What Behaviorism Are We Talking About?

The term behaviorism refers to the school of psychology founded by John B. Watson based on the belief that behaviors can be measured, trained, and changed. Behaviorism was established with the publication of Watson’s classic paper Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Behaviorism, also known as behavioral psychology, is a theory of learning based upon the idea that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning. Conditioning occurs through interaction with the environment. Behaviorists believe that our response to environmental stimuli shapes our behaviors. According to behaviorism, behavior can be studied in a systematic and observable manner with no consideration of internal mental states. This school of thought suggests that only observable behaviors should be studied, since internal states such as cognitions, emotions and moods are too subjective.

There are two major types of conditioning:

Classical conditioning is a technique used in behavioral training in which a naturally occurring stimulus is paired with a response. Next, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response without the presence of the naturally occurring stimulus. The two elements are then known as the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response.

Operant conditioning sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

A look through any introductory textbook and most cognitive texts gives the student an impression that cognition is practically all of psychology. They will see sections on, for example, Cultural Cognition, Analytical Cognition, Holistic Cognition, Neonatal Cognition, Cognition in the Mini-Brain, Cognitive Architecture, and one of my personal favorites, Unconscious Cognition.

The problems associated with principles of behaviorism within the cognitive revolution are dissatisfying, and perhaps even saddened, by a revolution that neglects some of the greatest contributors to the analysis of behavior; by a revolution that misrepresents the behaviorist position in textbooks; by a revolution where traditional behavioral issues are being tossed aside and all but forgotten.

We are never told, for example, about the wide variety of behaviorist positions, are presented with definitions of cognition that are so broad that they are meaningless at best, and at worst, overshadow the behaviorist contribution to psychology, and are not told that there are no general criteria to determine whether a process is cognitive. This voice has been expressed by many individuals including Frederick Adams, Abraham Amsel, Howard Cromwell, James Grice, Vickie Lee, Jay Moore, Geir Overskeid, Jaak Panksepp and Thom Verhave.

I am often shocked by how little general population knows about behaviorism apart from the catch-phrases and stereotypes associated with attacks on John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. Behaviorists are often considered as out of touch, anti-intellectual, old fashioned and simple minded. The cognitivists, on the other hand, are cutting edge, forward thinking, insightful, and entering new frontiers.

One is surprised to learn that the behaviorist approach is still vital and has much to recommend it as a scientific enterprise. We are surprised that the behaviorist perspective can provide a framework to study complex human behavior, to learn that the behaviorist perspective is more than rats in mazes and pigeons pecking disks, and we become disillusioned with a psychology that fails to teach viable alternatives to the prevailing cognitive zeitgeist.

This post will also be of some value to readers who may begin to see behaviorism in a more positive light and lead them to a more accurate portrayal of behaviorism. When discussing behaviorism, we are often surprised that there are several different types of behaviorism. When one attacks behaviorism one must ask at least three questions: What form of behaviorism are we talking about? If behaviorists focus on observable behaviors what do cognitivists focus on unobservable behavior? If behaviorists do not reference mental processes, how do you explain the contributions of Hull, Tolman, and Miller and their use of intervening variables? No serious social scientist questions the inaccuracy and racism of lumping Mexicans, Spaniards, and Puerto Ricans into the general category of “Hispanic” or Arapahos, Choctaws, Poncas, or Pawnees into the general category of “Native Americans.” The use of such categories precludes serious comparative analysis, prohibits an understanding of nuances among differing theoretical positions, and leads to the grossest forms of generalization. Yet these same social scientists feel free to lump together the various behaviorist perspectives. Behaviorism has never been a unitary psychological perspective and proponents differ significantly in terms of methodology and theoretical outlook. In introductory textbooks, and textbooks devoted to cognition, typically only two types of behaviorism are mentioned those of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. I would encourage the reader to examine Behaviorism a battle line and to compare its outlook toward behaviorism with their own. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary introductory and cognitive texts, it clearly acknowledges the existence of several different types of behaviorism. In addition to the behaviorism of Watson, there is the behaviorism associated with John Dewey, Walter B. Pillsbury, Edward L. Thorndike, Edward C. Tolman, Howard C. Warren, and Robert M. Yerkes.

