Behaviorism Tutorial


Part 1

Some Differences Among Methodological Behaviorism, Mentalism, and Radical Behaviorism

Behaviorism is generally characterized as the viewpoint holding that the appropriate subject matter for psychology is behavior and the appropriate methods for psychology are those of the natural sciences. Behaviorism developed primarily in the United States, although it was certainly influenced by other traditions, such as European forms of empiricism. It is usually contrasted with other viewpoints in psychology, for example, those holding that the appropriate subject matter is mental/subjective/conscious experience and the appropriate method is "introspection." Worth noting, however, is that there are several different forms of behaviorism, and that these forms differ in many important ways.

The purpose of the present textual material is to analyze the differences between two of these forms of behaviorism-- methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism. We will begin the analysis by examining the general intellectual context in the early 19th century, in an effort to understand the historical circumstances that gave rise to behaviorism.

Psychology and the Science of the "Mental"

In the early 19th century, scholars were intensely concerned with the phenomena of conscious/subjective experience, such as perception, reasoning, and knowledge. However, the "scientific" status of these concerns was problematic. Science is usually assumed to involve the empirical investigation of a physical subject matter. The conventionally accepted test of whether the subject matter of a science is physical is whether it is publicly observable, such that it can be counted, measured, or recorded. Subjective/conscious experience was regarded as mental, not physical. In addition, it was not publicly observable, and could not be counted, measured, or recorded, at least not in the same way as the subject matter of chemistry or physics. Consequently, scholars tended to pursue their concerns about mental/conscious/subjective experience according to some form of rational inquiry found in philosophy, rather than according to some understanding of the scientific method.

Similarly, scholars in the early 19th century were concerned with the mechanics of the physical movements of the body. Again, however, they regarded those movements as a subject matter of a different science--physiology, rather than psychology. A common assumption among scholars of the time was that if individuals were really concerned about behavior as a subject matter, an appropriate understanding of behavior would come about once philosophical inquiry revealed how the conscious mind worked.


By the third quarter of the 19th century, however, circumstances began to change. Scholars had discovered that a great array of fundamental human activities actually did exhibit an impressive degree of orderliness. In particular, scholars had accumulated a great deal of knowledge about the physiology and orderly functioning of the sensory end organs. Similarly, scholars had found that subjects' judgments in basic sensory discrimination tasks produced relatively orderly data. The scholars then assumed that (a) mental events must underlie these fundamental activities, and (b) the underlying mental events must be at least as orderly as the functioning of the associated physiology. In light of these developments, some scholars, first in Europe and then in the United States, began to argue unselfconsciously that a scientific investigation of these mental events must in fact be possible, given the appropriate methodology. One group that so argued was the structuralists, whose position, not surprisingly, was called "structuralism."

Structuralism was an approach to psychology that was somewhat akin to the chemistry of the time. Just as the chemistry of the time sought to determine the "elements" that made up the natural world, so did structuralism seek to determine the "elements" that made up mental life. The methodology that the structuralists advocated was "introspection." Introspection may be defined as the rigorous, contemplative description of one's private experience. Structuralism came into prominence at a time when many other forms of science, such as physics, chemistry, and biology, consisted of observing and then carefully describing what were presumed to be nature's mechanisms at work. Structuralism applied this basic approach to psychology by arguing that subjects could "observe" the mental by looking inward to critically examine their mental processes at work when they were engaged in some act of perception, cognition, discrimination, choice, or judgment. Introspective reports on sensations, images, and feelings then provided the basis for making inferences about what was presumed to be the content and organization, that is, the structure, of mental life as that structure was assumed to follow from the associated physiological processes. The sum total of these inferences constituted the new science of psychology as a new, independent, and empirical discipline.

Given this general orientation, structuralists earnestly set about validating their new discipline. Things did not always go smoothly, however. For example, structuralists debated how well trained a subject needed to be (some structuralists thought at least 10,000 training trials were necessary), whether the "stimulus error" had been committed (structuralists argued that subjects should simply describe the conscious experience of the stimulus, rather than interpret its meaning; if subjects correctly described the stimulus, rather than interpret it, they might be able to report as many as 42,415 different sensations), and whether "imageless thought" was possible (no according to Wundt, yes according to others). Nevertheless, despite a few such differences of opinion, the principal theorists generally came to accept that subjective experience was the appropriate subject matter of their new discipline and introspection was an appropriate methodology. Behavior was an incidental concern at best.


