The Unconscious of the Behaviorist

John B. Watson
New School for Social Research

If we had asked a psychiatrist in the eighties to talk to us about the symptoms of so-called a "mental" diseases he probably would have pictured them as consequences of some degenerative changes taking place in brain tissue. Whether the deteriorating spot was due to the invasion of some organism, to the undue growth of invading tissue, to faulty metabolism, to chemical deposits in arteries and veins, or to some destructive chemical process possibly secreted by the body itself — he might not care to venture an opinion. Dementia praecox and paranoia were disease entities to be homologized in many ways with typhoid fever and malaria. One of the difficulties in the way of maintaining such an hypothesis was the fact that pathologists were unable at autopsy to find where and how the brain was diseased. At first Bleuler and then more completely Freud introduced the idea of a diseased mind in sano corpore. This for the time was a natural conclusion. Freud had accepted, first the then current mysticism of the mind -- of mind as an

(92) entity distinct from the body. In the second place he had been trained as a physician to think in terms of disease entities. Since there was no pathology of the brain in these psychopathic individuals, there must be a true pathology of mind. There must be some festering spot — some deteriorating agent present eating into the tissue of the mind. Since the physician could find no trace of the festering spot in the " conscious mind " of the patient, there must be a substratum to mind in which the trouble might be located. This substratum is the unconscious.

Let us go one step further with Freud. You see we are trying to understand how the analysts arrived at the concept of the unconscious. Freud was particularly well versed in the Old Testament and was widely read in folk-lore. One cannot help but accuse him of having been much influenced in his youth by the fable of the devils who resided in the Galilean swine and who were cast out by the great master therapeutist with a few mystic words. Is it any wonder that Freud with the background he had gave us the idea he did of an unconscious? Just as a sharp object when swallowed into the stomach gets lodged -- goes on creating organic disturbance until cut out (or thoroughly encrusted over) — just so at times " sharp perceptions " or " ideas " sink through the oesophagus into the stomach of the mind — the unconscious. There the foreign body stirs up trouble until removed by the scissors and scalpel of the analyst (psycho-analysis).

(93) If the body can be infected — so can the mind. Since the 4.dvent of behaviorism with its emphasis on genesis, analysts have sought to claim that Freud was a geneticist. Nothing was further from the truth. Freud's early writings do not mention the word habit 1 formation or conditioning and yet he was exposed to the work of the Russians and of the animal psychologists throughout the time he was maturing his own theories. His theory of the unconscious was and is a theory paralleling completely the old concept of disease entity.

The scientific level of Freud's concept of the unconscious is exactly on a par with the miracles of Jesus. I say this despite my reverence for Freud and my admiration of his courage in insisting upon the role sex plays in the lives of all. I say this in spite of the fact that Freud's teachings have stimulated the thoughts of all psychologists and of all psychiatrists.

With the advent of behaviorism in 1913 the mind-body problem disappeared — not because ostrich-like its devotees hid their heads in the sand but because they would take no account of phenomena which they could not observe. The behaviorist finds no mind in his laboratory — sees it nowhere in his subjects. Would he not be unscientific if he lingered by the wayside and idly speculated upon it; just as unscientific as the biologists would be if they lingered over the contemplation of entelechies, engrams and the like. Their world and the world of the behaviorist are filled with facts — with data which can be

(94) accumulated and verified by observation — with phenomena which can be predicted and controlled.

If the behaviorists are right in their contention that there is no observable mind-body problem and no observable separate entity called mind — then there can be no such thing as consciousness and its subdivision. Freud's concept borrowed from somatic pathology breaks down. There can be no festering spot in the substratum of the mind — in the unconscious —because there is no mind.

If there is no mental infection — no unconscious to be infected — what can the behaviorist find in natural science to account for objective facts observed by Freud? Freud was attempting to give an explanation — possibly he himself would call it a highly metaphorical one — of actually observed deviations in behavior and he sought a method of curing (he could not use the term retraining — it would not be in keeping with the concept of disease) those deviations.

Please do not misunderstand my position in what I have said. I am not a psychopathologist, I am not a psychoanalyst — I am a behaviorist inspecting a field of behavior which is common ground for all of the social sciences.

