Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
ISSN 1492-3173

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Introduction to Psychology

George Sidney Brett (1929)
Authorized by the Minister of Education
First published in Toronto: Macmillan of Canada

Posted November 2001


Chapter III

The Elements of Behavior
Scientific Method


 All natural sciences follow a method which may be called the "analytic method". No science could be constructed unless we either assumed or discovered some factor or set of factors at once simple and capable of indefinite repetition. Such factors are found in geometry, in physics, and in physiology: they are called the "point", the "atom", the "cell". What these terms mean at different times will be a matter for scientific men to decide: the fact still remains that these are the units which they use as starting-points: the rest of the science then consists in showing the nature and uses of all the complex forms of these units.

 In order to become a science, psychology must adopt this method: for it is the method which makes the science. It might be objected that the material makes the science, but that is not the case: the science is essentially the method, and the material only the particular limitation which it is convenient to adopt for practical purposes. Nobody supposes that the rules of counting are to be changed because the things to be counted are animals and not plants. Neither is this principle, of reducing compound things to their units, and then considering the relations of these units, a principle that must be changed because the material is different. [p. 24]

  Here the reader will naturally object that, if this is true, the method must be very abstract. That is exactly the case, and every student ought to learn from the first that a scientific method is necessarily abstract. This is not a fault, but a most excellent quality. A foot-rule is in this sense abstract: no one wants a foot-rule that will measure wood and will not measure cloth. But while it is essential to get down to the basis in this way, all the rest of the work is complicated by perpetually discovering that some units are useful for particular purposes only: if we change the purpose or the material, we must adapt our method to the new conditions. The unit of linear measurement is not suited for measurement of volumes; we may order a yard of cloth, but we order a quart of milk; we speak of the cells which compose the body, but we cannot analyse motion or behaviour or memory into cells, though there have been many cases where these false analogies have been used to the great detriment of the sciences manufactured out of these false units.

 It is clear that the psychologist must use an analytic method as much as possible, if he is to produce a science; and also that he must find for himself the right units into which he can analyse the material. The earlier psychologists did this by regarding the mind as made by the union of a number of faculties, such as sense, memory, will. This "faculty psychology" has passed away, because these units were really classifications too general and comprehensive to be scientific. They can all be reduced to smaller factors, and they actually overlap in a way that leads to confusion. A mathematician may be described as a person with a faculty for doing mathematics, but such a description is useless, because it throws no light on the processes involved in the act of calculation. [p. 26]

 While we ought to reject these mysterious "faculties", we may regard them as a crude way of indicating special abilities, and then trace these abilities to particular elements in the physical and mental structure of individuals. In this way we reach again the general idea of typical forms of behaviour, and begin the whole explanation by making a more simple analysis of behaviour. From the first simple stage of discrimination between three things and four things to the calculations of a Newton may be a long journey; perhaps in the end there will still be mysterious elements, such as genius, which we cannot yet make clear; but in education it is certain that this is the only road, and that we must begin by studying the simple processes in order to understand how the learning process itself goes on, and why it sometimes goes only a little way, while in other cases it may reach the most astonishing degrees of perfection.



 Let us imagine a person watching a child working out a sum. To the untrained eye probably all the children in a class will seem to be doing the same operation, assuming that there are no cases of positive idleness or rebellion. A careful observer will note that even those who are most absorbed in the task will show a great variety in their actions. The fact that this is the "time-to-do-sums" constitutes a general setting for the behaviour as a whole. The recognition of this fact is itself very complex: it is qualified by a still more general attitude induced by being in school and not in the playground, by the habit of doing this kind of thing at a regular hour, by the presence of others doing the same thing, and even by more common factors, such as the temperature of the room, or the state of the weather when it makes indoor work more attractive [p. 27] than outdoor occupations. The general setting of the behaviour constitutes in the individual a set or disposition which pervades all the special activities.

 Recent investigations have shown that this question of the general disposition is very important. Nothing in the world is quite isolated; there are no actions wholly separable from what went before or will come after. As a patch of colour in a picture is qualified by the surrounding colours, so an act is qualified by the whole setting in which it occurs. In more technical language, the behaviour at a given time is a response to a situation. The situation in this case is defined as "sum-to-be-done" -- a total objective to be attained. The response is the whole reaction, in its length and breadth, which begins and ends under the control of the situation. We must consider this response in detail, so far as is possible.

 The next element will be the stimulus to action, also called the "urge" or "drive". It is now generally recognized that we cannot make the sharp distinctions which were once considered obvious. We certainly cannot analyse an action as though it began with a full and complete idea, followed by a separate desire to achieve the object of thought. It has been a maxim of psychologists for many centuries that "the understanding does not move to action"; and in recent times this maxim has developed into the positive doctrine that all action begins from specific impulses. The consequence is that we have to give the place of honour to elements which are emotional rather than intellectual.

