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BAAM Mini-Analysis
John B. Watson versus his critics: A mini-analysis of Watson's views on "Instinct."


John B. Watson on Instinct

Keller and Marian Breland famously claimed that behaviorists such as John B. Watson deny the importance of instinctive behavior in the analysis of behavior. Instead of the behaviorists, they suggest turning to the ethologists for guidance:

Perhaps this reluctance [to consider instinctive behavior] is due in part to some dark precognition of what they might find in such investigations, for the ethologists Lorenz (1950, p. 233) and Tinbergen (1951, p. 6) have warned that if psychologists are to understand and predict the behavior of organisms, it is essential that they become thoroughly familiar with the instinctive behavior patterns of each new species they essay to study. Of course, the Watsonian or neobehavioristically oriented experimenter is apt to consider "instinct" an ugly word. (Breland and Breland, 1961, p. 681)

Yet, decades earlier, based on his own extensive ethological research, Watson emphasized the importance of doing a complete analysis of instinctive behavior before studying learning:

It is because of the intimate connection between instinct and habit that one most desires to get a clearer knowledge of the animal's repertoire of perfected instinctive responses, his partial and incomplete adjustments, and even his tendencies toward adjustment before beginning experimental work on habit formation (Watson, 1914, p. 44)

In 1950, Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, attacked John B. Watson for making extreme claims without having done the relevant research:

If J. B. Watson had only once reared a young bird in isolation, he would have never asserted that all complicated behavior patterns were learned. (Lorenz, 1950, p. 233)

Four decades years earlier, Watson published a series of articles on his Carnegie Institution-funded ethological studies of sea birds and other animals, including a description of young birds raised in isolation:

The birds have formed a great attachment for me. They will follow me all around the room,. It is becoming more and more difficult to keep them in any box. (Watson, 1908, p. 240)

And, Watson never stated that all complicated behavior patterns were learned. Nonhumans exhibited plenty of complicated "pattern instincts," which allowed them to operate effectively in their environments. Watson did not want to put an end to research on instincts. He was unhappy that more was not known about them:

No one as yet has succeeded in making even a helpful classification of instincts. It is far more difficult to make such a classification in the human realm than in the animal. Fairly serviceable classifications in the animal worlds are food-getting, home-building activities, attack and defense, migration, etc. (Watson, 1919, p. 234)

Humans, in Watson's view, had evolved to learn their adjustments to their many and varied niches:

Now, all this has bearing upon the instincts of the1927 man. Just because he has had an evolutionary history is no proof that he must have instincts like the stock from which he sprang. (Watson, 1927a, pp. 228-29)

Watson did eventually reject the concept of "instinct." But that did not mean he denied that unlearned behavior existed. His books were full of accounts of unlearned behavior in humans and other animals. His last book, Behaviorism (Watson, 1930), contained two full chapters on the subject of unlearned behavior in humans. The problem was not the existence of unlearned behavior, but the careless and indiscriminate use of the term "instinct" by William James and others to explain away vast expanses of human behavior without actually doing a real experimental analysis of the origins of the behavior.

A group of older writers...vied with one another in finding new and perfect instincts in both man and animals. William James made a careful selection from among these asserted instincts and gave man the following list: Climbing, imitation, emulation, rivalry, pugnacity, anger, resentment, sympathy, hunting, fear, appropriation, acquisitiveness, kleptomania, constructiveness, play curiosity, sociability, shyness, cleanliness, modesty, shame, love, jealousy, parental love. James states that no other animal, not even the monkey, can lay claim to so large a list. (Watson, 1930, p. 110)

Thus, when Watson seems to reject "instincts," we must be careful to see that he is rejecting a set of vacuous assumptions about complex human behavior, not the existence of unlearned behavior in humans and other animals.