorists. The behaviorism school of thought, also known as the learning perspective, is a philosophy of psychology that seeks to explain any physical action of human beings and animals as behavior that is learned through environmental influences as opposed to the internal physiological processes or the mind and can therefore be explained scientifically John B. Watson is considered to be the founding father of behaviorism theory and his ideas considered to have paved way for B. F Skinners works adding a new perspective to behaviorism (Naik, 1998).

Baars (1986) indicates that Edward C. Tolman’s contribution is based on cognitive learning as an aspect of behaviorism. He describes Tolman as the only major behaviorist figure who anticipated mental representation or cognition rather than explaining behavior merely by stimuli and response.

Thus Skinner, Watson and Tolman are all behaviorists with three schools of thought based on the same concept but differing in inferences.

Similarities and Differences

Payal Naik (1998) critically explores behaviorism as a theory of personality. Using Pavlov’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning he describes behavior as a learnt process and learning is considered to be no more than the acquisition of new mannerisms as exhibited by change in overt behavior. Pavlov’s classical conditioning forms the back bone of the perspectives of Watson while Skinner builds on it with his operant conditioning- operant behaviorism. Behaviorism theorists do not associate behavior with feelings and processes of the mind or any internal physiological events but instead, try to link it to environmental influences.

Watson(1998) shows that psychology is not considered with the mind or human consciousness but purely with behavior through classical conditioning. He based his works on the experiments of Ivan Pavlov as described by Naik (1998), a renowned scientist who had studied animal behavior as a result of conditioning. In Pavlov’s most famous experiment, he rang a bell each time he wanted to feed his dogs. So each time the dogs heard the bell, they knew that food was coming and begun to salivate. With time, he begun ringing the bell without bringing the food but at the sound of it, the dogs still salivated, thus demonstrating that they had been conditioned to salivate at the sound of the bell.

Watson (1998) tries to prove that behavior in humans is as a result of being conditioned to react to stimuli in a particular way. He cites his own example of conditioned reflex, that when one is exposed to a bright red light and shortly thereafter the hand stimulated with an electric current, then subsequent shows of red light will lead to a withdrawal of the hand. He seeks to explain human behavior as something acquired through exclusive Stimuli- Response connections. Just like in Pavlov’s experiment, humans learn behavior through association of response to a certain stimuli. As Baars (1986) points out, Watson’s views were subject to a lot of criticism such that even as Skinner sought to build on his ideas, his tried to avoid the same pitfalls that had led to Watson’s criticism.

Skinner builds on Watson’s behaviorism but differences emerge in the Stimuli- Response connection. Skinner rejects Watson’s almost exclusive emphasis on reflexes and conditioning emphasizing that while people’s behavior is largely the outcome of their environment, they could also operate on the environment to produce certain desirable consequences, having learnt in the past that this behavior produces such consequences. Thus reinforcement is the essence of his theory of operant conditioning. His distinction from Watson’s behaviorism theory is that an individual can trigger responses as opposed to only eliciting or reacting to external stimuli as Watson seems to suggest. He believes that behavior is not as a result of mind processes or feelings but is determined by the reinforcements that we receive which establish and sustain behavior (Skinner, 1974).

According to Baars(1986), the main distinction between Skinner’s operant conditioning and Tolman’s cognitive theory of learning is the aspect of purpose. Tolman sees purpose as the main intervening variable or theoretical event that gives rise to behavior. He dismisses the simplicity of the Stimuli-Response connection. As Baars points out, “ He (Tolman) did not believe that single muscle contractions were connected by conditioning to punctate physical stimuli”. Thus Tolman believed that actions were so flexible and relating to whole situations as opposed to a single action that they could only be specified by their purposes.

Skinner on the other hand, denies the existence of purpose (Baars(1986). In lieu of purpose, he uses the term “environmental contingencies of reinforcement” to explain how behavior is learned. His equivalent of purpose is operant conditioning. Reinforcement refers to any stimulus that increases the likelihood of eliciting a similar response that it had elicited earlier. Baars describes Skinner’s view as abhorrent of mentalistic terms that is, terms that allude to feelings, as often arises in Tolman’s cognitive point of view.

Baars (1986) also contrasts Watson’s classical conditioning to Skinner’s operant conditioning. Unlike Skinner, Watson’s theory is based purely on reflexes, that is, the stimuli – response connection. Skinner makes the organism the measure of the stimuli thereby avoiding the need to reduce everything to reflexes. Furthermore, unlike Watson’s classical conditioning, Skinner’s operant conditioning can explain any new activity that an organism performs stating that they were conditioned at some point in the organism’s history. However, this is largely in principle as the explanation is seldom if ever sought.

