Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
Behaviorism was founded in 1912 by the American psychologist John Broadus Watson. Watson’s position was formed as a reaction to the then-current focus of psychology on consciousness and the method of research known as introspection, which Watson considered to be highly subjective. Using the research of the Russian Nobel Prize-winning physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Watson argued that psychology could become a natural science only by truly adopting the methods of science. What Watson meant was that psychology must have an empirical, objective subject matter and that the events to be investigated as possible causes of behavior must also be described objectively and verified empirically through experimental research. This latter point meant that introspection would have to be abandoned, for it was unscientific. Watson therefore presented the goals of psychology as the prediction and the control of behavior rather than as the understanding of the mind and the consciousness.
Watson’s behaviorism was an extension ofPavlov’s discovery of the conditioning of stimulus-response reflexive relationships. The term “reflex” refers to the connection between some environmental event, or stimulus, and the response that it elicits. The response is involuntary—inborn or unlearned—and relatively simple. In addition, no prior learning is necessary for the response to occur when the stimulus is presented. What Pavlov had already...
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B. F. Skinner and Radical Behaviorism (Psychology and Mental Health)
A different form of behaviorism came from the work of the American psychologist B. F. Skinner. Skinner, too, focused his research on behavior. He also continued to search for lawful relationships between behavior and the environment. Skinner’s thinking began with an acceptance of the stimulus-response approach of Watson, but Skinner ultimately took behaviorism in a fundamentally different direction. The first presentation of Skinner’s approach was in The Behavior of Organisms (1938). In this book, Skinner described the methods and results of systematic research that demonstrated the key points of what was later to become known as radical behaviorism:
•Stimulus-response relationships, or reflexes, include only a narrow range of behavior.
•Classical, or Pavlovian, conditioning could not account for the development of new behavior or the complexity of human behavior.
•Behavior does show lawful relationships with the environment.
•The consequences immediately following a behavior determine the future strength of that behavior.
•New behavior can be acquired by the process of shaping (from existing behavior, elemental forms can be strengthened by consequences that follow the step-by-step approximations until the new behavior is present).
•Once acquired, behavior is maintained by a particular arrangement of environmental consequences.
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The Causes of Behavior (Psychology and Mental Health)
For Skinner, the causes of behavior lie in humans’ genetic endowment and the environment in which they live. The specific ways in which the environment causes behavior can be seen in the experimentally derived principles noted previously.
Skinner’s approach differs sharply from most psychological theories that put the causes of behavior inside the person. Skinner believed that these internal causes were not scientific explanations, were actually behaviors themselves in need of explanation, or were explanations taken from disciplines other than psychology.
Skinner regarded the “mind” as an unscientific explanation because of its status as an inference from the behavior that it was supposed to explain. While psychological theory has, since the 1970’s, redefined the “mind” in two broad ways, Skinner continued to note that the redefining did not solve the problems posed by the requirements of science. On one hand, mental processes have become cognitive processes, a metaphor based on computer operations. Humans are said to “process” information by “ encoding, decoding, storing, and retrieving” information. However, all these hypothesized activities remain inferences from the behavior that they are said to explain. There is no independent observation of these hypothetical activities.
On the other hand, the mind has been translated to mean the brain, which can be studied scientifically....
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Radical Behaviorism and Complex Human Behavior (Psychology and Mental Health)
Some of the facts of human experience include talking, thinking, seeing, problem solving, conceptualizing, and creating new ideas and things. A common point of view holds that behaviorism either rejects or neglects these aspects of human experience. However, a fuller reading of Skinner’s works reveals that he offered a serious examination of these topics and demonstrated that behavioral principles could account for their presence in the repertoire of human behavior.
For example, Skinner’s examination of verbal behavior resulted in Verbal Behavior (1957). In this book, Skinner showed that behavioral principles were capable of explaining the acquisition and continuation of behaviors such as talking, reading, and thinking. Basic processes such as imitation, reinforcement, shaping, and stimulus control were all shown to have likely roles in the various aspects of verbal behavior.
Behaviorism’s analysis of verbal behavior is directly related to the more complex forms of human behavior often referred to as higher mental processes. For example, radical behaviorism views thinking as an activity derived from talking out loud. Parents and teachers encourage children to talk to themselves, initially by encouraging whispering, then moving the lips as in speaking but without making sounds. What results, then, is talking privately, “in our own heads.” In a similar fashion, a parent...