Readers interested in some of the history associated with very early forms of behaviorism should read Roback and Verhave. Verhave’s work is especially interesting because it highlights the contribution of a little known American Professor of Physiology Joseph R. Buchanan. Buchanan’s book The Philosophy Of Human Nature contains several laws of association that found their way into formal behaviorist approaches. One will also benefit on reading some of the early philosophical contributions to behaviorism by Gottfried W. Leibniz who was not as anti-associationist as many believe, Plato, and Francis Hutcheson. It is interesting to note that all the contributors in Behaviorism. A battle line warns that behaviorism as taught in universities and across the United States is a dangerous enterprise and must be stopped. It is now unchecked cognitivism that is rampaging through universities and colleges and producing students who know next to nothing about a still vital and vibrant conception of psychology. There is the vilification of behaviorism. Each chapter of Behaviorism: A battle line is full of malicious comments directed at Watson in particular and behaviorism in general. Many of these comments have a modern ring to them that I am sure the reader will recognize. These comments are ridiculous.

Behaviorism is called a cult, absurd, nonsense, grim, unethical, and poison. It is suggested that an acceptance of behaviorism increases anti-social and criminal behavior, that behaviorism leads to moral decay and, is at the same time a religious cult yet anti-religious, amoral and suppresses artistic expression. This tone is very similar to how democrats portray republicans. So Behaviorism appears as a pathetic figure circling around in the backwash of the widening swiftly flowing stream of science. For those readers interested in another entertaining early book critical of behaviorism see The Religion Called Behaviorism. Given such criticism, it is remarkable that behaviorism became the dominant form of psychology in the United States for several decades. It is also remarkable that those few still working within the behaviorist perspective continue to make substantial contributions way beyond the small number of contemporary practitioners. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Never in the field of social science was so much owed by so many to so few. That various types of behaviorisms exist is an important point often overlooked. When one discuss behaviorism one must inform that there are several different perspectives just as there are different perspectives to cognitive psychology such as information processing.

Some texts claim that Watson was prepared to produce from any human infants given over wholly to his tender mercies a corresponding number of human beings of any desired type, geniuses of the first water, mathematicians, musicians, artists, scientists, statesmen, executives, anything, in fact other than theologians or metaphysicians, according to specifications given. This statement borders on the outrages and is often used to discredit the entire behaviorist approach. Watson’s full quote, on which McDougall’s is based, contains several lines that are typically and conveniently left out. These lines are: “I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for thousands of years.” When this line is included, Watson’s meaning becomes clear.

Since such states or attitudes as love, hate, fear, courage, pain, hope, loyalty, and aspiration cannot so be recorded, they are regarded by the Behaviorist as of no consequence is not true of Watson and it is certainly not true of the group of behaviorists known as neobehaviorists. The type of behavior that Watson studied is characterized as “Muscular reactions and glandular secretions.” Extreme Behaviorism denies all mental life, including conscious, purposive experience. Heredity unquestionably plays a role in our physical and mental make-up. All human behavior is a matter of stimulus and response. Even the most causal reader of the original source material by Watson knows that statements are demonstrably false as characterized by cognitivists. It is vitally important to understand the time period and the state of psychology during Watson’s era. Watson advocated observation, verbal reports, psychological tests, statistical training, laboratory training, acknowledges the importance of emotions; specifically commenting on fear, rage, love, instinctive responses, and the importance of heredity. In the opening chapter to his Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, he suggested that the training of psychology students include the study of physiology, chemistry, and zoology.

Watson’s perspective is characterized by an attempt to catalog behavior, to make observations under laboratory and field conditions, to study developmental influences, to conduct controlled and repeatable experiments in an attempt to understand human nature. He was one of the first to study development, human sexual behavior, behavior modification, and imprinting. This is a behaviorism not of the “glandular squint” as portrayed in textbooks and by cognitivists but a dynamic approach that has impacted many fields including behavior therapy and industry. It has earned the right to be properly discussed in textbooks used to train the next generation of psychology professionals.

The portrayal of Skinner’s version of behaviorism, known sometimes as radical behaviorism, is also given “short shrift” in textbooks and discussions. Perhaps the most entertaining example of this can be found in a collection of his seminal papers with commentary. What is unique is that he is given the opportunity to respond to the commentaries. His commentaries on the commentaries are interesting because he spends a large portion of his time correcting the inaccuracies the commentators have on his positions. It is well worth reading and incorporating his comments.