Since I lack psychiatric training and psychoanalytic training, I shall not venture to use psychiatric terms. I won't even linger long on the term " psychopathological behavior." I don't like the term anyway. It keeps us too close to disease entity concepts. It lends

(95)support to the old dualistic theory. The behaviorist would not presume to suggest terminology to the psychiatrist but it does lie within his province to call attention in passing to the fact that most of the terms used in psychiatry today are borrowed from somatic pathology, from the old subjective dualistic psychology, and from combinations of these two.

I hope sometime to see the psychiatrist build up a terminology based upon what he can actually observe in the study of his cases.

Without further preamble may I try to develop the behaviorist's thesis of the verbalized and the unverbalized in the hope that it may be found more useful than the vitalistic teaching of Freud and his followers?

The child at twelve months of age is given a new world — a world of words. He masters this world slowly. Every object he plays with is named. Even objects heard and seen but not touched are named —the sun, the moon, the stars. The process by which we build in words is called " verbal conditioning." Each word comes finally to call out the same response that the appropriate object itself would call out. It matters not at all what the object is called. A group of children could form a wholly new and fantastic language just as quickly and just as easily as they can learn the language of their parents. I say this just to wean you away from the thought that there is any peculiar essence in words as such. A word is just an explosive clutter of sound made by expelling the

(96)breath over the tongue, teeth and lips whenever we get around objects. We condition our children to make the same explosive sounds when they get around the same objects.

The natural course of events from the second year onward is to learn the object and the spoken word together, then the object and the printed word and next the object and the written word together. Words in any of these forms become substitutable each for the other and for the object around which the conditioning was originally built.

But does this process continue until the word world shows a point for point correspondence with the object world? Not at all, and why? Because our teach: ers, that is, our parents, nurses and adult companions, haven't themselves a word world as large as their object world. Just as they are limited in this respect just so do they limit the children. And why are the parents limited? Because in the status in which they live there has been no necessity from the standpoint of food, shelter and sex for building in a larger number of words than they have. Rivers has shown, for example, that many of the primitive tribes have no words for certain parts of the spectrum which we constantly name.

I would call that part of the individual's object world which he constantly manipulates with his hands, feet and body but does not name or attach a word to — his world of situations and his own responses to them which he does not name, his " un-

(97) -conscious " world or, in my own terminology, his unverbalized world.

May I stop for just one moment to give the behaviorist's view of what most people mean or at least should mean when they say they are conscious or have consciousness? They mean, in my opinion, that they can carry on some kind of brief sub-vocal talk with " themselves " behind the closed doors of the lips. We get into the habit of using " ourselves " as an audience very early in life. It begins immediately after words, phrases and sentences are first learned and continues for a considerable period thereafter. All children, according to my observation, think aloud at first. Thinking aloud disturbs society. The child is considered unsocial and in need of subduing. The subduing process ends in sub-vocalization. This robs us of our audience and to compensate for that we build up a verbal fiction — a straw man — and put it up in front of " us " to talk to, which is what the child does when he talks to his doll. The fiction of ourselves " is equivalent to the doll. If this does* represent the thing psychologists call consciousness, you can see that it is always a completely verbalized affair.

As a consequence of this I think we can draw the inference that a large part of our world usually remains unverbalized. Let us look for a moment at the unverbalized aspects of human behavior. We have ( 1) the unverbalized world of the man who was trained to be a silent man. The child brought up in

(98) isolation or around taciturn parents or in groups where verbalization is frowned upon never, even as an adult, learns to verbalize his world or his acts. He cannot tell you in words what he can do. He can only act when brought face to face with objects in their appropriate settings. This is typical of the behavior of animals. It is typical of the behavior of many primitive peoples, of men like Jack Dempsey, Calvin Coolidge, of a great many athletes and acrobats. They could not tell you if their lives depended upon it how they do certain things — their word world just does not correspond to their object world.

Next there is ( 2) the unverbalized world of each of us made up of the activity of the unstriped muscular and glandular parts of our body and of the stimuli which call forth that activity in these parts. The happenings and goings-on in our body and the mechanical, chemical and glandular stimuli which call forth these happenings are probably as great a world as that made up of objects which call out visual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory responses in us. Yet this whole world remains unverbalized even in the adult. We do not know how to start to name these acts or the stimuli which call them forth. Words for them have not been built up. Society makes no demand upon us to name them. Kempf's discussion of the autonomic " strivings " (without his needless references to consciousness) possibly best illustrates this world. This whole world we may call the unverbalized world of the emotions.