 The starting-point, then, will be a more or less definite desire to do the sum, though what that desire really is may still be open to question. To answer the question we should require to know many things about the pupils, for we touch at once on the individual differences which constitute the elements of the total disposition. Some [p. 28] may have an attitude which call be called ambition: others have a kind of self-respect, or vanity, or a desire to please a teacher who excites feelings already created by parental affection in other similar situations. The teacher should learn to appreciate the nature of the urge or drive which will most successfully stimulate the pupil, and then arouse it by skilfully presenting the aim of the lesson. It will be difficult to decide the exact nature of the impulses at work, but for the present it will be unnecessary to settle the point.

 We may think of the primary urge or desire as simply a force working from within the organism: it is like the force which is developed in an engine by the expansion of steam. Very soon there will be motion, and the first thing to move will be that part of the engine or organism which is least rigid. In the steam-engine the parts are so arranged that the easiest way of action is to drive the piston: similarly, in the organism arrangements have been made so that there are natural paths for the passage of energy, in other words "lines of least resistance". When the engine begins to move, it is obvious that its movement is determined as a whole by the nature of each part and the way one part is connected with another.

 An animal may be compared with a machine: it has been called "an internal combustion engine", with innumerable parts more delicately connected and balanced than in any known machine. When it moves the animal exhibits the working of its structure: its action is said to have a "pattern". The characteristic movements of a goose and of a donkey are obviously defined by very different patterns, anatomical and physiological.

 The word "pattern" has come into use in psychology because it emphasizes the ideas of arrangement and shape. Animal bodies are all made of cells: but the [p. 29] arrangement of the cells makes the difference between one kind and another. By analogy with this outward difference, we ·can assume that one brain differs from another in the arrangement of its cells, or what is called the "paths" of neural excitement.

 When we go from these elementary examples to such complex questions as the difference between British and American views on liberty, we may seem to have lost all connection with the starting-point. But at least we must hold fast to the method until a better one can be found: we must still suppose that the urge to express himself on the liberty of the subject comes from some particular drive in the orator's nature, and that the expression will overflow through exactly that system of channels which heredity and habit and previous meditation have made ready for it. What these channels are, in more technical language, will be described in the next Chapter: the object of the present Chapter is to consider the actions themselves.



 A biological classification is made on the principle of going from the simple to the complex. For this reason we usually regard organic nature as comprising plants, animals, man. In the study of plants it is not necessary to consider the possibility of sensation: in spite of poets and some scientific writers a "sensitive" plant is a myth. The plant is none the less alive: it responds to changes in the environment by specific adaptations. These are described as forms of "tropism". The word is familiar from the old compound word "heliotrope" the flower that "turns" to the sun (trope, turning, helios, sun). The word tropism denotes the most elementary form of reaction: it can be explained usually in terms of physics and chemistry without reference to conscious purpose. [p. 30]

 Nature is very subtle and complex. It is not always easy to tell whether a living organism is a plant or an animal. The biologist may have rules for settling such questions, but, when the question concerns behaviour rather than structure, it is not easy to give an answer. So we find the action of the plant in turning to the sun paralleled by the action of the moth in flying toward the flame. Those who think that a "mechanical" (which means really physico-chemical) explanation is the only scientific answer possible, will insist that the moth's actions can ho completely described as the result of light-stimulation on nerve centres. This may look suspiciously like another case of tropism, but in fact there are many differences, and it is very important to remember that, while it is convenient to ignore differences in order to create classes or formulae, the real thing remains an individual with all its individual differences. With this warning we may go on to explain that the kind of action called tropism does in fact resemble the action of a very simple connection between nerves: in other words, we pass by almost imperceptible gradations from tropisms to reflexes.



 The word "reflex", as in "reflex action", is actually derived from the science of optics, in which it was used to denote the fact that light is "turned back" from a reflecting surface at an angle, equal to the angle of incidence. By analogy with this it was argued that impressions on the brain or "seat of the soul" were similarly turned back: something came in, and then something went out. So all mental operations could be classified as sensation and reflection. We still preserve the traces of this history in our way of using the phrases "reflecting surface" and "reflective mood". [p. 31]



But the present use of the term "reflex arc" (v. p. 39) is not derived from optics, but from anatomy and physiology. The reflex are is the unit of function which corresponds to the simplest type of action in animals as distinct from plants: it involves only two processes, one that comes in and one that goes out, with a connecting mechanism. Since we are now speaking of a body which has nerves, we call these "currents", and distinguish them as afferent (carrying to) or efferent (carrying out). This total process is called "sensori-motor", because the unit of action here described is nothing more or less than the occurrence of a sensation followed ;by the particular action which belongs to that particular pattern or arrangement of nerves (p. 28).

