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Behavioral Theory and Mythology

Behavior is a core part of our everyday experience. What we do and why we behave in specific ways has been a topic of debate for centuries. Over 3,000 years ago, the Greeks began to have philosophical discussions about our behavior, intelligence, emotions, thoughts and dreams. Early philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were among the first to question how we learn and what is knowledge, behavior and intelligence. It was around this time period that science and psychology (science of behavior) began to emerge. For many years, learning and behavior were attributed to “internal” causations. We behave in specific ways because we “want to” or because we “need to.” It was thought that something inside of a person determined what that person did. It was not until the “theory of evolution” was formed that internal causations for behavior were questioned. Darwin suggested there was a continuity of species and humans and other organisms were part of an ongoing evolutionary process, subject to similar influences and principles such as natural selection and the survival of the fittest. This suggested that we were the same as other organisms and led to the research of animals, animal behavior and animal learning. If it is true that there is an internal cause to human behavior, than would it also be true that animals have “minds” since they display reflexes and had organs similar to the human? Watson was among the first to study this notion by looking at instincts and replacing “feelings” and “states of mind” with habits. He noted that behavior was the observed form of instincts and habits. Watson began an early movement in psychology that is referred to as behaviorism. He was interested in applying methods from animal research to the study of human behavior. Watson criticized the field of psychology in the early 1900’s because it was focused on the use of subjective methods such as introspection (reporting on private events) to study internal states (thoughts and feelings). He suggested that psychology was not scientific in its approach to the study of human behavior because it was not objective or consistent. The internal causations were not able to be observed or measured and did not seem to make much sense- they were “fictitious” in nature. Watson argued for a new “behaviorist” approach and attempted to demonstrate that all behavior could be learned through a process of “conditioning.” Some of Watson’s statements in regard to early behaviorism were extreme. He is most famous for his “dozen healthy infants” statement that suggested if given his own specified world, he could train any infant at random to become any type of specialist with the process of conditioning. However extreme he may have been about the push for behaviorism, he moved psychology towards a more scientific approach to the study of human behavior.

Skinner took behaviorism to the next level by introducing “radical behaviorism.” Skinner was interested in the development of psychology as a science. He wanted to study the whole organism and relate the organism to environmental behaviors. Skinner believed that behavior was lawfully related to our experience-our environment. He argued that a reflex was not an internal causation, it was a law of behavior- it was a function of a stimulus. He suggested that it could also be a function of other variables such as conditioning, emotions and motivation- but that these were also events that occurred outside of an organism. Skinner suggested that consequences could change behavior and may even have more of an influence on behavior than antecedents. The environment triggered and selected behavior. He termed this “operant conditioning” and developed a “Skinner box” or operant chamber to demonstrate his suggestions in relation to the contingencies of reinforcement. Skinner suggested that it was the strengthening effect of an operant reinforcer that was important to an organism’s survival in the natural selection process. In addition, he proposed the Law of Effect and described the effects of more complex contingencies for reinforcement. Skinner helped to describe private events (thoughts and feelings) as things that could be measured and studied through our observable actions and differentiated verbal behavior from nonverbal behavior by the contingencies of reinforcement. For example, verbal stimuli involve rules, laws and advice that depict the contingencies of reinforcement. We might behave in a specific way because we were informed of the contingencies of reinforcement (e.g., turn in your paper and you will receive an A) or because we have received reinforcement for engaging in that behavior in the past (received an A for turning in another paper in the past). Skinner was opposed to the Cognitive model of psychology (stimulus-organism-response model) and stated that if you change the consequences of a behavior, you will in turn change the behavior and will have a changed organism. Instead he proposed the Behavioral model of psychology (response-organism-stimulus model) and stated that response and organismic variables are behavior that is selected by stimuli. In the radical behaviorist model of psychology- we are looking for causal relationships or variables that cause behavior to occur. Skinner strongly emphasized that behavior is a result/function of what events have occurred prior to that behavior. Radical behaviorism is holistic. It does not propose one set of explanations, rather looks at each individual behavior, the past events/environment and the contingencies of reinforcement for explanations. If we are interested at changing how we “think, feel, and behave”- we need to change our environment and the contingencies of reinforcement that are in place. Human functioning is a product of our biology and our experiences.