Even though many scholars came to accept structuralism as the legitimate form for psychology during the early 1890s, criticisms remained. One criticism was that it did not incorporate a Darwinian evolutionary perspective into its theories, even though Darwinian trends were becoming more prevalent. In this regard, structuralism did not incorporate data from animals, for example, by showing how certain processes in humans might resemble those in other species. Similarly, structuralism didn't adopt a developmental approach for dealing with an individual organism, for example, by examining the processes that took place as a child matured into an adult. In fact, it explicitly avoiding issues pertaining to children, declining even to use them as subjects. A second criticism was more telling: Structuralism had no room for practical applications, such as improving educational practices or dealing with the mentally ill. In light of these criticisms, scholars in the middle to later 1890s began to develop alternative approaches to psychology. Most prominent among the alternatives that became popular in the United States during this time was a viewpoint called "functionalism," also known as "genetic psychology," where the term "genetic" implies the developmental nature of psychological processes (as in "genesis"), rather than inherited.

Individuals from many different backgrounds were called functionalists. Consequently, functionalism had many different manifestations. Given these diverse backgrounds and expressions, we can say that most functionalists nevertheless adopted many of the same principles as did the structuralists, including the reliance on mental experience as the principal subject matter and on introspection as a standard methodology. However, functionalism emphasized these matters differently than did structuralism. For example, structuralism emphasized how the elements of conscious experience could be discerned through introspection. In contrast, functionalism adopted a more developmental viewpoint and emphasized how conscious experience developed and functioned in everyday life, and how it aided adaptation. Functionalism also emphasized its empiricism, and employed both introspection and experimentation as a means of legitimating its approach, rather than philosophical rhetoric. In sum, where structuralism was concerned with simply the "What" of conscious experience, functionalism was concerned with both the "How" and "Why."

Consistent with the recognition of Darwinian evolutionary trends, some functionalists emphasized the continuity of psychological processes, both within a species, from young to old individuals, as well as between species. All tended to emphasize the utility and practical value of psychological processes as organisms developed. In this latter regard, many functionalists of the time had two broad classes of interests. The first concerned such matters of personal development as "moral philosophy," "mental hygiene," and the development of ethical behavior. The second concerned educational practices. The prevailing thinking was that all of these matters pertained at least indirectly, if not directly, to development, and functionalism sought to provide information on them that was psychologically valid. Functionalism therefore sought through introspective, observational, and quasi-experimental methods to construct a normative picture of development. When complete, the picture would yield the content of children's minds at various ages, as well as information about which processes were innate and which were the result of adaptation. Child rearing and pedagogical practices could then be brought into conformity with what was viewed as the natural process of development. In addition, more would be known about how a child's psychological processes were modified as it adapted to the demands imposed by the environment.

To illustrate the differences between structuralism and functionalism, let us examine a dispute that arose in the 1890s between structuralists and functionalists in the United States. The general topic of the dispute was the role of various mental processes in adaptation. The specific topic was whether reaction times were slower when subjects concentrated on the stimulus, rather than on the response. When structuralists performed such experiments, they declared that subjects' reaction times were about 100 ms slower when the subjects concentrated on the stimulus. Exceptions were disregarded as failures of technique or the result of inadequate training. When functionalists performed the same experiments, they found that the reaction times of some subjects were indeed slower when the subjects concentrated on the stimulus, as had the structuralists. However, functionalists also found that the reaction times of other subjects were reliably slower when the subjects concentrated on the response. This latter finding, of course, was in direct contrast to the structuralists.

The difference between the results of these experiments was critical because the results were central to the fundamental world views of structuralism and functionalism. Structuralists believed that reaction times should be slower when subjects concentrated on the stimulus because that arrangement involved "apperception" of the stimulus, rather than simple perception. The process of apperception took more time than simple perception, and consequently yielded a slower reaction time.

In contrast, functionalists did not accept that reaction time was always slower when subjects concentrated on the stimulus. Instead, functionalists argued that the reaction time experiments yielded different results because there were both sensory and motor types of people who served as subjects for the experiments. For example, functionalists hypothesized that sensory persons got better results when they concentrated on the stimulus than when they concentrated on the response because the response was already a habit and was already at its peak efficiency. For sensory persons, concentrating on the response would only interfere with the act and slow them down. Common examples were musicians trying to think of each finger movement as they play, or sharpshooters thinking of their finger on the trigger as they aim.

The dispute was somewhat resolved when J. R. Angell and A. W. Moore, two functionalists, proposed a compromise position that allowed each side to be somewhat correct. Angell and Moore proposed that there were indeed two different types of people, as the functionalists had suggested. Angell and Moore also proposed that different amounts of training would affect the types differently. Structuralists gave their subjects extensive training, whereas functionalists gave their subjects only a minimum amount of training. Subjects with extensive training tended to respond faster when they concentrated on the response. Some subjects with less training responded faster when they concentrated on the stimulus; others with less training responded faster when they concentrated on the response. These results depended on whether the subjects were sensory or motor types. Thus, the results that each side obtained were correct, as far as those results went, but the larger picture each offered was somewhat restricted.

