Psychology went through a dramatic change early in the twentieth century as a new school of thought known as behaviorism became a dominant force. Behaviorists rejected the idea of the unconscious and conscious mind and focused instead on making psychology a more scientific discipline that studied only observable behaviors. Strict behaviorism was a reaction against both introspection and psychoanalytic theory, each of which attempted to deal with the inner and unobservable workings of the mind.
In the early 1920s, an American psychologist named J. B. Watson (1878– 1958) was a strong advocate of behaviorism and helped establish it as a major school of thought, but it was the work of two other researchers who truly deserve credit for the ideas and principles that served as the basis for behaviorism: Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) in Russia and Edward L. Thorndike (1874–1949) in the United States.
Ivan Pavlov, the man who played such an important role in behaviorism, actually wasn't a psychologist at all. He was a Russian physiologist who accidentally discovered what is now known as classical conditioning during his research on the digestive systems of dogs. As the famous story goes, he became distracted by the observation that his dogs developed a tendency to salivate before food was placed in their mouths. That is, they learned to anticipate food, in much the same way that you might salivate a bit when you approach a restaurant that you like.
Thorndike's most noteworthy contribution was his “law of effect,” which he derived from work with laboratory animals — primarily cats. In brief, he proposed that any behavior that is followed by a satisfying state of affairs (such as getting food) tends to be repeated, and any behavior that is followed by an unsatisfying or unpleasant state of affairs (such as experiencing pain) tends not to be repeated. Satisfying and unsatisfying may not sound like terms a strict behaviorist would use, but Thorndike got around that by defining satisfying as something an animal typically approaches and unsatisfying as something an animal typically avoids — a nicely behavioral solution. Thorndike's work laid the groundwork for the operant conditioning approach of B. F. Skinner (1904–1990), who ranks alongside Freud among the most influential psychologists of all time and whose work is discussed in Chapter 7.
Strict behaviorism, or the belief that psychology should only focus on observable behaviors, has largely fallen out of favor and very few psychologists today would identify themselves as strict behaviorists. Critics of behaviorism note that this approach to psychology failed to address factors such as free will, internal thoughts, and other methods of learning. Nevertheless, behaviorists had a major impact on psychology with their emphasis on scientific method. As opposed to shunning behavior that cannot be directly observed, psychologists now embrace it. But the bottom line is still observable, verifiable evidence.
Behaviorism may not be a dominant perspective in psychology, but many of basic techniques and principles from behavioral psychology are still widely used today in behavior modification, psychotherapy, education, and parenting.
Strict behaviorism was a reaction to the nonscientific approaches that preceded it. In turn, the approaches that followed were in large measure reactions to strict behaviorism, psychoanalytic theory, or both. And added to that is the impact of modern technology, which allows for measuring behavior at a level of precision that the early theorists could only dream about.