[p. 32]

 Reflexes are distinguished as simple and compound. A simple reflex is brought about by an impulse passing directly from the sense-organ to the motor centre and thence to the muscle. The centre may be in the spine or at the base of the brain. Winking, sneezing, and the "knee jerk" are examples of simple reflexes. In compound reflexes the impulse is spread through a number of co-ordinated centres. Grasping and sucking in infants are examples. In the grasping reflex all the fingers act at once, and in sucking, various movements of the tongue and lips are co-ordinated in one compound response.

 A standard example is the scratch-reflex: if the insect bites the dog so as to stimulate a particular centre, the dog's leg is brought into action so as to scratch the irritated surface.

 This is all very simple and clear, and we begin to hope that it will be possible to ex-plain all behaviour in the same simple way. Let us suppose that a stimulus [p. 33]·produces an action on account of the hereditary structure of the organism. We shall have here a simple mechanical pattern. But we must be careful not to assume too much. Though we may select a case in which the process is apparently invariable, we shall find that it is rarely so fixed as it appears: if the dog for any reason cannot apply its leg to the right spot, it may discover another way of removing the nuisance.

 It is also possible to make the action depend on a different stimulus. If the usual cause of the action is associated with some other stimulus, in course of time this second stimulus will become effective by itself; the original reflex response will then follow the occurrence of this second stimulus. The reflex act is then said to be "conditioned", and the action as a whole is called a "conditioned reflex"

 The possibility of this kind of transference wax most conclusively shown by a Russian physiologist, Pawlow. He demonstrated it in the following way: The sight of food causes an increase in the flow of saliva. This is clearly not an intentional or rational act, but a primary organic response. Pawlow arranged an experiment in which the rate of flow of saliva could be measured. He then "conditioned" the response by presenting a secondary stimulus, such as a light or the sound of a bell, along with the original natural stimulus, the food. As a result·, the secondary stimulus became sufficient by itself to produce an increase in the flow of saliva equal to that produced by the right of food.



 Public opinion decided long ago that the prospect of a good meal "makes your mouth water", We now know, scientifically, that the dinner-bell probably does actually cause that "watering" process. The scientific [p. 34] experiment gave this fact great prominence, and to-day it is customary to see in the conditioned reflex the type of many learning processes. What has really been achieved is a deeper insight into the nature of habits. There are some reflex actions which are original, because the individual is made that way. We blink at a sudden flash, because that movement is part of a well established relation between stimulus and response. We have a "knee-jerk", because a blow on the knee follows a particular track into and out of the spinal nerve-centres. There are other reflex actions which imitate these original patterns, because they have the same kind of fixity. But they may have been acquired: the connections may have been established by accident or by choice or by training. These are usually called "habits", and there is in fact no important distinction between habit and conditioned reflex, except that the latter term gives a slightly different view of the nature of response.

 Since it is clear that "conditioning" covers a very wide area of conduct and may be going on at any time, it is very important for teachers, who are also necessarily trainers, to be fully alive to this fact. The rider may assume that the horse will stop when the reins are pulled: but some horses will stop only when the reins are slack. A child may be expected to go to sleep when the room is dark: but, if the light is left on so that it may not be afraid, it becomes unable to sleep without a light, and the (supposed) fear increases. The orator who holds the button of his coat while speaking becomes conditioned by the button, and the humorist who cuts off the button has his reward when the speaker finally breaks down. All the factors in the environment, so far as they attract notice, have some power to condition a person's actions; and this is the reason why [p. 35] those factors must be carefully observed in order to understand and regulate behaviour.

 From the simple reflex, compound reflex, and conditioned reflex it is easy to arrive at the idea of a still more elaborate form of behaviour called the "chain-reflex". As this subject is closely connected with the problem of instincts it will be deferred until the mechanism of action has been described (Chap. IV), and will be considered in the chapter on instincts and emotions (Chap. V). In view of the general tendency to misunderstand the importance of reflex action and to make the word "reflex" cover everything that an individual can do, it is worth while to quote an opinion from a biologist of undisputed authority: "Attention should be especially directed to the futility of attempting to derive intelligence and the higher mental faculties in general from reflexes, habits, or any other form of fixed or determinate behaviour. On the contrary, these owe their origin to the more labile (or changeable) and plastic components of behaviour, which are determined, if you like, though not by rigid innate organization, but rather by individual experience acting through and upon the innate units and combining these in new patterns. The nervous system is more than an aggregate of reflex area, and life is more than reaction to stimuli".


*C. J. Herrick -- Neurological Foundations of Animal Behaviour, 1924, p. 234