Instincts, Emotions & Thought Processes in Behaviorism

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  • 0:06 Behaviorism
  • 1:19 Conditioning
  • 2:39 Instincts and Emotions
  • 4:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joe Ricker
John B. Watson gave rise to behavioral psychology, offering a more scientific approach to the study of human behavior. However, his most famous experiment regarding his theories might strike some as a little questionable.


Behaviorism is the branch of psychology promoted by psychologist John B. Watson, which departed from some of the traditional perspectives on psychology, especially Freud and his theories on consciousness. Essentially, behaviorism, or behavioral psychology, concludes that our actions are the result or reaction to our surroundings and environment. Watson's work, which will be presented in the next sections, explains his perspectives on emotion, thinking, and instincts.

Behavioral psychology deals primarily with the scientific measure of a person's behavior. It gives little credence to emotions or instincts being innate and holds that human behavior is taught, either through what the human observes or what the human is conditioned to do. Watson's experiment is similar to that of Pavlov's dog, where Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate when it heard a bell by ringing a bell and then feeding the dog. John B. Watson and graduate student Rosalie Rayner conditioned an orphan to fear a white rat by striking a steel bar with a hammer. This experiment helped Watson conclude that our instincts, emotions, and thought processes are conditioned as opposed to something that we're born with.


The details of Watson's Little Albert Experiment are slightly cruel. Initially, the infant (less than a year old) showed no sign of fear when presented with various masks or animals, including a white rat. However, Watson conditioned the child to be afraid of the white rat by using a stimulus that triggered a response of fear in the child. When the white rat was presented, someone struck a steel bar with a hammer, which scared the boy who then began to cry. After weeks of doing this, the boy eventually associated the white rat with the fear he felt from the loud noise. All experimenters had to do after that was present the white rat, and the boy would burst into tears. Imagine for a moment that every time you saw a puppy, someone jumped up behind you and scared you. If every time you saw a puppy someone scared you, you would eventually fear puppies. This is called conditioning.

Because of Watson's Little Albert Experiment, behavioral psychologists were able to prove that human behavior can be conditioned, favoring 'nurture' over 'nature' in the idea of nature vs. nurture. Unlike the Little Albert Experiment, other tests and studies have shown that humans can be conditioned using less cruel methods. This is simply the idea that our behaviors and reactions to stimuli are the result of what we've learned from the environment as opposed to predispositions to a certain behavior because of something genetic.

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