Then we have (3) the world of infancy which is totally unverbalized for the first year and practically unverbalized until the end of the second year. This is the period where many thousands of reactions are built in in both the manual and emotional fields. The general patterns of reactions to mother, father, sister, brother, nurses, to his own body and to other people are built in. It is the period when temper tantrums, fears, rages, dependencies are all established. This two-year period is probably both somatically and behavioristically the most important part of the child's life.

Without elaborating further upon the various divisions of our organization which remain without verbal correlates may I venture to say that the unverbalized of the behaviorist is a natural science substitute for the unconscious of the psycho-analysts? The mystery of the unconscious then straightway dis appears. Many of our acts — possibly most of our acts — and the stimuli which call them forth have no verbal correlates because the social environment of the individual has offered no mechanism for conditioning, or at best faulty and inexact methods. To understand the lack of verbalization we must study genesis experimentally, study how the individual is built up from the squirmings we see in the individual at birth.

Possibly I can make this clearer by examining how the infant and child builds up its nest habits. In the two-year-old only child brought up by an unscientific

(100) mother we find that the child cries unless held in the lap of the mother, will not eat unless fed by the mother, will not play with its toys unless in the room with the mother — cries and goes into tantrums when the mother leaves the room or goes out on the street. It will not be bathed except by the mother. It will sleep only when in bed with the mother. It will cease crying when slightly injured only when the mother binds up its wound and kisses and fondles it. Up to two years of age there has been no verbalization beyond a few dozen nouns and pronouns. Verbalization begins, it clusters around the mother just as its manual and bodily activity clusters around the mother. In a similar way the gut reactions (emotions) have their center of reference in the mother — manual, verbal and emotional tied together by this one, all exciting stimulus (she is really a complex situation at all times). Here we have a rough picture of the genesis of a mother fixation. We will suppose this unwise mother continues to rear her child — she gives her little organization about sex — the mother has heard nothing of mental hygiene. The unwise training is continued. It hardens becomes set. Under social pressure the girl gets married to an unwise man. After the honeymoon she begins to use every device to be constantly under her mother's roof and in her mother's presence. Married life means nothing— the girl cannot break her nest habits. The mother dies, the husband leaves her and she goes into the hands of the analyst. The assumption I make is that this whole realm of her relationship to her mother

(101) has remained unverbalized. The genesis of her behavior is clear to the behaviorist — it has been a genetic process built in by her environment — no mystery need be made of it — no hypothesis of the unconscious need be assumed — no hypothetical factor such as suppression or repression need be lugged in. Talking to her in terms of the unconscious — of repressions, limitation of libido, incest complex and the like leaves her cold. She has no realm of words to correspond with her behavior towards her mother except the conventional ones tolerated and extolled by society under the guise of the beauty of mother love. She did not and could not have ever conversed with herself about all this. She had no words, hence it never could have passed from the analyst's conscious to the unconscious.

As a behaviorist I say that this is a straight case for unconditioning, then of retraining and the process of retraining must be comparable in part at least to the time that it took to wind her up in this way. When the analyst begins to talk of such cases in terms of psychoanalysis — when he puts her on a couch day in and day out and lets her wander over millions of miles of barren verbal territory for years possibly, in an effort to reach her unconscious and to straighten it out — I am strongly reminded of what Hecate said to the three witches —

" 0, well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i' the gains:
And now about the cauldron sing,


Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in."

May I continue with some other phases of the un- verbalized? We know that fears in man and animal are built in in the simplest kind of way, most of them — long before verbalization begins. There is no need to mention the experimental work in this field. Starting with loud, sharp sounds and loss of support as the unconditioned stimuli, we build in fear of furry animals — fur — cotton wool — hair of the human body — of water — of moving trains — high places, bridges, trestle work — enclosed and open spaces and the like (many of these by hypothesis) ! Along with the actually conditioned responses we have the transferred fears about which there need be no mystery since such "transferences " are always obtained in every experiment where the animal is being taught to respond differentially. Again, and here at first sight the process seems more obscure, we have conditioned fear responses of the first, second and succeeding orders. Conditions become so complex that the original genetic source of these types of responses — from the two unconditioned stimuli — can with difficulty be traced.

