Watson and Classic Conditioning

Watson and Classic Conditioning

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Behaviorism is an approach consistent with the idea of flat slate proposed by Locke. Here the key element is learning and biological factors are important only to the extent that they provide the basic fundamentals to the responses learned. The classical conditioning and the operant are the greatest expression of this model.

The behavioral position focuses its interest in the study of manifest behavior, in what the organism does. He is especially concerned with studying how from the behaviors with which the subject is born, new behaviors are formed through conditioning.

Watson and classical conditioning

Brief biography of John Broadus Watson

One of the most significant figures of behaviorism has been John Broadus Watson (1878-1958). Watson himself (1936) recognized that at school he had been rather lazy, somewhat disobedient and did not get good grades.

Nevertheless, certain changes would occur after studying at the University and start doing psychological research with animals. After obtaining his doctor's degree, he began teaching at the University, during which he did his most productive work. In 1913 he launched his famous behaviorist manifesto.

Years later Watson would be fired from the University because of his divorce too vaunted in the press. From this moment he would enter different businesses related to psychology, and continued to publish articles on psychology in journals aimed at the general public.

Pavlov's influence on John B. Watson

Watson relied on the work of the so-called classical conditioning which had been studied by Pavlov (eminent Russian physiologist who received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1904 for his studies on the digestive system).

This researcher had observed in a series of experiments that dogs salivated at the sight of food. The food constituted an unconditioned stimulus for that salivation response, that is, it was an unlearned response that the dog naturally possessed.

Too, He observed that when the dogs heard the arrival of the caretaker who was going to give them the food, they began to salivate even before seeing the food. From this initial observation Pavlov tried and managed to form a association between the sound of a bell and salivation.

After a process consisting of presenting the food together with the sound of a bell in several trials, the dogs salivated when they heard the bell. Thus, the sound of the bell had become a conditioned stimulus.

The study of the observable by direct means

Watson, influenced by Pavlov's research believed that only directly observable events (stimuli and responses) should be the center of the investigation. He did not consider it pertinent, therefore, to address internal and unobservable processes. This author stated that the environment was the supreme force that directed the development of the child.

I thought children could be modeled in any direction what adults wanted if they carefully controlled the (environmental) stimulus-response associations. Reflection of these ideas is his proposal:

Give us a dozen healthy, well-trained children, and an appropriate world to raise them, and we guarantee to turn any of them, taken at random, into a certain specialist: doctor, lawyer, artist, head of commerce, beggar or thief, no matter what talents, inclinations, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of their ascendants (1924, pp. 104).

Watson and learning from classical conditioning

Watson conceived that conditioning is the basis of all behavior. To explain this idea, adopt a genetic approach:

Make experiences with children in the first months of life to see how, from a few unconditioned reflexes, the whole range of conditioned responses that constitute all adult behavior are formed.

One of Watson's main interests was the conditioning of emotions. He proposed that at the time of birth there are only three emotional reactions not learned: fear, anger and love.

According to Watson, children initially do not want specific people, but are gradually conditioned to do so.. This occurs because the mother frequently appears while caressing or rocking the baby, so that the mother ends up becoming a conditioned stimulus. Later, other people associated with the mother will also elicit the same answers.

Watson and phobias conditioning

Watson and Rayner (1924) in one of the most famous studies of psychology tried to test these ideas experimentally. For that they took Albert to his laboratory, a child of just under a year, healthy and emotionally stable.

His goal was to condition the fear of white rats. With this intention they approached the rat to the child (who initially did not fear the rats) and when Albert began to approach his hand to the animal they made a loud sound.

As you can imagine Albert was startled, and also got up, fell forward and began to cry. In all Albert took seven conditioning sessions to learn the fear of white rats.

After this procedure the result was that as soon as Albert saw the rats he began to whimper. But in addition this fear was generalized to other animals such as rabbits, a dog, and objects such as a fur seal, cotton, or a Santa Claus costume.

This shows that it is possible to establish an emotional response to a neutral object and, in addition, that there can be a generalization or transfer of this response to other similar stimuli.

Also, for Watson, it was notorious that all these events had taken place without any intervention of the "mind", the "will", and other variables of a subjective nature. It was only the stimulating situation (loud noise when the animal appeared) that determined that a response (crying, flight) was given to a stimulus (rat).


  • Ribes, E. (1995). John B. Watson: behaviorism and the foundation of a scientific psychology.Acta Comportamentalia: Latin Journal of Behavior Analysis3(3).
  • Watson, J. B. (2006). Psychology from the point of view of the behaviorist.In: Ribes, E. and Burgos, J. (Coords). Historical and philosophical roots of behaviorism2, 275-292.
  • Watson, J. B., & Poli, O. (1973).What is behaviorism?. Paidós