Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Pavlov (1849-1936) – Behaviourism begins....

Ivan Pavlova Russian physiologist, won the Nobel Prize for his work on digestion in 1904. The father of behaviourism, he identified conditioned reflexes in dogs using pouches that collected their saliva. In an interesting aside, Pavlov killed off 30 dogs before getting his surgical procedure right for these experiments and got his dogs from thieves who routinely included collared pets in their supposed round ups of street dogs. His discovery of the physiological response to external stimuli (Conditioned reflexes) was to shape the study of learning for most of the early and middle 20th century. Positively, it resulted in the detailed study of innate and conditioned, stimulus-led behaviour. Negatively, it relied too much on animal studies and ignored the importance of mental events and an over-simplistic model of learning shaped by control through conditioning.

Classical conditioning

Observing that dogs salivate as soon as they see their feeder or food, or smell the food, Pavlov speculated on whether a natural stimulus could be associated with another unrelated stimulus, eliciting the same response. The experiment starts with an ‘unconditioned stimulus’ (UCS) that causes a natural response, namely the sight or smell of food that causes the dog to salivate, the ‘unconditioned response’ (UCR). If we then ring a bell, immediately followed by food, repeated several times, after a time, the dog will salivate, a ‘conditioned response’ (CR) at just the sound of the bell, the ‘conditioned stimulus’ (CS). The dog has now associated the bell with food. If the experiment is reversed and no food accompanies the bell, the response eventually disappears. This is called extinction.

Dark side of Pavlov’s research

Few know of Pavlov’s later research into the deliberate use of disorientation in humans to create disordered states. As a behaviourist Pavlov was supported by the Communists and fueled research into control mechanisms, as their aim was mind control on a global scale. He concentrated on conflicting stimuli, forcing the subject choose. This would be familiar to anyone involved in psychological warfare and torture.
Another odd Pavlovian legacy is, as some have argued, Pavlov’s later research that influenced the German psychologist, Kurt Lewin, who moved to the US in1933, and influenced Dewey, leading to ‘whole-word’ teaching of literacy, now regarded as having had a massive negative effect on literacy. So although Pavlov’s work had no real direct bearing on education and training, indirectly its impact was huge. He had set in motion a school of psychology that was to dominate psychology for decades – ‘behaviourism’ which still has strong vestigial effects.


Pavlov was an excellent physiologist but physiology is not the same as psychology. His work led to a rather mechanistic view of psychology, relying too much on animal experiments, ultimately ignoring the sophistication of the brain and mind. Behaviourism tried to cope with this and modified theories, known as S-O-R theories (Stimulus-Organism-Response), recognised that a person's motivation and other dispositions need to be taken into account. However, it remained limited by its narrow definitions of what constituted evidence – observed behaviour, a strictly positivist definition of evidence around behaviour. In human terms we can see that his work accounts for learning by association.Bandura and others showed that this was a very much more complex affair than simple reflexes.
More specifically, behaviourism lives on in Mager’s ‘performance objectives’ and Gagne’s recommendation that ‘learning objectives’ be placed at the start of every course. It is also the basis of end-point evaluation in the Kirkpatrick model. Ultimately, however, it was dealt a serious blow by Chomsky in 1959 and the fresher approaches of cognitive psychology.


Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned reflexes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Boakes, R. A. (1984). From Darwin to behaviourism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Luria A. L. (1932) The Nature of Human Conflicts

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