The Shift from Behaviourism to Cognitive Psychology

2475 words (10 pages) Essay in Psychology

08/02/20 Psychology Reference this

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To what extent can the shift from behaviourism to cognitive psychology be regarded as a Kuhnian revolution?

The creation of the behaviourism and cognitive psychology disciplines were important historical events that allowed psychology to be considered as a science. The shift from behaviourism to cognitive psychology and whether it can be defined as a Kuhnian revolution has been thoroughly investigated. Some consider the methods of Thomas Kuhn to be incorrect and somewhat outdated (De Langhe, Hartmann, & Sprenger, 2014), whereas others believe that a Kuhnian revolution can be placed into a classification system of scientific revolutions (Kvasz, 2014). The discussion, however, should begin with the understanding of a Kuhnian revolution, the definitions of behaviourism and cognitive psychology, and their role within the advancement of psychology as a field of study.

The ‘birth’ of psychology is considered to be 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt established the first experimental laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). Wundt used methods such as introspection, the conscious access of individuals to their mental processes and the ability to report them (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). Another approach of the time was functionalism, defined by William James as the relationship between the mind and the brain, where the mind can be considered as a Turing machine (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). This approach was popular in the US due to the influx of immigrants and the industrial revolution and gave individuals a reason to work and function within society. Other researchers, such as Edward Titchener, introduced the idea of structuralism, where one tries to understand the structure of the brain by means of introspection. However, this idea did not gain much support in the US and was soon abandoned (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013).

These approaches to understanding human behaviour were not sufficient for explaining the ways individuals learn and behave in everyday situations. Watson (1913) published a manifesto describing the lack of scientific methods in the investigation of behaviours and explained that in order for psychology to become a real science, it had to focus on observable behaviour rather than unobservable concepts such as consciousness (Harzem, 2004; Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). This marked the rise of behaviourism, which would soon be advanced by individuals such as Edward Thorndike, B.F. Skinner, Ivan Pavlov and Edward Tolman, who conducted experiments on animals to understand their behaviour in specific environmental conditions.

In his famous experiment, Pavlov found that it was possible to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell indicating it was time to eat, rather than to the actual meal (Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson 2015). Pavlov termed this process as classical conditioning which was expanded further through the works of Thorndike and Skinner. Thorndike proposed that an animal can learn to solve a task that would result it to be given food; if it did not succeed, it would not repeat that specific behaviour (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). Thorndike termed this instrumental conditioning whereas Skinner termed this operant conditioning; although both are similar, operant conditioning refers to a behaviour that is reinforced positively or negatively depending on the outcome (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). These ideas could be further applied to situations where humans were involved, such as the type of conditions that may affect child development.

Tolman was against Skinner’s concept of operant conditioning and proposed the idea of purposive behaviourism, where behaviour is motivated by a specific goal of an animal or individual, rather than the environment in which they are placed (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). Based on experiments conducted by Blodgett (1929) and Tolman (1948), Tolman proposed the idea of latent learning, where knowledge could be obtained without observable behaviour; where rats were thought to have created a cognitive map of a maze they are placed into, where the knowledge could be used for their survival, in this case to obtain food. By using scientific methods to conduct empirical experiments which have reliable and valid results that can be applied to real-life situations, behaviourism had allowed psychology to be considered as a science.

After World War II, psychologists began to propose new ideas that could not be answered through behaviourism. Cognitive psychology proposed ideas associated with the mind and mental processes within, and how they function. This field is considered to have been introduced with Miller’s (1956) article on the limitations of short-term memory followed by Neisser’s (1967) publication of Cognitive Psychology, which allowed for the advancement and development of theories and research within cognitive psychology.

Cognitive psychology theories use top-down and bottom-up processing to attempt to explain mental processes, how they function and are influenced at each stage; top-down processing is where information from higher processing stages flow down to previous processing stages and influence them, whereas bottom-up processing refers to how a stimulus can activate lower-level functions and can progress to the next stages (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). These advancements helped to initiate the development of different cognitive theories, such as the information processing approach.

The information processing approach was developed when researchers began to look for new ways to communicate over long distances. Researchers tried to use the ways computers execute tasks and its Boolean logic in order to understand how information is processed in the brain (Watrin, & Darwich, 2012). Broadbent (1958) was influenced by this approach to create a filter model of attention, where a filter early in processing allows information from one input to pass through on the basis of physical characteristics (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013; Eysenck, & Keane, 2015). However, according to Greenwood (1999), behaviourists such as Skinner challenged cognitive psychological theories for defining internal states in terms of observable stimuli and behavioural responses, arguing that this was not enough to be used as a basis for prediction.

Defining the shift from behaviourism to cognitive psychology as a Kuhnian revolution requires a clarification of the concept of a Kuhnian revolution. Thomas Kuhn was an American physicist who became interested in the history and philosophy of science (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013). He proposed a series of stages one must complete to create a theory which allows for scientific progress, which include pre-science, normal science, crisis and scientific revolution.

