The perspectives of three men changed modern-day psychology. John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Edward C. Tolman were all behaviorists; however, they each had different perspectives, views, and theories of behaviorism. The similarities in the three men’s work showed through as ground breaking discoveries; as did the differences. Experiments and test results provided a backdrop for modern-day psychology. Herein, is a discussion of the comparisons and contrasts of each man’s perspectives, theories, and views and the substantial contribution that each made on modern-day psychology.

John B. Watson

John B. Watson was the founder of the school of thought behaviorism. As Watson learned and studied, he became more interested in how the environment played a role in the behaviors of humans and animals. According to State University (2012), Watson “emphasized the importance of learning and environmental influences in human development” and believed that only observable phenomena could be the basis for scientific studies (para. 2). He theorized that introspection [an inward examination of one’s own thoughts and feelings] was not the only way to study human behavior. As a result, Watson developed classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning was the introduction of outside stimuli to a naturally occurring response. An example of a natural response was considered to be watering of the mouth when the smell or sight of food was present, as was shown with the experiments of Pavlov’s dogs. Watson proclaimed that classical conditioning preformed in a controlled environment could produce desired and measurable results of human behaviorism (State University, 2012, para. 6). The experiments that Watson was most famous for was known as the “Little Albert” case studies in which Watson created the emotions of fear, rage, and love through objects and loud noises presented to an infant. The bases of Watson’s studies were that the consciousness could not be considered noteworthy because it was not observable; however, behavior could be seen and studied. B. F. Skinner also believed that behavior was a key element of studying human behavior; however, Skinner’s method of conditioning was much different that Watson’s.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner believed that humans and animals interact with their environments in any way they want. He believed that it was possible to teach or condition the subject, animal or human, to behave in certain ways. This method of conditioning was referred to as operant conditioning. A behavior that is performed by the subject was either reinforced or punished, which created the desire or lack of desire to repeat the behavior. In order to control the environment, Skinner created the “Skinner Box,” which was to hold the subject while the experiments were being done.

The enclosed environment was created to withhold food from the animal subject, namely a rat, until certain behaviors were exhibited. The boxes were designed with lights and pedals on the inside that the subject would have to engage with in order to receive food or treats. The rats would need to push a pedal to release food (Goodwin, 2008, p. 388). In the repeating stages of this experiment, it became apparent that the rat “learned” to push the correct pedal and each time the rat was subjected to the box, it would begin the ritual of pushing pedals or turning on lights at a faster pace than the time before. According to Goodwin (2008), the light was typically on when the experiments were being conducted and while the lights were off or dimmed, the rat would press the pedal less often until it did not press the pedal at all when the light was off, which Skinner called discrimination (p. 388). This method of conditioning differed from Watson in many ways.

Similarities and Differences between Watson and Skinner

The main difference between the theories and perspectives of Watson and Skinner was the way in which the subject showed behavior. Watson was more interested in the behavior itself; whereas, Skinner believed that the environment was the key element in the learning process and behaviors. Watson did not believe that the mind or cognitive function had any bearing on the subject’s behaviors, but Skinner believed that the cognitive function and the ability to learn or adapt was the reason conditioning would occur. According to Boeree (1998 and 2006), Skinner believed that “a behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future” (para. 11). Watson believed that natural response needed to be coupled with a generic stimulus in order for behavior to be studied. Watson’s theory was considered classical behaviorism, while Skinner’s theory was referred to as radical behaviorism. Although these two men both created logical and sound theories of behaviorism, another man was also in the midst of creating his own theory of behaviorism.

Edward C. Tolman

Edward C. Tolman was the founder of “purposive behaviorism,” which means to say that he theorized that the subject would produce behaviors that were adaptive to the environment (Cooper, 2009, para. 2). Tolman came to dislike Watson’s theory of behaviorism, which he called “mechanistic behaviorism’s, because he believed that the subject did not just respond to stimulus; that the subject actually “acted on beliefs, attitudes, changing conditions, and they strive toward goals” (Cooper, 2009, para. 2).

Unlike Watson and Skinner, Tolman was the only one of the three who thought the stimulus-response theory was not accurate because reinforcements and punishments were not needed in the learning process. According to Cooper (2009), Tolman theorized that “behavior was holistic, purposive, and cognitive” (para. 2). Tolman believed that the behavior the subject exhibited was a cognitive coping mechanism of the stimulus (Cooper, 2009, para. 2). Many of the perspectives and theories of Tolman’s came from other sources.

Gestalt psychology, the school of thought that views the human mind and behavior as a whole, played a role in Tolman’s perspective. According to Goodwin (2008), a psychologist teacher, Edwin Holt, also played a role in the development of Tolman’s theories because of Holt’s teachings fused behavior with notions of purpose and goals (p. 365). Tolman believed that there were three stages of learning. Significant or goal of behavior, sign or signal for action, and means-end relations or internal processes and relationships Tolman believed were all combined to create successful learning (Cooper, 2009, para. 3). Tolman also believed that learning was unique to each individual and that no one person would learn at the same rate as other people. Tolman had many other theories, which contributed to the development of modern-day psychology.

Tolman created what was called “cognitive mapping.” Cognitive mapping was directly influenced by the molar versus molecular patterns of behavior. Molecular behavior was thought of as “muscle movements, glandular responses, or neurological responses,” which were strongly “emphasized by Watson” (Goodwin, 2008, p. 366). Molar behavior was considered wide ranges of behavior patterns that were exhibited with some kind of goal at the conclusion of the behavior, which was referred to by Tolman as the field theory. The molar behavior theory led into goal-directedness or purposiveness. Tolman strongly believed that human and animal behaviors were directly related to some kind of goal and had purpose in every action.


Many of the perspectives of Watson, Skinner, and Tolman had direct influence modern-day psychology. In the respects of learning theories and conditioning methods of learning, modern-day psychology was developed to create solid treatments and diagnoses for people with learning disabilities and emotional hardships with learning. Classical and operant conditioning methods were used to understand how the subjects learn and adapt to their environments.

John B. Watson made discoveries of fear and other reactions while doing experiments on an infant, which ultimately created fear or phobias. B. F. Skinner created closed, controlled environments in which to conduct his experiments. These boxes were used to determine if the subject would “learn” to do certain actions while under certain environmental conditions. Edward C. Tolman did not associate with the ideals of Watson, but leaned more towards the Skinnerian understanding of behaviorism.

All three men made great discoveries with different methods of experiments and theories and played pivotal roles in the development of modern-day psychology. Although they were all behaviorists, they had different views, theories, and perspectives on behaviorism and how experiments should be conducted. All three men had the same objective in mind; the objective was to study and understand human behavior. In addition, all three men had different understandings of how humans and their behaviors were to be measured and observed. With each new theory, view, and perspective came new meaning to behaviorism, which made many great changes in modern-day psychology.


Boeree, Dr. C. G. (1998 and 2006). B. F. Skinner. Retrieved from

Cooper, S. (2009). Edward C. Tolman (1886- 1959). Retrieved from

Goodwin, C.J. (2008). A history of modern psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

State University. (2012). John B. Watson (1878-1958)-popularizing behaviorism, the little Albert study, the “dozen healthy infants,” life after the university. Retrieved from


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