William McDougall: Theories & the Watson-McDougall Debate

William McDougall: Theories & the Watson-McDougall Debate
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  • 0:03 The Basis of an Argument
  • 0:57 William McDougall's Theories
  • 2:50 Watson-McDougall Debate
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Gaines Arnold
William McDougall was one of the most influential thinkers in psychology in the early twentieth century. This lesson discusses McDougall's theories, how he helped influence modern psychology, and the debate between McDougall and John Watson.

The Basis of an Argument

Have you ever heard the phrase, 'There are two types of people in this world…' The speaker is usually one of these 'two types of people' and believes the other side to be deficient to some degree. Life may seem to take on these dualities, but, pretty much everyone can agree, reality is not as simple as that.

But if people didn't think in terms of light and dark, evil and good, or Pepsi versus Coke, there would be fewer debates. The fact is that issues are often times condensed into two sides for simplicity's sake. That was the case for two imminent psychologists who debated regarding the development of the human psyche.

John B. Watson believed that behavior was a reaction to a specific situation. William McDougall, on the other hand, reasoned that human development and behavior were not just a reaction to a given situation, but also influenced by other forces.

William McDougall's Theories

William McDougall was a prominent and eclectic psychologist, born in England, who taught in the United States at Harvard and Duke. His influences in physiological psychology, social psychology, and psychic research are still felt. One of his major contributions was an attempt to add credibility to the science of psychology. With a book on the physiological basis of psychology, McDougall argued that a person's behavior is strongly tied to biology. In this, he departed from traditional metaphysical or philosophical psychology that had been the mainstay of psychological research going back to Greek philosophers.

Instinct, the belief that behavior is inherited or natural, was also a major factor in the theories of William McDougall. Since he was convinced that the basis for reactions were passed down from parent to child, he was also a major proponent of impulse in individual psychology. For example, when individuals are threatened, they react to the threat in one of three prescribed ways: fight, flight, or freeze. All three of these reactions can be observed in the animal kingdom as well as in humans, which prompted some psychologists to believe that these responses to the environment were innate (inherited and unlearned) rather than learned. He wrote a book called Introduction to Social Psychology, which outlined his views regarding the importance of instinct in developing a social response and purposive goal-setting.

With his views on the role of instinct and his belief that people purposely set goals (rather than just reacting to every situation that arose), it is easy to see why McDougall was tapped to debate with someone like Watson about his belief in behaviorism. The debate took place in 1924 and was a seminal moment in the history of psychology. This debate helped clearly define the differences in the two schools of thought and was a signal for the eventual decline of pure behaviorism.

Watson-McDougall Debate

Every debate has to have at least two sides. In reality, every debate has many different sides, but it would be difficult to get more than a couple of people on a debate stage at the same time, so two sides is enough. Where psychology was concerned in the early twentieth century, psychologists either ascribed to centuries old ideas or believed in a new school of thought called behaviorism (the belief that an individual's behavior is completely controlled by reaction to a given stimuli).

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