It is important to note that other disciplines in psychology such as Cognitive psychology, Humanistic psychology and Psychoanalysis use internal causations to explain behavior. Humanistic psychologists disagree with the radical behaviorist’s explanation of behavior for many reasons. Humanistic psychology proposes that the organism can see, attend, perceive and process and acts upon stimuli instead of the reverse. They might say that the organism stores copies of contingencies/laws and later retrieves or responds to them again. The behaviorist is stating that the environment is in control when the humanist is believes that there is some internal agent within us that is responsible for our behavior. In the article, “What ever happened to Psychology as the science of Behavior?”- Skinner mentions that an operant analysis replaces creation with variation and selection and states that there is no longer a need for a creative mind, purpose or goal direction. Skinner also states that “operant behavior is not strengthened by reinforcement in order that the individual can adjust to the environment but is strengthened when the individual adjusts.” The behavioral view seems to discount the notion of a “higher power,” threatens our personal freedom, personal worth and threatens many higher systems in place that account for the individual to be responsible for their own behavior.

Psychotherapy is another discipline that is threatened by the presence of radical behaviorism. Psychotherapists are famous for their approach with therapy. In almost every modern film you see the psychologist in an office filled with books written by Freud and performing therapy with a client lying on a leather couch discussing their feelings, thoughts and dreams. Internal causation is a strong integral part of the psychoanalysts’ view of behavior. Skinner argues that there are two languages of psychology- the casual everyday language we speak with familiar persons and the language we speak with our colleagues. He further states that there are many problems that arise when using language that involves the states of our bodies (e.g., hunger). We are not able to directly see those physical states and by attributing internal causation to them (e.g., environment teaches us to say “I’m hungry”), “private states are almost always poorly correlated with public evidence.” Although use of this language can be helpful in getting information about a behavior for treatment in psychotherapy, their use is not effective in the formation of theories or scientific study of behavior. Psychoanalysts rely on self report and do not observe their clients in their direct environments.

The view of a radical behaviorist also conflicts with the philosophy of the cognitive psychologist. Cognition focuses on the role of the mind and processing of information. It does not take into account the role of the body. Cognition has a preference for rule-governed behavior and disagrees with contingency shaped behavior. Skinner argues that following rules is behavior. Skinner also argues that when looking at behavior, we need to look at the person as a whole, not just the mind.

Although many of the other disciplines of psychology consider themselves as part of the classification of psychology as a science of behavior- it can be argued that this may not be the case. To understand this, one must understand the definition of science and the science of behavior. Science is empirical. It is capable of being tested in the laboratory and the real world. It deals with hypothetical constructs, not non-material events. It answers questions, however questions can only be asked in a way that is solvable. Science is parsimonious- it allows you to understand the environment with the least amount of assumptions and in a simple way. Science is not defined by its subject matter; it is defined by the methodology we use. The subject matter of science must be empirical, reliable, solvable and parsimonious. What we learn from science is a product of the application of scientific methods. With science, we not only learn information, the information we learn allows us to not only measure behavior, but predict future events and control for future events. Science is not speculation- it is based off of evidence that can be observed and measured and repeated. Science is a set of attitudes to reject information based off feelings, thoughts and emotions and to look at the facts that support these internal events. Science is objectionable, builds uniformity (laws and rules) and is a commitment to the search for order. Psychology will not progress as a science unless we adopt the fundamental assumptions of what science really entails. The goal of behaviorism is not to reject private events, but to adopt the assumptions and method of science and to explain behavior in a way that is lawful.

Because behaviorism rejects so many of the other philosophical views of psychology, there are many myths and criticisms that surround it. As discussed earlier, Watson made several strong statements about behaviorism when it was first proposed. Some of those statements have contributed to the mythology surrounding behaviorism in addition to the lack of understanding by others of the radical behaviorist theory.

The S-R model has contributed to the development of the field of behaviorism in many ways. Watson was the first to look at this model and to challenge the use of “consciousness” and internal causation when looking at behavior. As mentioned earlier, Skinner took behavior to the next stage by recognizing that we engage in more responses than those that are unconditioned or reflexive. Stimulus-response psychology only looks at a small range of behavior. This model (S-R) looks at reflexive behavior and does not take into account willful/voluntary behavior. Most of the behaviors studied by radical behaviorists today are not reflexive. The S-R model is not appropriate to sum up what behaviorists study. Skinner proposed the R(O)-S (voluntary or skeletal behavior) model. This model looks at voluntary behavior in addition to unconditioned behavior. In this model, consequences change behavior and behavior is a dependent variable. A consequence can be more powerful in the modification of behavior than an antecedent (Skinner, “Whatever Happened to Psychology as a Science of Behavior?” ). The R(O)-S model is a selectionist model and it demonstrates that we will observe more of a behavior in the future if it is reinforced.