Without complicating matters further we may assume that a similar complexity of affairs occurs in the fields of love and rage.

Finally, we have the still more complicated types of response where successively the individual has

(103) been conditioned to respond emotionally in more than one way to the same stimulus or situation — e.g., where the daughter responds in one way to the contact stroking and kissing of the mother — in another to her loud noisy behavior when drunk or quarreling and in still another to her as a hampering, restraining stimulus. Love-fear-hate responses to the one stimulus. Surely we do not need the bivalence and multivalence theory of the analysts here or any unconscious to understand the reactions of the individual who does not respond by giving the group behavior patterns.

Not one of my hypothetical subjects in whom such unverbalized organization has taken place can " talk it out " until the analyst talks it in. There is nothing to talk out — no unconscious to be reached. My belief is that the analyst should talk it out only long enough to get the main features of the patient's biography, part of which he can get from associates. Nor is he by talking it out or analyzing dreams approaching any traumatic injury or festering spot in the unconscious. He is or should be watching and noting verbal behavior objectively. His attitude should not be different from what it would be if he were watching and recording her movements as she goes about the room, her eating habits, and sex habits. What he gets is only a part of her history anyway. When complete enough it enables the physician to make a diag nosis of the genetic factors which have been operative in producing the deviations he observes in her

(104) behavior. Then his prescription which is couched in the terms of the steps she should take for retraining should come next. At present the analyst, at least for an astonishingly long time, re-educates her or attempts to re-educate her only or mainly along verbal lines. He won't even admit that he himself is re= educating her. Her re-education according to my belief must be along manual, verbal and visceral lines: She must be given a new manual life with a new verbal life and a new visceral life. The verbal must be substitutible for the manual, the manual for the verbal, etc.

To study all of these factors scientifically, I long for an Aladdin's Lamp so that upon command, the Genii would immediately transport my adult or child, all twisted by past faulty conditioning, into a wholly new world. I would have this new world filled with behavioristically trained parents, teachers and physicians who would build them up a world in which the activity of hands and gut and larynx could each function dominantly where dominance of one were demanded by the situation, and could work in coöperation when the situation demanded the dominance of many segments of the body. In other words, I would ask that they be brought up in a world in which some: thing like complete integration of activities were possible without the presence of thwarting conflicts which come from the uneducated gut.

I would rub my lamp once more and ask the guardians of the lamp to provide for us an infant

(105) farm adequate in all respects for the study of the behavior problems in the young because I believe our technique has gone far enough even now to make it possible to bring up children so adjusted to life that they would never need to fall into the hands of the kindly analyst.

I have grown more and more skeptical of purely verbal catharsis even as envisaged today. There comes to the analyzed, to be sure, a glibness of talk about herself — her symptoms — her fixations —her libido — her repressions. Oftentimes I feel in talking to analyzed people that the analyst has gone off and left the larynx running without hitching it up to the rest of the body the way unskilful hypnotists used to do when they left their subjects incompletely awakened. They seem to me to be very poorly integrated. I have grown skeptical too of analysis as a sound method. I think the reason for the failure of analysis is due to their complex, clumsy, topheavy presuppositions which lead them to search for something which does not exist. The presuppositions influence not only their methods of working but their findings. There is far more than a mere terminological difference between the behaviorist and the analyst. I think analysis based upon its present technique and premises will disappear and give place to a technique which will provide for conditioning and unconditioning on a recognizably experimental basis. I think the basal training of the analysts has been one-sided — without sufficient orientation in the genesis of

