Is a Metatheoretical Psychologist a ‘Cowboy Builder’?


Personally, I feel that Metatheoretical psychologist are not a “cowboy builder”, as I uses the progression of behaviourism as an example and further elaborated how the approach leads to the discoveries and progression of the theories, using explanation of russian physiologist known as Ivan Pavlov, followed by American Psychologist called John B. Watson and Edward Thorndike, and lastly, another fellow American Psychologist, B.F. Skinner. Ivan Pavlov, who started the earliest toward the study of behaviourism, he discovered classical conditioning which demostrated how behaviours can be learned via through classical associations. John B. Watson, who further defined behaviourism through “little albert” experiment and lastly, B.F. Skinner, who further explains behaviourism using his concept of operant conditioning, illustrating behaviour through punishment and reinforcement. These three examples have rejected the idea that of a ‘cowboy builder’ as these experimentalist using each and individual experiment to reinforce and further build up understanding of behaviourism and its importance and definition.

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Is a Metatheoretical Psychologist just a ‘Cowboy Builder’?

Psychology is not simply definable, and be even characterised easily. Even till today if one were to define or characterised, it will end up render the effort indequately the very next day. Psychology is what the philsopher and the scientists of various persuasion have come out with to try fulfilling the needs towards understanding of humans’ mind and behaviour from the most primitive to complex level (Reber, Allen, & Reber, 2009). From a philosophical point of view, The term ‘psychology’ took its to another level of problems concerning the mind, will and knowledge, where it has been defined as the ‘science of mind’ ,’the science of mental life’, these definitions reflected the prejudices of the definer more than the actual nature of field (Reber et al., 2009). Metatheory, in this case defined by Reber et al. (2009), a term which used to cover the theoretical discussions about the construction of scientific theories, hence, the role of a metatheoretical psychologist is to perform metatheoretical research, which includes sorting of theories, analysing of literatures, they played an important role in search of a set of interlocking principles in which are acceptable or not for the theories (Rozeboom, 2005; Wallis, 2010). An experimentalist stated that metatheoretical are like ‘cowboy builders’ where they are able to identify and breakdown mistakes and problems of works done by others, but they are not able to give opinions to help strength that particular approach in psychology. However, I disagree what the experimentalist mentioned, as I believe that metatheoretical psychologist, no doubt , they are the ones who are capable of developing and combining of theories, and looking at aspects of applying and analysing of the theorems to unveil the underlying assumptions about theory and the process of theorizing with reinforcement of empirical evidences (Wallis, 2010). Hence, the aim of this essay is to further elaborate my points of in which that metatheoretical psychologists is not a ‘cowboy builder’, using a psychological approach in which leads to a numbers of theories which is able to support my views towards this statement.

