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Perspectives of Behaviorism by Watson, Skinner, and Tolman Essay

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Updated: Sep 17th, 2019


Psychology is one of the most diverse and interesting fields of study given the numerous developments is has gone through starting in the nineteenth century through the twentieth century and persisted in the twenty first century, now commonly known as modern-day psychology. Of all these developments, Edward Tolman, B.F. Skinner, and John Watson made important contributions to psychology and their different perspectives have found their way into modern-day psychology.

They all studied psychology from the behaviorism perspective and even though they differed on one aspect or the other, their perspectives are rooted on behaviorism. Watson was the father of behaviorism by introducing his perspective; popularly known as, classical behaviorism. Skinner borrowed heavily from Watson but made some alterations here and there as each sought to establish his school of thought.

Tolman holds a different view of behaviorism from that of Watson and Skinner. Deviating from the other schools of thought, behaviorists hold that, “all things which organisms do- including acting, thinking and feeling- can and should be regarded as behaviors” (Mclntyre, 2003). Due to the modification, they made on Watson’s initial behaviorist observations, Tolman, and Skinner form crucial part of neo-behaviorists as exposited in this paper as it compares and contrasts perspectives of these three great psychologists.

John Watson

As aforementioned, Watson was the father of behaviorism. Watson maintained that behavior resulted from motivation; that is, organisms had to be elicited to behave in a given way in response to the elicitation. In his bid to introduce and foster more objective science psychology, Watson claimed that emotions were not intrinsic, people did not just experience emotions; no, emotions were a response to provocation, later defined as stimulus.

His experiments majored on proving behind every behavior, there was a stimulus. The Little Albert experiment was one of Watson’s experiments to prove his claims.

Albert, a son to a laboratory worker would accompany his mother to a laboratory where he would play with reared rats for fun. In Watson’s view, the rats were stimulus to Albert’s playful behavior. Watson observed development of new behavior. The scary sound of hammer falling on a metal bar accompanied the presentation of rats to Albert to elicit his playful behavior. After seven consecutive presentations, Albert would cry every minute he saw the rats even after withdrawal of the scary sound (Watson & Rayner, 1920).

This showed that emotions and behaviors were a product of a stimulus and as Mclntyre (2003) notes, “This fear response ‘generalized’ to a new stimuli: Albert also showed fear (CR) when things (CS) similar to the fuzzy lab rat were presented (e.g., men with beards, dogs, fur coats, Santa Claus masks)”. This was Watson’s approach to behaviorism; behavior was a product of motivation. As aforementioned, his work was referred as classical conditioning and it plays a large part in modern-day psychology with Watson as the founding father.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner borrowed heavily from Watson’s perspective of behaviorism. Nevertheless, he added to what Watson had established to form the radical behaviorism school of thought. “While a graduate student, he invented the operant conditioning chamber and cumulative recorder, developed the rate of response as a critical dependent variable in psychological research, and developed a powerful, inductive, data-driven method of experimental research” (Mclntyre, 2003).

The operational conditioning gave Skinner prominence in psychology. Skinner theorizes that behavior is product of one’s environment. He integrated the issue of reinforcement in his theory by observing high chances of a given behavior were due to reinforcement. Reinforcement here means rewards whereby, a particular behavior would reoccur if rewarded but fade away in absence of rewards.

Skinner’s idea of reward/reinforcement ties closely to Watson’s idea of motivation hence making them similar. This form of reinforcement is popularly known as operant conditioning in contemporary psychology. Moreover, Goodwin (2005) notes, “bulk of Skinner’s writing was directed at convincing the world that an experimental analysis of behavior is the only hope for the future welfare of the human species” (p. 394), just like Watson.

Skinner differed slightly with Watson in that, “Watson argued against the use of references to mental states, and held that psychology should study behavior directly, holding private events as impossible to study scientifically. Skinner rejected this position conceding the importance of thinking, feelings, and ‘inner behavior’ in his analysis” (Mclntyre, 2003).

