The field of modern-day psychology Essay


Psychology is a Greek word that means life, breath or soul. It is a scientific study of the human metal process and behavior. It studies interpersonal relationships, cognition, perception and emotions. Modern psychology relies on the perspectives that were discovered by ancient psychologists. The field of psychology is referred to as modern because it has had some additions like industrial or organizational, health, environmental, counseling, school, forensics and community psychology. John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner and Edward C. Tolman, have made a great contribution to psychology and there works are similar but to some point differ in their perspectives (Simonton, 2004).

Behaviorist Approach

This approach gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. it was the work of John Watson who said that behavior of a person mainly shaped by his or her environment. According to this approach, an individual can inherit behavior but it can be changed if the environment is altered. For example, one will tend to light a fire in cold conditions but in hot conditions, they are likely to remove some clothing to regulate body temperature. It focuses mainly on learning and it concludes that when learning is conditioned, then behavior can be altered.  The approach’s main focus is on direct observable behaviors. Modern behaviorists use this approach but mostly focus on Skinner’s contribution to this approach. Skinner said that the main determinant of behavior is consequence. An individual’s response to a behavior will depend on the events that are likely to follow that particular response. This approach is based on explaining behavior in terms of response to a stimulus. For example, one will remove his hand form a fire when they feel the pain (Simonton, 2004).

Edward Tolman made a contribution in the concepts of learning and motivation. He came up with his own theory during Watson’s popularity of the behaviorist approach. He highly disputed Watson’s work although he identified himself as a behaviorist. According to his studies, an individual’s knowledge and cognitive ability of the environment and how to relate to it was the major contributor to learning; purposive behaviorism theory. Modern psychologists now look at him as a cognitive behaviorist. He supported his work by conducting numerous experiments one of them is using rats in a maze. From this he developed the latent learning theory by studying how rats understand their way in the complex structured maze. Latent learning occurs whenever people involve themselves in activities such as running or driving everyday on one particular route. One is able to master the most important things in that route like roads, streets and buildings. Learning therefore, becomes very obvious when one needs to find a particular street or building in that area or route.  This shows that knowledge about something is expressed when it is really needed. It further shows that learning can be through unconscious ways. Demonstration of this knowledge comes when it is really needed. His study concludes that animals and individuals actually learn about the universe and that there behavior is not only determined by the environment surrounding them (Simonton, 2004).

Cognitive Approach

Tolman contributed so much in this theory following the previous discussion of his work. Watson and Skinner’s behavioral approach is criticized by modern psychologists as it ignores the contribution of biological and cognitive factors in studying behavior. Today, psychologists pay more attention on biological and cognitive aspects of influencing behavior. The concentration of cognitive approach as compared to behavioral approach can be explained by its vast differences. The behavioral approach insists that by observing behavior then one can fully understand a person. On the contrary, cognitive approach considers other activities that are unobservable and it mainly concentrates on the process of thought. Secondly, observable behavior is determined by an organ’s ability to respond to a particular stimulus. This means that animals and humans learn through responding to stimuli. The thought of Stimulus-response theory is conditioning. Third, according to the behavioral approach, all individuals are equal as at birth we were all blank slates or tabula rasa. It is the environment that shapes our behavior and not genetic or biological factors. It suggests that it is the environment that is responsible for humans and animals to gain knowledge and influence behavior. This idea is highly disputed by Tolman who thinks that there must be knowledge in and individual after they are born and it is explained by cognitive theories. The cognitive approach mainly tries to look at what variables exist between the Stimulus-response theories (Simonton, 2004).

Biological Approach

The behaviorist theory is seen to be short of biological explanations that in turn influence behavior. It states that behavior is mainly determined by an organism’s genetic and physiological factors. This approach has been used in medical psychology that is a modern field of psychology. It further explains that an individual’s illness is due to poor genetic and physiological factors caused by disease, accidents or any other impairment (Simonton, 2004).

The biological approach is seen vividly in Tolman’s work when he insists that the cognitive process is always at work and this influences behavior. This approach is currently being used to study diseases and how they can be cured by focusing on the mental processes. Major concerns are on studying schizophrenia a mental disorder that has no cure. The biological approach is closely linked with the cognitive approach because it also studies how individuals can actually understand and memorize things around them for instance language. Infants learn language by listening to the sounds produced by people around them. Constant repetition will make that infant memorize the sound and give it the particular meaning the people around him or her have thought him or her. Remembrance is through the mental process too and it is due to constant visualization and contact with a particular stimulus (Simonton, 2004).


Watson, Skinner and Tolman have made contributions to modern psychology. Though today psychologists main interest is on biological and cognitive approaches, the behaviorist approach is still being used to some point in explaining behavior. This is so because the cognitive theory of learning by Tolman was triggered by Watson and Skinner’s contribution to explaining behavior. It is evident that sometimes the environment a person is subjected to influences behavior for example a student will behave differently at school compared to being at home. To some point the environment shapes behavior and it also determines how individuals will behave later to some point. The use of animals by Tolman to explain psychological behavior has made many psychologists to study animals and explain why they behave in certain ways. The beginning of animal cognition studies started in the late 20th century.  Form this studies it is evident that Tolman’s study is highly in consideration than Skinner’s and Watson’s.


Simonton DK., 2004. Understanding psychology: The Life Cycle of Psychological Ideas. Pp. 1-300.