To strongly prove my point on metatheoretical psychologists not being a ‘cowboy builders’, I would like to start off with first example right before the birth of behaviourism. It is understandable that in 1913, John B. Watson pioneered new psychology approach known as ‘Behaviourism’ (Watson J. B., 1994). where Behaviourism is defined as a natural science that takes the whole field of human adjustments as its own. It is the business of behavioristics psychology to predict and control human activity.Behavioristics psychology has as its goal to be able, given the stimulus, to predict the response or, seeing the reaction. (Watson & Kimble, 1997). However, this discovery and understanding of behaviourism would not have happen without work of an American psychologist, Edward Thorndike. Thorndike shows how behaviours could be modified by its consequences by doing an experimental work on hungry domestic animals, as they were placed individually in the puzzle boxes, and if the animal exhibit any escaping behaviours to the door of the puzzle box, it would then be opened allowed the animal to gain freedom. This experiment allow Thorndike to conclude that while the animal exploring the box, the animal exhibited the first instance of an appropriate behaviour unit by chance and that, across trials, escape latencies would decrease systematically as it is able to learned that pressing the latch will allow it to escape. (Gewirtz, 2001). Therefore through this experiment, he looks at the connection of stimulus and response in the experiment, which eventually created a concept of the law of effect, which he explained that greater the satisfaction, the greater the strengthening, and the greater the dissatisfaction, the greater the weakening, of the bond (Gewirtz, 2001).This work of Thorndike allowed a Russian Physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, to continue his work on physiology of digestion (Gewirtz, 2001; Clark, 2004). Pavlov, who have won the Nobel Prize in 1904, credited Thorndike for being the first researcher to show accurate approach to the immense task of objective research on animal learning (Gewirtz, 2001). He did an experiment in his chamber which the dog is presented with the food, at the same time, saliva is collected through a tube implanted into the salivary gland of the dog, enabling him to study the saliva’s role in digestive process, which his prediction is that the dog salivate when food is placed in the mouth which is a discovery he deemed that its importance in the study of digestion, known as salivary reflex (Windholz, 1997). Overtime, this lead to him realising that the even right before the food comes, the dog will salivate in the presence of the food attendant and the sound of the door (Windholz, 1997). He carried on with the experiment by pairing the bell and the food, and after several tries, he successfully uses the bell alone to create a salivary response from the dog. This discovery can be explained in which the bell, a neutral stimulus which trigger no natural response in the dog (salivation) is paired with food which is the unconditional response. This pairing causes the response to the unconditioned stimulus (food), the unconditioned response (salivation), to transfer to the neutral stimulus (bell). Hence, in order for response to occur again, only the bell is need, food may no longer have its importance. Pavlov realised that the response is a learned but unnatural, hence it is a conditioned response and neutral stimulus will transformed into conditioned stimulus. The bell tone in Pavlov’s experiment is the neutral stimulus which is paired the unconditioned stimulus of food. The unconditioned response of salivation became a conditioned response to the newly conditioned stimulus of the tone (Beecroft, 1966; Windholz, 1997; Bitterman, 2006). This phenomone is known as classical conditioning. As we can see this is one of few classic examples which demolish the experimentalist view on psychologists, this research has just show us not only it is a psychological endeavour but it also influence a lot of students known as the pavlovians-graduate students to continue this study of salivary reflex conditioning. (Windholz, 1997). Ivan Pavlov is able to conduct and build up an experiment, and bringing it up to the next level, not only looking at the digestion process which is a physiological, but at the same time, discovered a psychological aspect which is the salivary reflex and subsequently build up to theory of classical conditioning.

The progression of Ivan Pavlov’s experiment was done by an American psychologist known as John B Watson where he further elaborated and adopted Ivan Pavlov’s work and claims that classical conditioning in animals is important as it is able to explain all human aspect of psychology (Watson J. B., 1994; Rilling, 2000). Watson uses the measurement and analytical techniques of Pavlov’s experiment and applied them to the humans in terms of adaptive forms of behaviour, so he and his assistant (Moore, 2011), an experiment known as “little Albert”, he simply transfer the same concept of Pavlov’s work, while Pavlov conduct his experiment using food and animal, Watson uses a baby known as little albert, and inflict of fear to it in order to demonstrate classical conditioning in humans (Watson & Rayner , Conditioned emotional reactions, 1920). Using white rat as Neutral Stimulus, before the start of the experimental trials, the rat is shown to little Albert, but little Albert does not show concern about the rats. Watson’s aim for this experiment is inflict an anxiety response to little albert using the rat. So the Unconditioned Stimulus in the experiment is the used of an iron bar and a hammer to create a loud noise just behind little Albert, which he find annoyed about (Watson & Rayner , Conditioned emotional reactions, 1920). During the experiment, the noise is created as the rat is presented to Albert. After subsequent experiments, without the noise when the rat was presented, Albert would started crying. This produced a conditioned reflex similar to Pavlov’s dog able to associate a neutral stimulus with Unconditioned Stimulus (Rilling, 2000). Further experiments on Albert, has shown that rats are not only the one that give Albert the similar response, it also start to generalised to other while furry objects which look similar to the white rats (Watson & Rayner , Conditioned emotional reactions, 1920). This example of the “little Albert” experiment, shows that how behaviourist like Watson, able to work on and progress through using Pavlov’s physiological theory of salivary reflex and extract the psychological elements, which is the theory of classical conditioning in an animal, and show that even humans can learn through conditioning, and initiated the study of behaviourism (Moore, 2011). Therefore, as what we can see above that Watson improvised Pavlov’s experiment, which he applied to the humans and which he end up discover a higher order of condition, where generalization took place in the little Albert experiment, this second example shows that how the rise of the behaviourism were strengthen by theory like classical conditioning, which build up to another level, where the use of different test subject will lead to a different and new outcome of understand of behaviourism, which I feel that Watson in his experiment has shown us simply that they isn’t a cowboy builder who simply just agreed upon thing without doing their research.

