What is behaviorism?

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Behaviorism uses the methods of natural science to search for lawful relationships between behavior and the observable social and physical environment. The focus on observable and measurable behavior-environment relationships distinguishes behaviorism from other psychological perspectives that rely on unobservable and hypothetical explanations such as the mind, the ego, the self, and consciousness.
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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 he considered to be highly subjective. Using the research of the Nobel Prize–winning Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, Watson argued that psychology could become a natural science only by truly adopting the methods of science. What he 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 presented the goals of psychology as the prediction and 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 and relatively simple, and no prior learning is necessary for the response to occur when the stimulus is presented. Pavlov had already demonstrated experimentally how previously neutral parts of the environment could become effective in stimulating or eliciting an animal’s salivation response. By repeatedly pairing a bell with food powder, which elicited salivation, and then presenting the bell alone, Pavlov showed that the bell by itself could then elicit salivation. This process, alternately termed classical, Pavlovian, or respondent conditioning, in turn offered Watson an explanation for behavior that relied on observable elements, thus eliminating the need to use unobservable and hypothetical mental explanations.

Watson’s significant contribution resulted from his attempt to show how Pavlov’s discovery of the conditioning process with animals could also explain the behavior of human beings. Watson assumed that human behavior and the behavior of animals were both governed by the same laws of nature. Given this assumption, the objective methods of study that were appropriate for the scientific study of nonhuman animals were therefore appropriate for the study of human beings as well. Watson demonstrated the application of these methods in the famous but ethically controversial case study of Little Albert, in which Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, showed how human emotional responses could be conditioned to previously neutral environmental stimuli. They began their study by showing that Albert, who was eleven months old at the time, initially approached and smiled when he was shown a live rat. At a time when the rat was not present, Watson struck a metal bar with a hammer. Albert then flinched and began to cry. Next, the rat and the loud, unexpected sound were presented together on seven occasions. On these occasions, Albert reacted to the sound of the hammer striking the metal bar by withdrawing from the rat, moving away from the sound, whimpering, and then crying. Finally, the rat alone was shown to Albert. Now, when only the rat was placed before Albert, he would instantly move away from the rat, whimper, and then cry. Watson and Rayner had demonstrated through the process of classical conditioning that the once-neutral object, the rat, would now elicit a strong emotional response.

Watson attempted to present an objective, behavioristic account of the full range of human behavior in Behaviorism (1924), written for a popular audience. In it, he proposed that the stimulus-response reflex was the essential building block of all human behaviors. A collection of separate elemental reflexive responses, unlearned and as yet unconditioned, could become integrated into a complex habit through the regular presentation of the appropriate stimuli in the physical and social environment by parents, siblings, teachers, and others. The result would be, in Watson’s words, “habits, such as tennis, fencing, shoe-making, mother-reactions, religious reactions, and the like.” The process by which these habits were formed was presumably the conditioning process discovered by Pavlov. In addition, Watson attempted to show that the conditioning of neutral environmental stimuli to existing reflexive responses could also account for thinking and the personality.

B. F. Skinner and Radical Behaviorism

A different form of behaviorism came from the work of the American psychologist B. F. Skinner . Skinner, too, focused his research on behavior and searched for lawful relationships between behavior and environment. Skinner’s thinking began with an acceptance of Watson’s stimulus-response approach, but he 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.

•Certain events are present when a behavior is strengthened.

•Often, one of those antecedent events is by design especially correlated with the behavior and the consequence that makes that behavior stronger in the future.

•At a later time, the presence of that antecedent event by itself will make the behavior more likely to occur.

Skinner named the process used to investigate these behavior-environment relationships operant conditioning. Skinner called the behavior in this process operant behavior because it operates or acts on the environment, thus producing consequences or changes in that environment. Consequences in turn affect the behavior for the future. Skinner was able to detect the relationship between present consequences and future behavior by observing and measuring the behavior of interest over long periods of time, a method he used initially with rats and later with pigeons. The behavior was observed both at the time that the attendant consequences occurred and continuously subsequent to the consequences.

Skinner observed two effects of consequences on the future strength of behavior. Some consequences reinforced the behavior, thus strengthening it, while other consequences punished the behavior, thus weakening it. It is important to note that for Skinner and his followers, the consequences of behavior that serve as reinforcers or punishers are defined only in terms of their effects on the future strength of a behavior. Events or things in themselves are not reinforcers or punishers. For example, a harsh command to a learner in the classroom (“Sit down and get to work!”) is assumed by many teachers to “punish” wandering around the room and inattentiveness to seatwork. Yet in countless instances the teacher’s consequence serves only to strengthen or maintain the learner’s wandering and inattentiveness. In this case, the teacher’s remarks function as a reinforcer irrespective of what the teacher believes.