(106) behavior. I think he needs his training in medicine but before he takes his training in medicine he should study animal psychology should build himself a few animals — get a technique for conditioning and unconditioning— see what animals can be conditioned to — when males are brought up with females, f e-males with females, when the animal is punished for sex responses; see how, as the problem becomes more difficult (e.g., when differential responses are set up to two stimuli which differ little in stimulating value) the animal's habit systems break down; get first hand acquaintance with how fear responses can be conditioned — wildness removed. I think, too, he ought to have opportunity to parallel this work on human infants — let him do a little making and unmaking there — and watch the growth of the child's word world and its correspondence with and lack of correspondence with his object world. I would have him learn that you can build up a whole string of emotional reactions — then tear them down — that you can implant, alter and wholly change vocational patterns. In other words I'd like to soak the future analyst in genesis and give him more fertility in the arranging and alteration of situations by means of which he can uncondition and later recondition his patients. In other words have him grow into an experimental analyst — which will save him from the arm chair method he now employs. I would certainly give this same general training in animal and infant psychology to the mental hygiene workers too. I cannot un-

(107) -derstand why the field of animal psychology has been so long neglected. I believe that a large number of the basal problems in method and technique in psychiatry and analysis can be worked out in the animal field. I wish I could get other people to see this thing as I see it and then do something about it. I think the two things which are keeping back the concept of genesis and reconditioning are the disease entity con- cept of mind and this vague, will-of-the-wisp unconscious which is to be found only in man (or at least can be attacked only in man) and hence animal and infant studies are not relevant.

And now after these kindly meant criticisms of psychoanalytic methods may I give a few reflections upon the pedagogical implications of the unverbalized. I think there is something of a lesson in it for us. The use of words increases our " control " over the environment. Shall we say that in the neighborhood of 90% — to make a rough guess — of our reactions are verbal. At any rate man is a word reacting, word manipulating animal. Not to have a verbal substitute for our activity and its stimuli takes us back far toward the world of the infra-human.

I ask you to picture the behavior of a well-trained inventor — not just a dumb manual worker like so many of them are who work only with their hands upon odds and ends. Let us suppose that some stimulus — a factory situation or the words of a friend who is having mechanical difficulties in his plant — starts the inventor off. He begins verbally to put springs

(108) and levers and switches together. He goes as far as he can in the verbal assembling and working out of his machine. It begins to get complicated. His hands begin to itch to make a model of wood or steel. It will not work when put together. This leads him to further verbal manipulation. This continues until the immediate difficulty is verbally solved, then he must work again with his hand and again with his verbal world. He manipulates this word world at night when the lights are out, when walking to and from his work in a trial and error way when his wood, iron and tools are not at hand, just as he manipulates his materials when they are present.

It seems to me unfair to the developing child not to bring this word world up to a higher state of efficiency than is now done in schools. Every time I question young children and even college graduates I am struck by their dumbness — by their inability to tell how they do things and to verbally manipulate their material and social world. Why can't we teach the child from the beginning to verbalize his manual activity? Why not throw away text books —give brief verbal or written problems — then let the child work out his problem in chemistry, physics, agriculture, cooking with his hands and write and talk out his technique as he goes along. God forbid that I should seem to advocate more talking, as such, in the world! Such is not my purpose. We have too many philosophic verbal speculators, rhetoricians, poets and dreamers now. Talking without being able to translate into manual

(109) behavior or acting manually without being able to translate into words does not give complete integration. Here is an example of my point. In front of me are the complete parts of a pendulum clock. One child can glibly talk to me for half an hour about this clock or any other clock but at a superficial level slipping almost immediately into the aesthetic values of the clock, history of clocks, etc., but he cannot put the parts together. He knows clocks in terms of words only. In contrast another child the same age, deft with his hands, can take these cogs, escapement, wheels, pendulum and springs and put them together but when I cover the clock up and ask him about the inside of the clock and how the parts are put together — I get nothing. He is dumb. He has no words. I have another child in front of me equally deft with his hands and with his words. He puts the clock together. Again I cover it with the cloth. He tells me correctly about every part — how they are put together and how they function when put together. In other words, he builds me a perfectly good verbal clock while I wait. In my opinion the third child — by nature, no better fitted than either of the other two —has outstripped them by a distance comparable in some respects with the span that separates man from the orang. With a word world as adequately substitutable for the object world he is to some extent at least master of his own destiny, independent of the world, of sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Unless someone robs him of the organization of his larynx

(110) and its related musculature, no one can quite pull down his world — even if he loses his eyes, if material goods are taken from him or his hands become paralyzed.

