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Experimental Psychology : No Such Thing as Bad Behaviour

Black box.

A machine, device, or system whose inner workings are unknown. Its inputs and outputs can be seen, but the moment and method of transformation from one to the other are hidden and mysterious.

Psychology studies the mind and behaviour. But only one of these can be observed.

To John B. Watson and the behaviourists that followed him, the study of behaviour was the true path that would allow psychology to be considered an experimental branch of natural science.

John B. Watson (c. 1920)

Welcome back to part two of Experimental Psychology 101. In part one we looked at the foundations of scientific psychology and the creation of the first experimental psychology laboratory in Leipzig in 1879.

But not all psychological research followed in the footsteps of Wilhelm Wundt and his colleagues.

Depth psychology emerged and flourished in the late 19th and early 20th century — a field dedicated to the study of the conscious, unconscious, and semi-conscious mind. The founding fathers of this field are still amongst the best-known psychologists today — Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler.

However, the theories derived from depth psychology were often impractical (or impossible) to test experimentally. This led to the rise of behaviourism, championed by John B. Watson, to try to stake psychology’s claim as a natural science.

Watson was influenced by Edward Thorndike’s law of effect — the notion that a behaviour that produces a positive response is more likely to occur again (the opposite being true for a negative response). Watson coined the term ‘behaviourism’ in a 1913 article, beginning a new chapter in the history of psychological research.

Ivan Pavlov (n.d.)

It is very likely that you have heard of Pavlov’s dogs. As a quick recap, Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist studying digestion. Pavlov noticed (or rather, one of Pavlov’s lab students noticed) that the dogs salivated before they were fed.

Pavlov was fascinated by this and conducted a series of experiments into how the saliva response could be triggered. He found that if food was consistently presented at the same time as a neutral stimulus (e.g. a whistle, a metronome, or a tuning fork — despite common perception, it seems that Pavlov never actually used a bell), that eventually the dog would salivate to the neutral stimulus alone.

This was referred to as a conditioned response. Later, this would be known as an example of classical conditioning — pairing potent and neutral stimuli, such that the neutral stimulus eventually yields the same response as the potent one.

Inspired by this work, John B. Watson wanted to produce experimental evidence that an emotional response could be paired with a neutral stimulus. Watson proposed that the complex mental makeup of adults made them poor candidates for a simple conditioning experiment.

Instead, Watson proposed conditioning a phobia (an irrational fear) into an emotionally stable infant.

This work marks another chapter in the storied history of ethically questionable psychology experiments.

At first there was considerable hesitation upon our part in making the attempt to set up fear reactions experimentally. A certain responsibility attaches to such a procedure. We decided finally to make the attempt, comforting ourselves by the reflection that such attachments would arise anyway as soon as the child left the sheltered environment of the nursery for the rough and tumble of the home.

Watson & Raynor (1920)

Watson published his research under the title “Conditioned emotional reactions”, though it is better known these days as the “Little Albert Experiment”.

“Albert B.” was an 11-month-old child reported to be “stolid and unemotional”, who had never been seen in a “state of fear and rage”. In a preliminary test, Albert was unafraid of a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, or a Santa Claus mask with a white fur beard.

Albert was, however, afraid of the sound made by smashing a steel bar with a hammer.

One of the two experimenters caused the child to turn its head and fixate her moving hand; the other, stationed back of the child, struck the steel bar a sharp blow. The child started violently, his breathing was checked and the arms were raised in a characteristic manner. On the second stimulation the same thing occurred, and in addition the lips began to pucker and tremble. On the third stimulation the child broke into a sudden crying fit. This is the first time an emotional situation in the laboratory has produced any fear or even crying in Albert.

Watson & Raynor (1920)

To condition Albert, the steel bar was struck at the same time as he was presented with the rat. Predictably, Albert was scared by the noise.

After several repetitions of the “joint stimulation”, Albert was presented with the rat alone — and by now he reacted fearfully to it.

Even though no direct conditioning had occurred, Albert was also now afraid of the other furry items — the rabbit, the dog, and the Santa Claus mask.

As such, it was concluded that he had learnt to associate these items with his fear of the loud sound — and hence had been successfully conditioned with a phobia.

Little Albert’s ordeal can be seen in Watson’s video record of his experiment.

A demonstration of Little Albert's phobia (Watson & Raynor, 1920)

A founding principle of behaviourist research was that certain black box elements of the human mental state could not be observed and were difficult (if not impossible) to study experimentally. Hence, the proposal that the focus of psychological research should be on behaviour alone.

B.F. Skinner represented an advancement in behaviourist thinking — he believed that covert behaviours (such as thoughts and feelings — or “black box” constructs) could also be studied through behavioural tests.

Watson’s work is now referred to as methodological behaviourism and Skinner’s as radical behaviourism.

Further, Skinner proposed an alternate form of conditioning — known as operant conditioning — in which the strength of a behaviour could be modified in response to positive or negative reinforcement.

Skinner developed the operant conditioning chamber (better known these days as the Skinner Box). Its structure is relatively simple: it requires at least one operandum (e.g. a lever or a button) and a means of delivering a primary reinforcer (e.g. a reward). When the animal performs the desired action (e.g. pressing the lever when they hear a beep), they are given a reward.

Of course, it is unlikely that the animal will naturally perform the desired action on their own. Instead, a reward is given at first when they do something similar. In an attempt to receive another reward, the animal repeats what they have done. Subsequent rewards are given for behaviours that are closer and closer to the desired action.

Until it eventually reaches the intended result.

Skinner used his reinforcement principles to teach relatively complex behaviours to relatively simple animals. For instance, he taught pigeons to spin round in a circle, to "read", and even to play ping-pong.

B.F. Skinner (c. 1950)

Although the above are fairly cute demonstrations, operant conditioning can be used in more nefarious ways. Skinner himself helped to design a pigeon-guided missile. The project was eventually abandoned, though not before it was successfully trialled.

Operant conditioning has been extended to modify human behaviours. Casinos and video games have been specifically developed to reward repetitive actions. Further, elements derived from games have been applied to non-gaming scenarios (“gamification”) to encourage users to continue using the product/service/app.

Behaviourism was the dominant form of psychological research in America (though not necessarily globally) until the 1950s. Eventually, behaviourism would be criticised as limiting its approach too harshly. In response, a cognitive revolution changed the face of psychological research.

And we’ll look at cognitive psychology in part three of this 101 series.


Until then why not read about the scientist who managed to prove that psychic powers are real (and the scramble to disprove his work).



Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O'Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011). Gamification. using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. In CHI'11 extended abstracts on human factors in computing systems (pp. 2425-2428).

Harrigan, K. A., Collins, K., Dixon, M. J., & Fugelsang, J. (2010, May). Addictive gameplay: What casual game designers can learn from slot machine research. In Proceedings of the international academic conference on the future of game design and technology (pp. 127-133).

McLeod, S. (2018) What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work? Simply Psychology.

Schneider, S. M., & Morris, E. K. (1987). A history of the term radical behaviorism: From Watson to Skinner. The Behavior Analyst, 10(1), 27-39.

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39(1/4), 212-222.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158–177.

Watson, J. B., & Rayner, R. (1920). Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 3(1), 1-14.


Image references

B.F. Skinner (c. 1950) [Photograph].

Ivan Pavlov (n.d.) [Photograph].

John B. Watson (c. 1920) [Photograph].

Watson J.B. Little Albert crying at a rabbit (1920). [Photograph].

Watson, J.B. Now he even fears Santa Claus (1920). [Photograph].

Author Photo

Sam Ridgeway

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