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Applications of the Principles of Behaviorism (Psychology and Mental Health)
The behaviorism of Watson has resulted in applications in psychology and many other disciplines. The most notable form of application of Watson’s behaviorism is the psychological treatment known as systematic desensitization. This treatment was created by South African psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe. Systematic desensitization was designed to reverse the outcome of the classical conditioning process in which extremely intense negative emotional responses such as fear or anxiety are elicited by everyday aspects of the environment. This outcome is referred to as a phobia. The treatment first requires training in relaxation. The second component of treatment takes a person through a hierarchy of steps beginning with a setting very distant from the feared stimulus and ending with the problem setting. At each step, the individual is asked to note and in some manner signal the experiencing of fear or anxiety and then is instructed to relax. Movement through the hierarchy is repeated until the person can experience each step, including the one that includes the feared stimulus, and report feeling relaxed at every step. This treatment has been employed both in the clinic and in real-life settings. Systematic desensitization has been shown to be an effective intervention for fears associated with, for example, dental treatment and flying, as well as the intense anxiety that accompanies social phobia and panic...
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Alberto, Paul A., and Anne C. Troutman. Applied Behavior Analysis for Teachers. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1999. A readable introduction to applied behavior analysis principles and methods for use in the classroom.
Baum, William J. Understanding Behaviorism: Science, Behavior, and Culture. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006. Written by a well-known radical behaviorist. A thorough review of Skinner’s behaviorism in relation to philosophy of science and in its societal implications.
Johnson, Kent R., and T. V. Joe Layng. “Breaking the Structuralist Barrier: Literacy and Numeracy with Fluency.” American Psychologist 47, no. 11 (1992): 1475-1490. Demonstrates the application of Skinner’s principles to the design of maximally effective academic curricula for children and adults. Accessible reading that does not require a background in statistics.
Nye, Robert D. The Legacy of B. F. Skinner: Concepts and Perspectives, Controversies and Misunderstandings. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 1992. An excellent starting point for a reader interested in Skinner’s behaviorism.
Pierce, W. David, and W. Frank Epling. Behavior Analysis and Learning. 4th ed. New York: Psychology Press, 2008. An excellent college-level introduction to basic Skinnerian principles and experimental methods for basic behavioral research.
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Behaviorism (Encyclopedia of Psychology)
A theory of human development initiated by American educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, and developed by American psychologists John Watson and B.F. Skinner.
Behaviorism is a psychological theory of human development that posits that humans can be trained, or conditioned, to respond in specific ways to specific stimuli and that given the correct stimuli, personalities and behaviors of individuals, and even entire civilizations, can be codified and controlled.
Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) initially proposed that humans and animals acquire behaviors through the association of stimuli and responses. He advanced two laws of learning to explain why behaviors occur the way they do: The Law of Effect specifies that any time a behavior is followed by a pleasant outcome, that behavior is likely to recur. The Law of Exercise states that the more a stimulus is connected with a response, the stronger the link between the two. Ivan Pavlov's (1849-1936) groundbreaking work on classical conditioning also provided an observable way to study behavior. Although most psychologists agree that neither Thorndike nor Pavlov were strict behaviorists, their work paved the way for the emergence of behaviorism.
The birth of modern behaviorism was championed early in the 20th century by a psychologist at...
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Behaviorism (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Behaviorism as a positivistic anti-metaphysical science presupposes a highly mechanistic one-dimensional view of the human person and therefore is often seen as an attack on transcendence, the human soul, and human freedom. The British-American psychologist William McDougall (1871-1938) introduced behaviorism in Psychology: The Study of Behavior (1912) and independently the American psychologist John B. Watson (1878958) in his article "Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It" (1913). Watson began his essay stating: "Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior" (p. 158). McDougall later distanced himself from Watson's mechanistic approach.
The predecessors of behaviorism
Among the predecessors of behaviorism were the British empiricist philosophers, including David Hume (1711776), who contended that sense impressions produce all ideas. American philosopher John Dewey (1859952), with whom Watson studied at the University of Chicago, introduced functionalism, which was concerned with the use of consciousness and behavior. Biologist Jacques Loeb (1859924), one of Watson's professors at Chicago, explained animal behavior in purely physical-chemical terms. Russian reflexology merged the mind with the brain, which was then explained in terms of reflexes; physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849936) introduced experiential analysis of reflexes and their conditioning, and neurologist Vladimir Bekhterev (1857927) influenced Watson's interpretation of emotional behavior.
