- Term Papers, Book Reports, Research Papers and College Essays

Empiricism and Behaviorism

Essay by   •  November 7, 2010  •  Essay  •  1,442 Words (6 Pages)  •  1,554 Views

Essay Preview: Empiricism and Behaviorism

Report this essay
Page 1 of 6

the turn of the twentieth century, the field of Psychology found itself in a war between two contending theoretical perspectives: Gestalt psychology versus Behaviorism. With its roots within the United States, behaviorists in America were developing a theory that believed psychology should not be concerned with the mind or with human consciousness. Instead, behavior and the actions of humans would be the foremost concern of psychologists. Across the Atlantic, Gestalt psychology emerged by placing its criticism upon the methodology of introspection, especially by ways of disparaging behaviorism. Although the two theories originated on separate continents, their opposing ideas were brought together after World War II and continued to battle each other for almost half a century.

An American psychologist, by the name of John B. Watson, is historically known for "selling" the idea of Behaviorism to other American psychologists during the 1900s. Watson insisted that "psychology had failed to become an undisputed natural science because it was concerned with conscious processes that were invisible, subjective, and incapable of precise definition" (Hunt, page256). Watson's position on human behavior was that it could be explained entirely in terms of reflexes, stimulus-response associations, and the effects of multiple reinforcements upon a person--entirely excluding any mental processes. Watson's work was based on the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, who had studied animals' responses to conditioning. In Pavlov's most well-known experiment, he rang a bell each time he presented the dogs with food. Every time the dogs would hear the bell, their initial response would be to salivate because they believed that food was going to be offered. Pavlov then rang the bell without bringing food, yet the dogs continued to salivate. In essence, the dogs had been "conditioned" to salivate at the sound of the bell. From this research, Pavlov concluded that humans also react to stimuli in the same way--a finding that Watson would later emphasize.

In modern psychology, behaviorism is most closely associated with B.F. Skinner, a man who molded his reputation by testing Watson's theories in the laboratory. Skinner's studies led him to believe that people operate on the environment to produce certain consequences, along with simply responding to their surrounding environment. His continued research led him to the development of "operant conditioning", the idea that we behave the way we do because this kind of behavior has had certain consequences in the past. Like Watson, however, Skinner refuted the notion that human behavior is influenced by any action of the mind. As an alternative, our experience of reinforcements determines our behavior.

During the time that behaviorism was the prevailing learned theory in America, across the sea in Europe, the Gestalt theory was taking form. While behaviorists emphasized the measurement of the outcome of learning without considering the mental processes that may have led to it, the forefathers of the Gestalt theory believed that there was more involved with learning than behaviorism allowed. They supported the notion that there was cognitive processing in the human brain that helped determine our actions and behaviors.

The Gestalt theory hypothesizes that an individual's perception of stimuli has an affect on their response. If two individuals are exposed to identical stimuli, their reactions to it would be different, depending on their past experiences. Max Wertheimer is considered, in many respects, to be the founder of Gestalt psychology. Wertheimer had his first breakthrough when he noticed the movement of blinking lights as you traveled at high speeds past them. Wertheimer conducted further research on this concept and developed what is known today as the phi phenomenon. The phi phenomenon is the notion that our perception of an experience is something different from the experience itself. In essence, Gestalt psychology focused its principles primarily on three main points: analyzing human perception rather than past learning; the importance of the brain in analyzing human actions; and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The war between Behaviorism and Gestalt psychology lies readily in how human behavior can be observed and scientifically recorded. Watson and his followers rejected the idea promoted by earlier psychologists that consciousness could be studied scientifically. The Behaviorists insisted that if psychology was to be a science, it must be limit itself to the study of overt behavior which could be scientifically recorded and measured. In other words, they felt that mental processes cannot be studied scientifically because these processes are private. The Behaviorist movement was satisfied to limit themselves to a study of muscular movements and other bodily activities which can be seen or detected with some kind of instrument.

Behaviorists insisted that all emotions are nothing more than intuitive responses--increased heart beat, increased tension throughout the body were just reactions to the surrounding environment. They were not convinced of the reality of mental states such as emotions. Even if such mental states did exist, the Behaviorists were not interested in studying them because they could not be studied scientifically. In their minds, psychology "would be based on reactions as specific and unvarying as those of chemistry and physics" (Hunt, page 262). In dealing with the question of nature versus nurture as an explanation



Download as:   txt (9.1 Kb)   pdf (112.9 Kb)   docx (12.2 Kb)  
Continue for 5 more pages »
Only available on
Citation Generator

(2010, 11). Empiricism and Behaviorism. Retrieved 11, 2010, from

"Empiricism and Behaviorism" 11 2010. 2010. 11 2010 <>.

"Empiricism and Behaviorism.", 11 2010. Web. 11 2010. <>.

"Empiricism and Behaviorism." 11, 2010. Accessed 11, 2010.