In between the so-called extremes of Watson and Skinner’s approaches to behaviorism is an entire group of behaviorists that are shamefully neglected in introductory and cognitive texts. This type of behaviorism is known as neobehaviorism. Neobehaviorism is an approach to theorizing arguably that makes extensive use of intervening variables. The Hullian approach is also known as molecular behaviorism in contrast to the molar behaviorism of Tolman, the contiguity approach of Edwin R. Guthrie, and the radical behaviorism approach of Skinner. All the various behaviorist approaches regularly consider what are now called cognitive processes.

Even a shallow look at the Psychological Review papers of Clark Hull reveals a real concern with tackling issues such as “Knowledge and purpose as habit mechanisms,” “Goal attraction and directing ideas conceived as habit phenomena,” “The mechanisms of the assembly of behavior segments in novel combinations suitable for problem solution”, “Mind, mechanism, and adaptive behavior”, “The problem of intervening variables in molar behavior theory.” These and other topics related to Hull’s Psychological Review papers are conveniently collected with commentary in the edited volume of Amsel and Rashotte. At least some of these papers and their commentaries should be mentioned in introductory and cognitive texts, if readers are really to be given a legitimate opportunity to understand what the behaviorist approach has to offer the cognitive one.

Webster and Coleman offer some insights why the influence of Hull’s theory declined. Hull is certainly not alone in investigating issues that are considered cognitive. The psychological literature from the 1920s through the 1960s literally overflows with behaviorists tackling problems now thought to have originated with contemporary cognitivists. One nice example was reported by the “Connectionist Behaviorist” E. L. Thorndike on learning without awareness known now as unconscious cognition. The neobehaviorist Neal E. Miller’s work with John Dollard on the application of behaviorist principles to Freudian theory is especially exciting and worth reading. Miller’s efforts represent a fine example of the vitality and scope of behaviorism—a behaviorism that one never experience.

A glance through his volume of collected papers reveals richness in subject area and methodology that one never thought possible for a psychological perspective that is considered “absurd, nonsense, grim, unethical, and poison.” Miller’s collected papers are full of interesting experiments on what is now considered cognitive topics—all of them conducted within a behaviorist perspective. His experiments include work on “Theory and experiment relating psychoanalytic displacement to stimulus-response generalization.” “Learning resistance to pain and fear: effects of overlearning, exposure, and rewarded exposure in context,” and “Failure to find a learned drive based on hunger; evidence for learning motivated by “exploration.”

Another example of the behaviorist interest in complex human processes is in the seldom cited work of Arthur W. and Carolyn K. Staats. Staats and Staats cogently demonstrate the richness and vitality of applying the behaviorist approach to complex human behavior. They examine a host of what are now considered cognitive topics. These topics include child development, personality, language, and motivation. Of course, they are not the only behaviorists who attempt to tackle the intricacies of human behavior and are part of the tradition of Watson, Hull, Miller, Tolman, Guthrie, Mower, and Skinner among others.

Attempts at reconciliation of the cognitive and behaviorist positions are also not mentioned in textbooks. The positions are portrayed as one having replaced the other. This is unfortunate because it further suggests that the behaviorist position is outdated and has little to recommend it. A paper by Denny is especially useful in this regard. Denny shows that by modifying the definitions of stimulus and response, cognitive and behaviorist approaches can be reconciled. This attempt is similar to the efforts of MacCorquodale and Meehl that endeavored to reconcile Hull’s theory with the cognitive behaviorism of Tolman. In doing so, they revealed many points of agreement. Miller has also shown that modifying some neobehaviorist concepts can help psychologists better understand motivation and conflict. These papers should be assigned to students to get them to think critically about how the behaviorist and cognitivist perspectives can be combined.

In addition to presenting the view that the cognitivist position has supplanted the behaviorist position without mentioning attempts to reconcile the two perspectives, textbooks for introductory or cognitive psychology have never in my experience given the student the sense of the excitement and discovery associated with the efforts of behaviorists. The period from the 1920s through the early 1960s is one of the most exciting times in the history of behaviorism, indeed in the history of psychology. This time period is characterized by laboratories working to replicate and extend findings, developing new experimental designs in the area of, for example, latent learning, successive negative contrast, and avoidance learning, creating new apparatus and techniques, and testing the limits of differing conceptualizations of animal and human conduct.

I am sure that I am not voicing the popular opinion but it is a real intellectual tragedy, and I would further say intellectually dishonest, that one is not exposed to an accurate account of the behaviorist perspectives in introductory and cognitive texts. This work will never be brought to attention of a new generation if their own faculty does not know of its existence and journals refuse to allow authors to cite the relevant historical literature.

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