Misrepresentation: Skinner … J.B. Watson … Same Deal
Misrepresentation: B.F. Skinner and J.B. Watson shared similar positions on all key
Clarification: Differences and similarities between Skinner and Watson are covered
Differences. The argument that Skinner’s and Watson’s positions greatly overlapped is often based on the assumption that they believed:
(a) Verbal behavior is stimulus-response chains
(b) Thinking is sub-vocal speech.
Neither is correct.
Skinner’s Verbal Behavior is an operant analysis and a far more sophisticated account than Watson’ S-R analysis of language. (In fact, Skinner was not an S-R theorist, which is also
a common misrepresentation). In short, Skinner and Watson used different paradigms. For
an introductory account of Watson’s analysis of verbal behavior in his own words, see his
text Behaviorism (1924, the chapter entitled “Talking and Thinking”).
For Skinner, thinking means more than just covert verbal behavior which, as Watson
suggested, occurs at low magnitudes (see Verbal Behavior, pp 434-435). For example,
Experienced [public] speakers, especially those who say the same thing
many times appear to “think” one verbal response while saying another
aloud, and one sometimes appears to read aloud mechanically while
carrying on, say a “fantasized” conversation. Small-scale muscular activity
is also not very plausible in representing incipient verbal behavior. I was
going to say…may be followed by a response which has not been
previously emitted, even subaudibly. (p. 435)
Skinner gives other examples but these are exemplary for showing that he had identified
weaknesses in the Watsonian sub-vocal speech account.
Skinner in Verbal Behavior then goes on to analyze other meanings for “thinking” that
come from cognitive psychology and lay language. For example, “I am thinking of going
to a movie” (describes the probability of a response) and “I think it’s that one” (describes
the probability of being correct).
These points reveal that Skinner and Watson differed on many key issues including:
(1) Role of operant (Skinner)-vs-respondent (Watson) models in verbal behavior.
(2) Selectionist-vs-mechanistic accounts.
They also differed on the value of emphasizing redefinitions of mentalistic terms because
this practice “proved to be awkward and inappropriate, and Watsonianism was, in fact,
practically wrecked in the attempt to make them work” (Selection of Behavior, p. 160).
Skinner, Watson, and most behaviorists would agree that psychology is:
(1) The study of behavior.
(2) A natural science.
Watson did not lead Skinner to these positions, Bertrand Russell’s work was far more
influential (see Reflections on Behaviorism and Society, p.113).