The dispute often strikes modern readers as curious, and perhaps understandably so. It involves questions and issues that are no longer current, and methods of analysis that seem inconclusive at best. The important point for present purposes is that both structuralists and functionalists regarded conscious mental experience as the appropriate subject matter for psychology, and regarded introspection as an appropriate methodology to use in investigations of that subject matter. Behavior was not regarded as a subject matter in its own right. If anything, behavior was only loosely regarded as a basis for drawing inferences about purported events going on in the mental dimension, but the purported mental events remained of principal importance.

Concerns With Mental Experience as a Subject Matter and Introspection as a Method

Despite the widespread acceptance of first structuralism and then functionalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many other scholars of the time continued to have serious reservations about the reliability and validity of a science based on what was regarded as a special technique--introspection--for dealing with a subject matter that was not publicly observable--mental events. For example, Turner (1967, p. 11) summarizes the following concerns that scholars of the time had about a psychology based on introspection:

  1. By focusing upon itself, by its rendering the introspective state static, introspection falsifies its own subject matter. As explicitly stated by Kant and Comte, one cannot introspect the act of introspection.

  2. There is little agreement among introspectionists.

  3. Where agreement does occur, it can be attributed to the fact that introspectionists must be meticulously trained, and thereby have a bias built into their observations.

  4. A body of knowledge based on introspection cannot be inductive. No discovery is possible from those who are trained specifically on what to observe.

  5. Due to the extent of the pathology of mind, self-report is hardly to be trusted.

  6. Introspective knowledge cannot have the generality we expect of science. It must be restricted to the class of sophisticated, trained adult subjects.

  7. Much of behavior occurs without conscious correlates.

  8. Mind and consciousness are not coextensive.

  9. Introspection and consciousness cannot give an adequate explanation of memory.

  10. The arousal of a conscious image is not itself introspectible.

  11. The brain records unconsciously. Its response is a function of organic states which themselves are not introspectible.

  12. Emphasis on introspection minimizes attention given to physiological processes without which there would be no mental states.

In addition, as American society developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it began to impatiently demand a psychology that would make a greater practical contribution, especially in the area of education. Just how any form of a science purporting to examine mental/subjective/conscious experience was going to make a practical contribution was not immediately clear. As noted earlier, functionalists were intimately concerned with developmental processes, and they did seek to pave the way for a deeper understanding of child rearing and educational practices. However, the writing of most functionalists tended to digress at the earliest opportunity into arcane philosophical speculations about the relation between consciousness and development, within and across species. Moreover, functionalism lacked a concrete technology by which to implement its insights. Overall, a kind of vague uneasiness was emerging with respect to whether the psychology of the time could actually deliver what it advertised, regardless of whether it was the psychology of the structuralists or the psychology of the functionalists.

Interestingly, another movement was growing in American psychology at just about this time: comparative/animal psychology. This movement had its roots in the late 19th century post-Darwinian era in which scholars were concerned about the continuity of "mental" development across species, and was decidedly evolutionary. These comparative/animal psychologists did not rely on introspection to support their conclusions. Rather, they relied on observation and experimentation. In particular, they were concerned with identifying an organism's innate or "instinctive" responses, and then how those responses were modified during the organism's lifetime. Their research often consisted of exposing animals to various "problem-solving" situations in the attempt to see how the animals learned to deploy their instinctive responses in those situations. Thus, these psychologists had a focal interest in an analysis of the circumstances that brought about learning. The relevance of working with nonhuman animals wasn't always apparent to a general population who expected practical contributions to human concerns, such as mental hygiene or education. Nevertheless, the comparative/animal psychologists offered a subject matter--learned behavior--and a technology-- various pieces of apparatus and an associated methodology that permitted the measurement of behavioral changes over time. Together, these two contributions made possible a new approach to psychology as a science.

Accordingly, during the first quarter of the 20th century, public uncertainty about the nature and status of psychology as a science brought about an alliance between the functionalists and the comparative/animal psychologists. This alliance resulted in a fresh start to psychology, particularly in the United States. The comparative/animal psychologists supplied the technology for this fresh start, especially the ability to systematically examine how behavior changed over time. The functionalists supplied the focus on society's practical concerns, especially in the area of development and education. Importantly, that fresh start emphasized the study of actual behavior, rather than mental life. This alliance, then, constitutes the source of the behavioral revolution.


Turner, M. B. (1967). Philosophy and the science of behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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