Behaviorism – 2. Principles


The philosophy of behaviorism was discussed for the first time by John Watson, who co-authored the Little Albert Experiment in 1920 (see Behavioral Psychology – 1. Historical progress), with his essay “Psychology as the behaviorist views it” (1913). In this writing, Watson argued that the science of psychology needed to be studied in a systematic, objective manner, taking in account only observable behaviors. This perspective was later elaborated on a variety of relevant matters – genetics, instinct, feelings, introspection, conscious, personality, and so on – in his book Behaviorism (1925).

Watson’s view of behaviorism emphasizes that:

  • Behaviorism is a pure natural science, which is best related with physiology
  • Behaviorism utilizes only objective research methods, which are experiments with the addition of systematic observation.
  • Only overt behaviors should be considered.
  • Human behaviors should be examined on the same level with animal behaviors.
  • Conditioning is a key to exploring and explaining behaviors.
  • Heredity is of little significance to human development, except in the cases of disabled people. Given appropriate conditions, any healthily born children can be shaped in a chosen way regardless of dispositions.

Despite certain objectives from his contemporaries (including the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud), Watson’s approach was adopted by many other psychologists. Some of these successors did not totally agree with Watson’s view and generated their own direction of behaviorism, such as Clark Hull with purposive behaviorism and Edward Tolman with drive theory. The best known of all was perhaps B. F. Skinner, who not only expanded the theoretical and practical scope of behaviorism by his introduction of operant conditioning (see Behavioral Psychology – 1. Historical progress), but also revised the philosophy of behaviorism by providing supplementary arguments for Watson’s standpoints in his own work About behaviorism (1974).

Table 1 outlines and compares the opinions of the two behaviorists on the key issues. Skinner strongly supported Watson in the matter of introspection or mental explanation. His reasoning extended to clarifying that as our self-knowledge, conscious and self-control are also within the restraints of stimulus conditions surrounding us, introspection is a very unreliable method for explaining our behaviors. On amending Watson’s statements, Skinner redefined behaviorism as a philosophy of the science of human behavior instead of the science itself, and shed a light into complex factors behind human behavior rather than simply equaling it with animal behavior.


Table 1. A comparative summary of Watson’s and Skinner’s views of behaviorism


With Watson’s and Skinner’s stances combined, the principles of behaviorism can be summarized as followed:

  • Observation focus on overt behaviors and strictly no introspection.
  • Research methods are objective, systematical, and experimental.
  • Physiological explanations are important.
  • The control of environmental stimuli is highlighted over heredity and free will.
  • Conditioning is the key concept and method.



Watson, J.B. (1913). “Psychology as the behaviorist views it.” Psychological Review, 20: 158–177.

Watson, J.B. (1925). Behaviorism. New York, NY:  Kegan PaulTrenchTrubner & Co.

Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf


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