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University of Wyoming

Major Theorists

John B. Watson | B.F. Skinner | Pavlov | Guthrie & Hull | E. Tolman | E. Thorndike

Watson, John B(roadus) (1878-1958)

Psychologist, born in Greenville, SC. He studied at Chicago, and became professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University (1908-20), where he established an animal research laboratory. He became known for his behaviorist approach, which he later applied to human behavior. In 1921 he entered advertising, and wrote several general books on psychology.

Founder of Behavorism

  1. Observable behavior rather than internal thought processes is the focus of study.
  2. The environment shapes one's behavior.
  3. Principles of contiguity and reinforcement are central to explaining the learning process.
  • Watson believed that learning was a process of conditioning reflexes (responses) through the substitution of one stimulus for another
  • Watson (as well as Skinner) agreed that we should study people as though they didn't have a mind, as though people's heads were empty.
Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (1904-90)

Psychologist, born in Susquhanna, Pa. He studied at Harvard, teaching there (1931-6, 1947-74). A leading behaviorist, he is a proponent of operant conditioning, and the inventor of the Skinner box for facilitating experimental observations. His main scientific works include The Behavior of Organisms (1938), and Verbal Behavior (1957), but his social and political views have reached a wider public through Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).

Skinner believed that one should reinforce what you want the individual to do again; ignore what you want the individual to stop doing.

Skinner in his latter years believed that his theories could be used to form a more perfect society.

Principles identified in Skinner's research

  • Pleasant experiences are positive reinforcers (praise).
  • Unpleasant experiences are negative reinforcers (punishment).
  • Continuous reinforcement increases the rate of learning.
  • Intermittent reinforcement contributes to longer retention.
  • Both positive and negative reinforcement can shape behavior.
  • A lack of any reinforcement can also shape behavior.

Ivan Pavlov (1849- 1936)

Ivan Pavlov was born in a small village in central Russia. His family hoped that he would become a priest, and he went to a theological seminary. After reading Charles Darwin, he found that he cared more for scientific pursuits and left the seminary for the University of St. Petersburg. There he studied chemistry and physiology, and he received his doctorate in 1879. He continued his studies and began doing his own research in topics that interested him most: digestion and blood circulation. His work became well known, and he was appointed professor of physiology at the Imperial Medical Academy.

In 1902, during his study of the salivary responses of dogs, Pavlov discovered that the dog's saliva began to flow before the food was actually presented. This is called a conditioned reflex and the stimulus, in this case, the food dish, is called a conditioned stimulus. The conditioned reflex is called the conditioned response today.

Through his research, he added concepts of reinforcement, conditioned stimulus, and extinction to the basic notion of the stimulus-response connection.


One law of learning based on contiguity is all that is needed to make learning comprehensive. (whatever you do in the presence of a stimulus, you do again when that stimulus is re-presented.)


A response depends on such factors as habit, strength, drive, and motivation.

E. Tolman

According to Tolman's theory of sign learning, an organism learns by pursuing signs (stimuli) to a goal, ie., learning is acquired through meaningful behavior.

A new stimulus becomes associated with already meaningful stimuli through a series of pairings; there was no need for reinforcement in order to establish learning.

Thorndike, Edward L(ee) (1874-1949)

Psychologist, born in Williamsburg, MA. He studied at Wesleyan University and Harvard, and became professor at Teachers College, Columbia (1904-40), where he worked on educational psychology and the psychology of animal learning. As a result of studying animal intelligence, he formulated his famous "law of effect", which states that a given behavior is learned by trial-and-error, and is more likely to occur if its consequences are satisfying. His works include Psychology of Learning (1914) and The Measurement of Intelligence (1926).


Thorndike's theory represents the original stimular resonseframework of behavioral psychology: Learning is the result of associations forming between stimuli and responses (connectionism).

  • Law of Effect states that learners will acquire and remember responses that lead to satisfying aftereffects.
  • Law of Exercise asserts that the repetition of a meaningful connection results in substantial learning
  • Law of readiness notes that if the organism is ready for the connection, learning is enhanced; if not, learning is inhibited.