John B. Watson versus his critics: A mini-analysis
of Watson's views on "Instinct."
John B. Watson on Instinct
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:
this reluctance [to consider instinctive behavior] is due
in part to some
dark precognition of what they might find in
ethologists Lorenz (1950, p. 233) and Tinbergen (1951, p.
6) have warned that if psychologists are to understand and predict
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
is apt to consider "instinct" an ugly word. (Breland
and Breland, 1961, p. 681)
decades earlier, based on his own extensive ethological research,
Watson emphasized the importance of doing a complete analysis of
instinctive behavior before studying
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)
1950, Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, attacked John B. Watson
for making extreme claims without having done the relevant research:
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)
decades years earlier, Watson published a series of articles on
his Carnegie Institution-funded ethological studies of sea
other animals, including a description of young birds raised in isolation:
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)
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)
in Watson's view, had evolved to learn their adjustments
to their many and varied niches:
all this has bearing upon the instincts of the1927 man. Just because
he has had an evolutionary history is
that he must have instincts like the stock from which he sprang. (Watson,
1927a, pp. 228-29)
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
The problem was
the existence of unlearned behavior, but the careless and indiscriminate
use of the term "instinct" by William James and others to
vast expanses of human behavior without actually doing a
origins of the behavior.
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
instincts and gave man the following list: Climbing,
imitation, emulation, rivalry, pugnacity, anger, resentment,
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.
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
K. (1950). The comparative method in study innate behavior patterns.
Symposium of the Society for Experimental Biology, 4, 221-268.
N. (1951). The study of instinct. Oxford: Clarendon.
Watson, J. B. (1908). The behavior of noddy and sooty
terns. Carnegie Institute Publication, 103,
Watson, J. B. (1927). The behaviorist looks at instincts.
Harper's, 155, 228-235.
J. B. (1930).
Behaviorism (Revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.