Skinner also showed that once a behavior has been acquired and was maintained, the occurrence of the behavior can be made more or less probable by the presentation or removal of events that precede the behavior. These antecedent events—for example, the ringing of a telephone—have been reliably present when one picks up the telephone and says “Hello.” On the other hand, if one picks up the telephone and says “Hello” when the telephone has not rung, the voice of another person responding to the greeting is extremely unlikely. The term for this process is stimulus control, defined as the effect that events preceding a behavior can have on the likelihood of that behavior occurring. Stimulus control comes about because of the presence of particular events when a behavior is reinforced.

The Causes of Behavior

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, which put the causes of behavior inside the person. Skinner believed that these internal causes were not scientific explanations but rather behaviors themselves in need of explanation, or else 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 1970s, redefined the mind in two broad ways, Skinner noted that the redefining did not solve the problems posed by the requirements of science. In one definition, mental processes became cognitive processes, a metaphor based on computer operations; humans are said to “process” information by “ encoding, decoding, storing, and retrieving” it. 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.

In the other definition, the mind was translated to mean the brain, which can be studied scientifically. Thus, the physiology of the brain is thought to explain behavior. Neither Skinner nor other radical behaviorists deny the role of the brain in a complete understanding of behavior. However, psychology and brain physiology look for the causes of behavior at different levels of observation. Psychology is viewed as a separate discipline with its own methods of scientific investigation leading to the discovery of distinct psychological explanations for behavior. In addition, research results suggest that rather than brain physiology explaining behavior, changes in both behavior and the brain appear to result from changes in the environment. Changes in behavior are correlated with changes in the brain, but changes at both levels appear to be the result of the environment.

Thoughts and feelings are also considered to be causes of behavior. One thinks about talking with a friend and then goes to the telephone and dials the number. These two people talk together on the telephone regularly because they feel affection for each other. Yet the “thinking” or “feeling” referred to as causes for the actions involved in dialing the telephone and talking with each other are themselves viewed as responses in need of explanation. What gave rise to thinking in early development, and what now makes thoughts of this particular friend so strong? How have feelings of affection become associated with this friend? From the radical behaviorist perspective, both the thoughts and the feeling are explained by the principles of operant or classical conditioning.

Radical Behaviorism and Complex Human Behavior

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 his book Verbal Behavior (1957), in which he showed that behavioral principles are 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 are 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 asks a child to “think before you act” and a teacher asks learners to “think through” the solution to a problem in mathematics or ethics. The social environment thus encourages people to think, often shows them how to do so, and then reinforces the behavior when the overt results of their thinking are praised or given high scores.

More complex behavior-environment relationships, such as those found in concept formation, have also been analyzed in terms of the principles of behaviorism. The term “concept” is defined as a characteristic that is common to a number of objects that are otherwise different from one another. People are said to have concepts in their heads that produce the behaviors they observe. A radical behavioral analysis, however, views concepts as the appropriate response to the common characteristic. The appropriate response has been reinforced only when it occurs in the presence of the specific characteristic. For example, a child is said to understand the concept of “red” when the child reliably says “red” in response to the question “What color are these objects?” in the presence of a red hat, red fire truck, red tomato, and red crayon.

Applications of the Principles of Behaviorism

The behaviorism of Watson has resulted in applications in psychology and many other disciplines, most notably in the form of the psychological treatment known as systematic desensitization, 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. Such an 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 signal when he or she experiences 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 dental treatment and flying, for example, as well as the intense anxiety that accompanies social phobia and panic disorder.

Another application of Skinner’s behavioral principles is the field of applied behavioral analysis, which was introduced first in educational settings. Applications in education have occurred at every level, from preschool to university classrooms. Equally important has been repeated successful application to learners with autism, severe and profound delays in behavioral development, and attention-deficit disorder, both with and without hyperactive behavior.

Applications of behavioral principles have been shown to be effective across behaviors, settings, individuals, and teachers. They have also been shown to be effective in reducing behaviors that pose a threat to public health, including smoking, overeating, essential hypertension, and domestic violence. Finally, behavioral principles have found application in the arena of public safety. For example, researchers using techniques based on Skinner’s science of behavior have increased seat-belt usage by automobile drivers.


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