Pre-science are the basic ideas scientists first have when trying to understand what they want to investigate (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013; O’Donohue, Ferguson, & Naugle, 2003). Normal science is where a paradigm is attempted to be created which represents the common views and methods scientists share of the investigation. At this stage, falsification of the paradigm is attempted to assess its efficiency (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013; O’Donohue, Ferguson, & Naugle, 2003). Falsification was introduced by Karl Popper, where a theory can only be seen as scientific if it can be empirically disproved (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013; Rowbottom 2011). Modifications at this stage are made if the findings present a consistent deviation; however, any improvements at this stage may result in difficulty for scientists to conduct research, limiting the scientific progress that can be made (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013; O’Donohue, Ferguson, & Naugle, 2003).

The crisis stage is where findings produced by normal science cannot be explained by the original paradigm. Modifications to the theory are made but may lead to further unexplained findings, resulting in a state of crisis. It is important to note that the definition of scientific progress first needs to be agreed upon by researchers; in a Kuhnian sense, a scientific revolution made at the point of crisis is considered a paradigm shift, where the original paradigm is replaced by a new one which makes clear predictions and cannot be falsified; scientific progress is then considered to occur. Paradigm shifts do not mean that the old paradigm is replaced by a better one, it is simply replaced by a clearer version, that will likely be replaced in the future as scientific knowledge is constantly changing (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013; O’Donohue, Ferguson, & Naugle, 2003). One example of a scientific revolution is the shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism. Geocentrism was once considered to be the correct explanation for Earth’s central position in the universe. However, Copernicus and Galileo had shown that the Sun, rather than the Earth, was the centre of the universe (Brysbaert, & Rastle, 2013; Kvasz, 2014).

De Langhe, Hartmann, and Sprenger (2014) disagreed with Kuhn’s ideas of scientific progress. They argued that the normal science stage cannot explain how an individual’s pre-theoretical intuition about the progress of a specific scientific endeavour, along with social and ethical factors, can contribute to scientific progress. Although the Kuhnian stages resulting in a scientific revolution are logical, they can also be considered as preventing scientific progress by complicating scientific theories. O’Donohue, Ferguson, and Naugle (2003) review the ideas of individuals such as Kuhn and conclude that, a Kuhnian revolution did not take place. This shift from behaviourism to cognitive psychology was an introduction of new and different disciplines that could not have been answered by behaviourism, rather than a replacement of behaviourism’s principles, and cannot be considered as a Kuhnian revolution.

Watrin, and Darwich (2012) review the different views within the behaviourism and cognitive psychology disciplines in order to explain how cognitive psychology is a replacement of behaviourism. This change was initially regarded as a Kuhnian revolution because psychology had undertaken a paradigm shift and behaviourism was replaced by cognitive psychology in its principles, but this view did not receive much support; this shift can rather be considered as a counterrevolution, as it came as a response to an earlier behaviourist revolution (Watrin, & Darwich, 2012).

The introduction of behaviourism was a replacement of James’s and Titchener’s ideas as the methods used to investigate specific behaviours, and how information was used to describe the implications of such concepts, were replaced. Cognitive psychology was not a revolution against behaviourism with the intention of changing its’ principles and ideas but rather the replacement of these ideas with new ones. Watrin, and Darwich (2012) provide a different approach to behaviourism and cognitive psychology and how each area may not reflect a sole effort of a scientific and professional group but rather general features, which overlook the individuality of ideas of several individuals. This demonstrates a different approach to such concepts, suggesting that behaviourism and cognitive psychology as a whole may not be effective in expressing a collaborative effort of new ideas and investigations.

It is important to understand how others may find Kuhn’s ideas to be unclear as this is what allows for scientific progress – new and possibly contrasting opinions. Kvasz (2014, p.78) defines a scientific revolution as a “…sociological event of a change of attitude of the scientific community…” and explains how an epistemic rupture, “…a linguistic fact consisting of discontinuity in the linguistic framework in which…” a theory is formulated, can be used as a basis for classification of scientific revolutions. The author additionally introduces levels of scientific progress which may be more useful in distinguishing between different types of scientific revolutions and redefines the concept of a Kuhnian revolution. According to Kvasz (2014), Kuhn included different types of scientific revolutions under the same concept; once Kuhn’s categories of scientific revolutions are redefined into Kvasz’s (2014) levels of scientific progress, it is possible to distinguish between different types of paradigms, which allows us to understand the types of scientific revolutions that can take place.

The shift from behaviourism to cognitive psychology cannot be considered as a Kuhnian revolution as cognitive psychology had not replaced behaviourism, but rather dealt with a scope which was not addressed by behaviourism. Although this shift cannot be regarded as a Kuhnian revolution, it is important to understand how Kuhn’s ideas can be developed to understand how they impact the current psychological field. In addition, it is important to understand how historical events such as the rise of behaviourism and cognitive psychology have affected the current field of psychology, and what can be considered as true scientific progress by other individuals within it. The introduction of new and differing theories within the field of psychology but also within other fields of science, aid in what can be considered as scientific progress, and whether a Kuhnian revolution is yet to occur.


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