Simply put, Skinner holds that everything is behavioral, including emotions, which should be considered in behaviorism. Skinner’s theory has persisted into modern-day psychology with many contemporary psychologists using the operant conditioning extensively in their studies and research work. Controversy still exists as to whether emotions are part of behavior as Skinner indicated.

Edward C. Tolman

Tolman’s psychological perspective differed greatly with that of Watson and Skinner. Mclntyre (2003) posits, “although Tolman firmly behaviorist in his methodology, he was not a radical behaviorist like B.F. Skinner”.

According to Tolman’s observations, learning which would result to a behavior would occur without motivation or rein-forcer contrary to what Watson and Skinner had theorized. Tolman’s observation was; anything learned in one environment would be applicable in another environment, disqualifying Skinner’s views, moreover, he declared that behavior is not necessarily automatic reaction to a stimulus.

Therefore, his perspective became cognitive theory of learning. “He thought of learning as developing from bits of knowledge and cognitions about the environment and how organisms relate to it” (Mclntyre, 2003). Tolman became famous for introducing maze as touchstone research tool. In this experiment,

Tolman ‘trained’ rats to follow given pathways in a maze and observed that the food placed at the end of the maze did not dictate the rat’s learning ability directly, on the contrary this food, “merely influenced the animal’s motivation to complete the maze as quickly and accurately as possible” (Goodwin, 2005, p. 369). This observation differed with Watson and Skinner’s perspectives.

Tolman termed the ability of the rats to follow the maze through learning even without food as latent learning that would be improved in presence of a reward.

Nevertheless, his ideas lacked foundation because, “His research with rats in mazes did not produce much in the way of practical application. His plea for training children to have broad cognitive maps, for instance, gave little explicit guidance to parents…Tolman’s example seemed more like a good illustration of the dangers inherent in extrapolating too far beyond one’s data” (Goodwin, 2005, p. 373).

Tolman insisted behavior resulted from goals set in learning and he lacked sufficient scientific data to qualify his assumptions and observations. Nevertheless, Tolman’s perspective plays key role in modern-day psychology. His cognitive intervening variables link behaviorism to cognitive psychology, an important observation, and field of study in contemporary psychology.

Study of animal cognition in contemporary psychology is hinged on Tolman’s cognitive theory of learning. Therefore, Tolman differed with Watson and Skinner by denouncing the role of reinforcement or motivators in analyzing behavior. Moreover, he preferred to use mentalist variables supported by little or no scientific data. For instance, as aforementioned, his research with rats in maze lacked significant practical application in scientific studies.


Watson, Skinner, and Tolman belong to the behaviorism school of thought in psychology. According to these three psychologists, behavior underscores the reason why people do things the way they do them. The only difference comes in giving details and expositing the principles underlying behaviorism.

According to Samelson (1981), these three psychologists agreed, “psychology must be a science, a fundamental principle of science is that its data must come from publicly observable phenomena and what is taken to be the subject matter of psychology, namely consciousness, does not satisfy that principle because it cannot be observed publicly” (p. 406). Therefore, Watson, Skinner, and Tolman agreed on several fundamental issues even though they differed on others.


Behaviorism school of thought in psychology owes its roots to Watson who theorized that behavior is a product of motivation and his perspective is popularly known as classical behaviorism. Skinner borrowed heavily from Watson and introduced operant conditioning, which states that behavior results from reward and environment wherein, continued rewarding of a given behavior would result to its reoccurrence while lack of reward the behavior fades away.

On the other hand, Tolman, though a behaviorist, differed with the reward, environment, and motivation part of behavior. He argued that behavior results from learning and reward and environment has little or no effect. Nevertheless, their differences notwithstanding, Watson, Skinner, and Tolman are founding fathers of behaviorism perspective in psychology, which has found wide application in modern-day psychology.

References List

Goodwin, J. (2005). A History of Modern Psychology. Second Ed. New Jersey; John Wiley & Sons.

Mclntyre, T. (2003). The History of Behaviorism. Web.

Samelson, F. (1981). Struggle for Scientific Authority: The Reception of Watson’s Behaviorism, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 17, 399-425.

Watson, J., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned Emotional Reactions. Retrieved from

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