Todd and Morris discuss this myth in great detail in the article “Case Histories in the Great Power of Misrepresentation.” It is stated that this myth most likely originates from Watson’s “dozen healthy infants” statement. In the “Case Histories of the Great Power of Steady Misrepresentation,” it states that 50% of introductory textbooks quote this statement and more than 70% describe environmentalism as a fundamental assumption of classic behaviorism. The “dozen healthy infants” statement was misinterpreted. It was made at the time to call attention to the fact that there was a need for a more scientific approach to the nature-nurture issue. It is also noted that Watson did not dispute the fact that novel/unlearned behaviors existed. Watson and other behaviorists do agree that species differences do exist, and that these differences should be taken into account when looking at the behavior of an organism. Biological differences (e.g., height, weight, body parts) are often taken into account as an antecedent to a behavior. In addition, behaviorists agree that we are all unique. Dr. Burgess gave an example in class of the role our “uniqueness” plays in our behavior. A 5”1 individual would take an item down from a high shelf in a different manner than a 6”3 individual (the shorter might need a shelf). In this example, the individual’s height of 5”1 can be seen as part of the antecedents present to her picking up a stool and using it to reach the item. Breeland and Breeland also completed a study where they noted that in the process of training animals, certain behaviors were not able to be trained- most likely due to innate differences among species. In addition, some have stated that there are serious flaws in the behaviorist view as demonstrated through research in the area of taste aversion. This research has demonstrated that some stimulus-response relations in taste-aversion learning were more difficult to condition than others. However- radical behaviorists have never made the assumption of “equipotentiality.” In the 1966 Science, Skinner wrote, “No reputable student of animal behavior has ever taken the position that the animal comes to the laboratory as a virtual tabula rasa, that species differences are insignificant, and that all responses are equally conditionable to all stimuli.” Todd and Morris state that “academic folklore might suggest that behaviorists would ignore the possibility that innate respondent reactions might modulate operant behavior, but the findings described have been taken directly from the radical behaviorist research.” Evidence used to back up the myths proposed are citations findings cited from behaviorist research literature. Todd and Morris also suggest that behaviorists are robbed of credit for contributions to the role of innate behavior and the understanding of biological constraints because others believe in the myths and assume that behaviorists are incapable of producing such evidence.

The achievements of Behaviorism cannot be produced in the real world, only in the laboratory. Behaviorism is can not be generalized to higher functioning people- it is only applicable to rats and limited functioning persons.

Early research in behaviorism was primarily conducted with animals. In fact, for thousands of years, most all research was conducted with animals across disciplines because humans were seen as “God’s creatures” and were not permitted to be dissected or studied for the purpose of science. Watson, as stated earlier, was one of the first to apply what he was learning with animals to human behavior. Although Watson and Skinner used animals as subjects in many of there studies, they proposed that there were benefits to the use of animals over humans (e.g., verbal contamination) and that the results should be easily generalized to humans because behaviorism followed the laws of science, the laws of order. The area of research in behavioral psychology has come a long way and there are many studies present in the psychology literature today that demonstrate the effectiveness of behavior analysis outside of the “Skinnerian box.” Behaviorism began with the research of animal behavior- however is applied to humans outside of the laboratory in a variety of manners. Research demonstrates that behavioral techniques have been effective in changing behavior across areas such as learning, smoking, weight loss, sleep habits, defiant behaviors and driving. California has a great example of the effects of behavioral techniques when applied to driving. The contingencies of reinforcement have been changed for stopping at a red light. If you stop, you avoid a fine of over $300. As a result of this change in the contingencies of reinforcement, the number of automobile accidents has decreased significantly across streets and cities.

Many believe that behaviorists do not account for emotion, feeling, and thinking and only take into account what is observed. To some extent this is true, we look at observable behaviors and work with definitions for behaviors that involve things we can measure and see. Prior to the behavioral model, we did not have an objective way to measure behavior. Behavior was seen as a result of internal causations. Skinner took the internal causations into consideration when developing the radical behaviorists view. He stated that there are public events and private events. Public events are external and can be seen by others. Private events are internal and can be unconscious. He distinguished mental from private events. Private events are thoughts, feelings, images and recollections. These things can be physical. He stated that mental events were nonphysical and should be considered as fiction. Thoughts, feelings, and ideas, cannot be observed or measured by others until the verbal contingencies of the behavior are brought into consciousness by the individual and accurately communicated to others, such as in self-observation. Skinner however stated that “private events” are at the heart of behaviorism. He said that private events are things that we can not see such as emotions, feelings, desires, etc. He provided us with a way to relate those events to observable behaviors. He also helped us to define private events in a way that was observable. Instead of stating that someone feels happy, we can state that they are smiling and laughing. Skinner also stated that abstract behaviors such as morality, values and justice do exist- they are shaped by our environment (e.g., media).

In regard to the notion that behaviorists do not take into account the notion of a “self,” Skinner write about the “self” in several of his books and texts.