By drawing on neighboring branches of the sciences, behaviorists attempted to turn psychology into a hard science. In 1879, philosopher and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832920) established an institute of experimental psychology in Leipzig, Germany. But Watson chided Wundt and his students that despite having made psychology into a science without soul, despite replacing the term soul with consciousness, they still maintained a dualistic concept of the human being. Since both soul and human consciousness elude the purely objective experimental method, they cannot be quantified and therefore do not exist for Watson. His methodological behaviorism, disallowing for the duality of mind and matter, was a materialistic monism or even a scarcely disguised atheism.
Between 1912 and the mid-1900s, methodological behaviorism dominated psychology in the United States and also had a wide international impact. Most important for the wider populous was the theory of learning, which was explained wholly or largely on facts and methods of conditioning.
From approximately 1930 to 1950 psychological research moved from the classic behaviorism of Watson to a neo-behaviorism. Psychologist Jacob Robert Kantor (1888984), schooled at the University of Chicago, believed that behavior was dependent upon the interaction of an organism with its environment. His "Organismic Psychology," later renamed "Interbehavioral Psychology," was promoted as an antidote to the notion that parts of the organism ad a causal responsibility for the rest of the organism's action.
In his 1938 book The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis, psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904990) introduced radical behaviorism. Skinner insisted that behavior should be studied as a function of external variables apart from any reference to mental or physiological states or processes. For him psychology was an experimental natural science. Fundamental to his approach was the analysis of behavior in light of stimuli. In 1948, he wrote Walden Two, a utopian novel where a social environment free of governments, religions, and capitalistic enterprises produced a "good life." In this work, Skinner advocated what some called behavioral engineering. In his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) Skinner asserted that the abolition of the concept of autonomous humanity is overdue. Rather, Skinner believed that human beings are controlled by their environment. The question is whether this control should be left to accidents, to tyrants, or to people themselves. Therefore Skinner opted for designing an existence aided by psychology which enables a happy life, defined by his wholehearted endorsement of the capitalistic system and his critical view of government and religion.
In 1932, psychologist Edward C. Tolman (1886959) published Purposive Behavior in Animals and Man in which he incorporated motifs and perceptions into psychological consideration. Purpose to him had not a theological, but a teleological meaning. Although Tolman was as skeptical about religion as the behaviorists who preceded him, he introduced a more holistic approach to behaviorism. Nevertheless he developed mechanistic rules to account for observed behavior.
Psychologist Clark L. Hull (1884952) distinguished between scientific empiricism and scientific theory in his 1943 book Principles of Behavior: An Introduction to Behavior Theory. While Hull did not deny the existence of a mind or a consciousness, he did not insist on its basic, logical, priority. Yet the mind was not a means for solving problems; to the contrary, it itself was a problem. This means that Hull was open to the insights of neurophysiology.
Behaviorism since the 1950s
At least since the 1950s, increasing skepticism arose about the claims of behaviorism, and a new humility emerged. Behaviorism never abandoned its scientific rigor, but rather became more multifaceted. While some continued to pursue the discernment of behavior using the language and the terms of physical science, others pursued a more teleological track by alternatively trying to understand why behavior is created and how behavior is created.
Even a new realism emerged with regard to human nature and its potential. Behavioral scientists such as zoologist Konrad Lorenz (1903989) no longer explained away evil, but understood aggressive behavior as an inherent part of life. In its excessive varieties, however, aggression signaled a breakdown of cultural ethos. Ethologists such as Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (b. 1928) have shown that humans follow some inborn norms according to which they interact with the environment, such as fear of strangers and smiling during pleasant experiences. Finally, sociobiologists such as Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929) suggest that a species neither responds just to stimuli, as classical behaviorism maintained, nor is it only instinctively fixed. Rather, a species uses whatever is advantageous to its evolution.
Behaviorism has helped the experimental method become a constituent part of psychological research. Psychology has moved from philosophy and physiology to an independent enterprise in its own right by utilizing the tools and methods of physics, chemistry, computer science, and statistics. However, it is evident that although certain principles are demonstrated in the laboratory, there is no guarantee that they are significant outside it. The reductive nature of the laboratory is quite different from the complexity of the natural environment. We can never infer from laboratory experiments that we have identified all or even the most critical influences in nature.
In its history behaviorism has not rejected rigorous experimental and observational emphasis, but has become more discerning and tentative in its claims. It has realized that a human being is a complicated biological being whose socialization has greater influence in its development than is the case with other biological beings. Therefore a strictly mechanistic one-dimensional view has been found wanting. This multifaceted approach to human behavior opens the possibility for a renewed dialogue with the humanities, including theology, on such issues as human freedom and responsibility and even on transcendence.
See also AGGRESSION; HUME, DAVID; PSYCHOLOGY; PSYCHOLOGY OF RELIGION
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