The Early Behaviorists

Unknown-2The mind is like the ocean: only a minor fraction has been explored. Because of the immense depth of the conscious (and unconscious), the scientific study known as psychology is broken up into departments that focus on different key functions of the mind and how it works. One of these movements that rose in popularity during the late 1800’s was behaviorism. A relatively new study, behaviorism studies an organism’s response to a given environment. Two key personalities in early behaviorism are Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike.

The name Pavlov may ring a bell… no pun intended. A Russian psychologist famous for his dog experiments, Ivan Pavlov was a major character in the development of behaviorism. Many psychologists following Pavlov used his methods of experimentation and observation as a guideline. Ivan wanted to find a way to control the behavior of an animal, dogs in this case, by utilizing cause and effect. He found that dogs would salivate when presented with food, thus giving him his premise. His thesis consisted of using what he called a “conditioned stimulus” to link to his premise. The experiment was as follows: Pavlov would use a bell, a metronome or any other stimulus that would signal food was about to be given. Eventually, the dog, having eaten the food after hearing the bell, recognized the bell as the foretelling of food. As a result, whenever the bell was rung, the dog would salivate because it anticipated a treat to be followed. Pavlov’s work was highly influential in his time, and he shaped the structure of his fellow behaviorists’ studies.

One such psychologist was American Edward Thorndike. Like his predecessor, Thorndike pursued the intelligence of animals in an effort to further understand humans. After first experimenting with chicks, Edward went on to design contraptions that would test cats’ common sense. He created boxes riddled with puzzles that would let them out upon successful completion. Thorndike instinctively theorized that the felines would adapt to the system and figure it out. To avoid discrepancies, he used several different cats and multiple unique boxes. The results of this experiment lead to Thorndike’s “Law of Effect” and “Law of Exercise.” Initially, the cats would try every lever until they got out. When they went through it another time, the process was more concise. As they went through it more and more, they learned that while some levers allowed them to escape, other levers would keep them trapped. Both of Thorndike’s laws concluded, “Rewarded responses are ‘stamped in,’ while profitless acts are ‘stamped out’” (The Psychology Book, DK, Pg. 63). Later on, Thorndike began to play around with intelligence, going on to design the CAVD test. Though it wasn’t as popular as his previous tests, it is used today. Pavlov’s and Thorndike’s early progressions in behaviorism helped the world understand human instinct better and develop an understanding of how our decisions are based on conditioned environments. In my next post, I will discuss John Watson and B.F. Skinner, two psychologists that built upon Ivan’s and Edward’s works.


For further reading: The Psychology Book by DK (2012)


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