However, Rilling (2000) stated that Watson rejected Thorndike’s law of effect in the midst of working on classical conditioning theory, he felt sceptical about Thorndike’s assumption and explanation of the trial and error learning where Thorndike stated that successful act is pleasant and unsuccessful act is unpleasant (Watson ,1914; Rilling, 2000) and so the Thorndike’s experiment inspired Watson, he conducted an empirical test for the study of learning in animal, simply to test Thorndike’s law of effect. The purpose is to prove that if Thorndike is correct about his theory then pleasure from immediate reward would be greater than dissatisfaction from delayed reward. The experiment was conducted with rats and sawdust boxes, and Watson (1916a) compared the learning curves for one group of rats getting the immediate reward and the other with delayed rewards. The result is puzzling as two group of learning curves were nearly similar (Rilling, 2000) which this data cause classic behaviourist to be sceptical about Thorndike’s law of effect. The attack on Thorndike by Watson seems to be rhetoric.

Never the less, it does not mean that one rejected all have to reject it, as Moore (2011) stated that Watson’s behaviourism proved inadequate and many of the researchers took another approach which analysed by B.F. Skinner (Moore, 2011). Skinner proved his own definition by studying on Thorndike’s law of effect which provided him the basis of operant learning theory (Schwartz & Lacey, 1982). He conducted an experiment which resemble Thorndike’s puzzle box and an input of a lever, which he want to find out how the rats learned to press the lever. The difference between the two experiment done, is based on the determiner on frequency of the experiment, which Thorndike is based on the experimenter and Skinner is based on the rats themselves (Iversen, 1992). Each time, the rats press the lever, the food will immediately be released. This resulted in the learning of the rat to press the lever to receive rewards. However, when Skinner replaced the food with shocks, the frequency of the lever being depressed leads to an immediate stop of the action due to punishing consequences (Iversen, 1992). He concluded from the result that the behaviour influenced by the law of effect is known as operant conditioning due to the behavioural change or operated of the organism on the environment. In the experiment, there is no environmental stimuli that create a response from an organism as compared to organism in classical conditioning experiment done by Pavlov. Mischel (1993) stated that skinner also concluded that Operant conditioning consists of two important key components, the operant and the consequence. If the consequence is a positive reinforcement, then the likelihood of another similar response is more as compare to if the consequence is punishment. Similar results were produced by accidental when the pellet dispenser had jammed, it stops the positive reinforcement of food altogether in a process called extinction, this situation was noticed when the rat continue pressing the lever even though no food were received, at the start the behaviour becomes rapid than usual, then slowly the frequency worn off but the operant conditioned response decreased at a much slower rate than when punishment was used (Iversen, 1992). Similarly, operant conditioning like this also appear in child, when either rewarding or punishing with disciplinary actions. This kind of operant conditioning occurs in the rewarding or punishing discipline action taken towards a child (Schwartz & Lacey, 1982). As we can see from all of these example above, how behaviourism can lead to two theories of learning, as Watson hypothesized that “behavioristics psychology has as its goal to be able, given the stimulus, to predict the response or, seeing the reaction take place to state what the stimulus is that has called out the reaction” (Iversen, 1992), However this stimulus–response psychology was soon to be overthrown by Skinner’s work (Iversen, 1992).Even though he called his lever pressing action as an investigatory reflex and referred it to eliciting stimuli which is measured due to the influences of the work of Pavlov’s and Watson’s (Iversen, 1992). In the later part of his research, Skinner later moved away from the Stimuli and response tradition as he discovered operant conditioning with the aid of Edward Thorndike, and commented that the result that happen immediately after the response is more important than incident happen right before, and the extinction that he accidentally found out indicated that there is no role in eliciting stimuli for that behaviour to happen. Lastly, the final form of the conditioned response is deem as the most important as it did not even exist prior to the conditioning, therefore no elicitation is involved. This successful method of shaping help in generating behaviours that have not been seen previously in range of behaviours in the experimental subject. Which Iversen (1992) stated that skinner’s work in the early stage completely contradict Watson’s “no stimulus, no response” rule.

So all in all. We can see that the build-up progression of behaviourism and the two learning theories, are not of a style of a cowboy builder. Instead the build ups of the theories, not only involves criticism of theories, to improve another, for example, Watson rejected Thorndike’s law of effect, place more work in Pavlov theory, to improve the theory of classical conditioning through empirical evidence, and also involves influences of theories, just like how skinner inspired by Thorndike’s law of effect, created similar experiment, and initially followed Pavlov and Watson’s work, and realised issues and rejected it to form its own learning theory, operate learning theory. These examples resulted that and prove to these experimentalist that once again, Metatheoretical psychologist are not a “cowboy builder”.


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