In “Exploring Psychology” (2008) comparison between Watson’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning yields certain differences. Watson’s perspective implies that behavior is involuntary and reflexive. Since behavior is learnt involuntarily through Stimuli Response connection, then all animals including humans do not have control over their actions and as such should not be blamed for them. On the other hand, Skinner’s perspective sees behavior as voluntary since one engages in it in order to elicit a certain positive response. Since Tolman’s behaviorism is purposive Baars(1986) then he also views behavior as voluntary, that is, one engages with a view to obtaining something.

Edward Chance Tolman contribution to the field of psychology through the cognitive theory of learning is radically different from Watson’s and Skinner’s behaviorism (Ormrod, 2008). While Watson and Skinner seem to view learning as a response to certain stimuli, Tolman views it as learning without reward. Through an experiment with rats in a maze, he was able to demonstrate that they can learn their way in the maze in the absence of rewards. He related this to humans who are able to learn routes or positions of buildings due to using that same route everyday. Thus Tolman gives rise to the concept of cognitive or spatial maps which enable organism to get around daily (Ormrod, 2008).

Different from the views of Watson, Tolman believed that learning is not as a result of pure reflexes but is a process of learning whereby certain events give rise to other events that is, once an individual learns that a certain behavior leads to a certain result than they will work to achieve that result (Ormrod, 2008). This is somewhat similar to Skinner’s perspective of reinforcement since the behavior is reinforced. However Ormrod describes Tolman as having constantly rejected the idea that reinforcement is necessary to learn and his rat maze experiment was to disprove this idea. According to Tolman, one will form an expectation depending on the perceived outcome. When these expectations are not met, the result is an effect on the sustenance of this behavior.

Skinner and Watson’s perspectives also portray learning as a change in observable behavior due to certain stimulus but Tolman’s perspective suggests that learning can occur without observable change in the behavior of the organism (Ormrod, 2008).

Watson and Tolman all use experiments conducted in animals to generalize to the entire animal population. Watson theory rests on the findings of Pavlov’s experiment which are based on the response of dogs to the sound of the bell that had been linked to the delivery of food. With time the dogs come to associate the sound of the bell with food even where there is no food. Tolman uses the rat in maze experiment to expound on his cognitive theory. The rats try to find their way out of the maze and in the end, manage to form a cognitive map of the maze that enables them to reach their destination, even in the absence of rewards (Ormrod, 2008; Naik 1998; Skinner 1974).

Relevance to Modern Day Psychology

Each of these perspectives is relevant in the field of modern day psychology. Plaud (2003) discusses the contributions of Watson’s classical behaviorism and Skinner’s operant conditioning behavior therapies in the treatment of psychological and behavior disorders. This typically involves the weakening of previously learned behavior through reciprocal inhibition or extinction of behavior through counter conditioning procedures that may connect the stimuli to a negative response thereby causing an avoidance response. Operant conditioning is applied through negative reinforcement which leads to avoidance response. Plaud suggests that the theory can be applied in clinical settings that require behavior modification such as in the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction among other psychological disorders through the process of counter conditioning or unlearning of behavior.

The behavioral learning theories can be applied to the criminological theory. Tolman’s cognitive learning perspective has explained crime as a learned behavior by individuals who grow up in such an environment. To this end, crime can also be unlearned if the affected individuals are placed in the correct institutions (Ormrod, 2008).

Naik (1998) points out that the benefits of behaviorism are not restricted to psychology alone but are also relevant in the field of education, in terms of Classroom management and program instruction. This is through maintenance of discipline through positive reinforcement such as awards and negative responses such as severe reprimanding to corporal punishment.

Ormrod (2008) points out that Tolman’s concept of a cognitive map has also been of special intrigue and continues to a topic of research for contemporary psychologists.


John B. Watson, B. F Skinner and Edward C. Tolman have contributed greatly to the behaviorism school of thought and they remain relevant to modern day psychology. They are instrumental in explaining behavior, how positive response can be sustained and negative behavior done away with. Behaviorism constitutes a major component of criminology and is of great relevance especially in behavior modification institutions. Thus the field of psychology continues to grow and benefit form the works of these three among other notable theorists. The differences evident in the three perspectives are not a weakness but of great significance since they represent an attempt to cover all gaps in knowledge in the behaviorism theory thereby contributing to its modification, growth and relevance.


  1. Ormrod, Jean Ellis. (2008). Human Learning fifth edition. Ohio: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
  2. Watson, John B. (1998). Behaviorism. New York: Transaction publishers.
  3. Baars, Bernard J. (1986). The cognitive revolution in Psychology. New York: Guilford Press.
  4. Plaud, Joseph J. (2003). Pavlov and the foundation of behavior therapy. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 6 (2), 147-154.
  5. Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Random Inc.
  6. . (2008). Mc Graw Hill Companies. Web.
  7. Naik Payal. (1998).. Northwestern University. Web.
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