Before concluding I would like to go back to the boy above who could both manually and verbally put his clock together. I think he helps to solve a serious social problem. Through him I would like to paint a kind of behavioristic ideal of training. I would like to paint this ideal as objectively as I can and without teleological implications. I realize when I do it I am stepping out of scientific behaviorism over into pedagogy and ethics.

Is it too unattainable a social ideal to strive for, to see that every man, woman and child should be trained about his own organism as thoroughly as the boy was trained about the clock? Shouldn't we teach them enough anatomy to give them a thoroughly working notion of their body, nervous system, heart, lung, liver, kidney, glands, sex apparatus? Then can't we teach them enough physiology for them to grasp what the function of each main part is and how the various parts function together? I would do this early and so thoroughly that no old wives' tales could ever again find a lodging place. Isn't it more important for them to get this early — this exploration of themselves — than to get their literature, geography, history, chemistry and physics, important as these subjects are?

Next I would teach the rudiments of hygiene

(111) what many of you would probably call " mental hygiene " (but I wouldn't neglect social hygiene either). I would show in the simplest kind of terms how infantile unverbalized behavior arises and how it is carried over into adult life. I would teach them about fear, love and anger reactions; work out with them how the individual behaves in depressions. I would teach them what exhibition behavior is like, how easily seclusion behavior develops, about invalidism, and other nascent psychoses. I would teach them first how to spot these reaction patterns in others and then, most important of all, how to spot them in themselves by watching and tabulating their own behavior. What boy or girl taught as I have suggested above could not check his own behavior three or four times a month? " For days I have fought with my parents — two or three times in the last week I have been depressed and have tried to find excuses for not going to school and doing my other work " or, to change the picture, " I have been getting entirely too boisterous and loud — too excited — driving the automobile too fast — taking too many risks and dangers in swimming and diving " or again " I find I am avoiding people more than I used to I like to get in a corner and read — I don't go out on the streets very much " or once more " I find that I am going with girls very much less than I used to and that I have begun to gang up with boys in the neighborhood."

Having taught them to observe their own behavior

(112) in this way as they observe the behavior of others, I would next teach them what to do when their records show that they are getting into jams. In other words I would give them the essentials and rudiments of corrective hygiene. For example; " All my work has slowed down — I am lacking in pep, don't care whether I go to see anybody or not -- I have been leading a humdrum existence — things haven't gone right at home — I guess from what my physician teacher tells me I had better pack up and go for a week's fishing or hunting unless I want to run into a real depression. Then when I come back I am going to change things around a bit — try to do more interesting jobs, get some hobbies going that I have been flirting with for a long time. And above all I am going to consult my psychiatrist and reach with him some plan of action as to what toy do about my sex life."

I would give this training before the fourteenth year since at this age the great mass of our population gives up its schooling. Can young children get all this? My business experience has opened my eyes to how simply things can be put to the public — how in homely words nearly all the worth while truths of science can be set forth.

The whole point to my thesis is that verbal organization can and should be made dominant. Unless the child has a word for every situation and unless the stimulus can arouse a verbal reaction simultaneously with the manual which in turn acting as a stimulus can

(113) arouse a substitutive manual reaction, how can the laryngeal segment ever become dominant? Today we are predominantly a verbally reacting animal —this means that the laryngeal segment is the repository of most of our social and ethical training. Now if the stimulus does not activate this segment social "precepts," "shalls" and "shall nots " can never arouse socially acceptable substitutive reactions. It seems to me that almost the whole of ethics, indeed its very existence, hinges upon the extent to which the child can be verbally organized.

You can see my goal — every boy and girl by the age of fourteen to know his own organism and its reactions as in my example the boy knew his clock. I think this would lead the organism to be behavioristically self-correcting — just as now the body unaided (unless too pronounced an infection sets in) heals its own wounds. In other words, on this hypothesis, the laryngeal segment — the verbalized — will become regulatory of all behavior. It will then dominate the gut and do all this without stepping outside of the range of stimulus — response psychology. Now I think you will admit that the gut is the tail that wags the dog. The youth of fourteen trained as I suggest may not know as much literature, history and mathematics as the youth of fourteen today but he need never fear either the psychoanalyst's unconscious or the behaviorist's unverbalized.


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