Early on in the paper I discussed how behaviorism came into the field of psychology. There needed to be another explanation for behavior other than internal causation. Events such as thinking, feeling, desires, and dreams are not satisfactory explanations for behavior because we can not observe them and in actuality, they are fictional. There is no evidence to support the existence of causal relation to behavior. Watson and Skinner are among the few first behaviorists that attempted to bring scientific order to the field of psychology. The science of behavior should be lawful and orderly. It should make sense, be simple and should be something we can observe, measure and control for. And this is exactly what the radical behaviorist view gives us. All behavior can be explained in some form or another by history- environmental events that either reinforce or punish a behavior and affect the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future (Law of Effect). Skinner felt that science is a cumulative process and that with order and continued research, we should add to the pot of information to gain a better understanding of human behavior. Skinner was able to offer us a way to link feelings (private events) to observed behavior that makes sense and is consistent over time.

In Skinner’s chapter, “Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behavior,” he describes the obstacles other disciplines have set in our way to progression in the area of behavioral science. Skinner suggests that we study what we are able to study and stop asking questions that are not going to be answered or are inaccessible until answered by physicists.

Many view behaviorism as intolerant, manipulative and totalitarian. Some have even suggested that behaviorism works because it is merely a form of bribery. Others have compared behaviorism to the authoritative/coercive style of Hitler. These statements are beyond myths- they are absolutely wrong. I believe that if you have a strong grasp of behaviorism, you do have “power.” You have the power to modify the behavior of others and to modify your own behavior. Does that make a behaviorist totalitarian or similar to the coercive style of Hitler? No. Many of the research in the field emphasizes that the use of positive practice or the use of reinforcement is preferred and more common than the use of punishment or aversive stimuli. The field has changed significantly and several studies are done that eliminate the use of punishment as a consequence and demonstrate the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. In terms of bribery, behavior modification is anything but that. If we look at the principles of behavior modification and we look at bribery- they are completely opposite. Bribery would entail offering a reinforcer when a person does not want to engage in the behavior- usually following some form of vocal protest (“I don’t want to”) following the presentation of the antecedent. If you were to offer a reinforcer following an undesired response- you are going to increase that undesired response (“I don’t want to) prior to the desired response. Behaviorism involves changing reinforcement contingencies prior to the antecedent and not following an undesired response (if this makes sense). With behaviorism, we are looking at understanding why behavior occurs, how to change behavior in order to increase law and order, how to predict behavior and how to explain the relation of private events to behavior in a way that is consistent, makes sense and is applicable to the scientific methodology.

We need to look at what behaviorists have been doing in order to evaluate if they have a totalitarian outlook. Behaviorists are developing more effective ways to teach children with disabilities to learn and integrate into society. They are teaching parenting skills to parents and caregivers of children with disabilities, reducing delinquent behavior in adolescents, and teaching language skills to those with brain injuries. Our work should be commended because we deal with the “difficult,” and strive to make the lives of others better. We are improving the lives of many and changing the way society views others with disabilities. We are not taking away freedom of others, but adding to it. Van Houten et. al, 1988, stated, “The primary purpose of behavioral treatment is to assist individuals in acquiring functional skills that promote independence.”

It is important to understand the mythology that surrounds behaviorism because we are never going to get anywhere as a science unless we can refute the myths and educate others on the great progress and work behaviorism is doing today. The mythology has held back psychology as a science. Other disciplines are spending unnecessary time attacking the theory while behaviorists are spending unnecessary time defending the theory. Psychology- when discussing internal causation- is unable to form good relations with other sciences because it’s methodology is not scientific and does not offer an explanation that is easily understood by others. If we want the field of Psychology to be viewed and regarded as a science, it is imperative that it takes the scientific assumptions of observable, repeatable and parsimonious. Radical Behaviorism does just that. It makes sense, is easy to understand, easy to communicate and is scientific in nature.

Skinner stated that the three obstacles discussed earlier, Humanistic Psychology, Cognitive Psychology and Psychoanalysis have neglected our future. Humanistic psychologists are not going to sacrifice feelings of worth, and psychotherapists and cognitive psychologists are going to continue to turn to the mind and feelings. These disciplines emphasize the here and now. Behavioral psychology does not. It is more preventative than remedial. We may begin treatment because of the occurrence of a problem behavior, but we can with data to support us, modify behavior and change the contingencies of reinforcement so that the behavior is less likely to occur in the future. Behaviorists have the power of prediction and control of behavior. We are doing an injustice to many by not expanding the types of treatment we are implementing. Ghandi said it best when he stated “Think of the poorest man you have ever met and then ask if what you are doing is of any benefit to him.” We need to find effective contingencies of reinforcement to change the way others discuss behaviorism so that we can address a larger array of problems in human behavior. We need to extinguish questions and notions about internal causations and increase the research in the field of psychology that addresses human behavior in a way that truly reflects “science.”


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