The behaviourist theory of James Watson

Watson's view of emotions sets out its stall in order to repudiate the sort of feeling theory offered by William James. One would therefore imagine, given the meteoric rise of behaviourism, that James' theory would never have been heard of again. However, as we noted above, James' ideas continue to be influential to the present day. The reason for this becomes clear if we put aside James' discussion of feelings as the sensation of bodily change (because within Watson's Behaviorism we are unable to investigate them empirically), and concentrate on his arguments that emotions can be differentiated on a physiological basis. It then becomes apparent that Watson's theory and the physiological part of James' theory are identical. The only difference between the two approaches is that James makes claims about mental states, whereas Watson states that we do not have any scientific evidence for such claims so we should not make them.

To proceed, Watson (1919) presents a formulation that covers some emotions as follows:

An emotion is an hereditary "pattern-reaction" involving profound changes of the bodily mechanism as a whole, but particularly of the visceral and glandular systems. (Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, 1919, p. 195)

In this model, emotions are nothing more than physiological (pattern) reactions (and thus different from instincts which are more overtly behavioural) that are inherited. Watson goes on to elaborate on this point and is forced to admit that there are only three emotions that can be distinguished in this way, and then only in the newborn infant. According to Watson, these three emotions are fear, rage, and love, although it could be argued that the latter is more akin to a sexual drive than an emotion proper. When it comes to all of the other emotions, Watson states:

When we take into account the whole group of phenomena in which we see emotional manifestations in adults, a pronounced modification is necessary. Apparently the hereditary pattern as a whole gets broken up. At any rate it largely disappears. (1919, p. 197)

In other words, we can distinguish at most three emotions by virtue of their physiology and then only in the newborn. For older humans and for all of the other emotions this criterion is insufficient. This raises a major problem for the Watsonian account: How can we distinguish one emotion from another (Q.3)? How can we distinguish an emotion from a non-emotion (Q.1)? Watson tries to clamber out of this philosophical hole but his arguments fail to convince.

It seems, then, that Watson does not offer a convincing formulation of emotions as responses, so what about the instigating events? Again, there are insurmountable difficulties because the same event can give rise to different emotions in different people. As we argued above, Susan was afraid of the bear because she believed it might kill her; however, Susan's brother, who enjoys hunting and fishing, may have been overjoyed to see the bear striding down the woodland path. So, the same event can lead Susan and her brother to experience different emotions by virtue of differences in their beliefsā€”Susan believes the bear is dangerous but her brother believes the bear has the potential to be a fine trophy for his study wall. This illustrates the, by now familiar, event problem.

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Do Not Panic

Do Not Panic

This guide Don't Panic has tips and additional information on what you should do when you are experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. With so much going on in the world today with taking care of your family, working full time, dealing with office politics and other things, you could experience a serious meltdown. All of these things could at one point cause you to stress out and snap.

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