Thursday, 22 November 2012

Misunderstanding Behaviorism

Despite the fact that the title of my blog alludes to misunderstandings of behaviorism in popular thought, I've put off writing an article that elucidates and corrects these misconceptions. The reasons for this delay are varied but the main one is probably just a sense of fatigue when dealing with this issue as I've engaged people in this discussion many times over the years and rarely does it seem to change any opinions; however, recent instances of banging my head against a wall have reinvigorated my interest in the topic.


Behaviorism is the philosophy of science underpinning behavioral psychology, and it has taken on numerous forms over the space of a century - all of which appear to have been misunderstood or misrepresented to some degree. Arguably, the grandfather of behaviorism was Ivan Pavlov and whilst his name may not be immediately recognisable to everyone, it is likely that it rings a bell. This is because that is where the phrase came from. As a physiologist studying the salivary reflexes in dogs, Pavlov noticed that his subjects had begun to salivate even before the food had been presented – using pre-CSI investigative techniques, he reasoned that the sounds of the researchers’ footsteps as they brought the food down the hallway had become associated or paired somehow with the food. To test this experimentally, he set up conditions where he would ring a bell immediately before feeding the dogs to initially pair the two stimuli together and then later tested the bell without presenting the food. He found that the bell alone was enough to produce salivation in the dogs, and he termed this process “classical conditioning”1.

An ethologist by the name of John B. Watson (who was studying instincts at the time) heard of the work of Pavlov and pursued it further, eventually creating what was referred to as “stimulus-response” psychology – otherwise known as methodological behaviorism. In 1913 he wrote a paper called “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”2, informally known as the “Behaviorist Manifesto” and it is this article where Watson attempts to separate psychology from its philosophical roots in order to push it, willingly or not, into the realm of science. To do so, he argued that a science of psychology must be objective with no recourse to internal states that can only be discovered through introspection, thus rejecting the approaches of people like William James before him. He suggested that the future of psychology is in understanding our relation to the environment and how our behavior is affected by various stimulus-response relations. The culmination of which he described in his 1930 book simply titled, “Behaviorism”3. It is here that the beginning of misunderstanding behaviorism began.

MISCONCEPTION #1: Behaviorism is a blank slate approach to psychology.

Blank slatism is a position that argues that people are born tabula rasa; blank canvases where our skills, capabilities, personalities, and so on are filled in by our experiences over time. Specifically, in the context of psychology, it argues that there are no innate predispositions or brain structures which produce and/or aid the development of certain behaviors. As we might expect, this is not a reasonable position to hold (especially given our current knowledge of neuroscience), and any philosophy of science that depended on such an assumption should be rightly rejected. So did behaviorism adopt blank slate ideals?

The simple answer is absolutely not, but this is often ignored due to one of the most infamous quotemines in psychological history:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors... (p.82)3
Understandably, such a bold and ignorant claim was rejected by his contemporaries and still to this day Watson is criticised for his foolish suggestion that all behavior is determined by the environment – in other words, for taking a purely “nurture” position in the infamous “nature/nurture” debate4. Something is clearly wrong with this picture though, as Watson began his career as an ethologist who wrote numerous books on innate instincts and reflexes in animals, research which he even included chapters on in his books on behaviorism. To understand this puzzling juxtaposition of paradigms, we need to analyse the sentence that directly follows the quote above:
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 many thousands of years. (p.82)3
What this qualification means, as he explains in the following sections of his essay, is that his twelve infants comment is pure rhetoric. He is engaging in hyperbole to almost satirise the genetic determinism of his contemporaries and the goal is to highlight the absurdity of arguing for one extreme or the other whilst ignoring the whole picture. This "middle-ground" position was continued by B.F. Skinner, Watson's successor, who argued that it is impossible to understand behavior without looking at both the phylogenetic (over the course of the development of a species) and ontogenic (over the course of the development of an individual) components of behavior.


Even just skimming my brief introduction on methodological behaviorism, I'm sure most people picked up on a few controversial claims. For example, the idea that psychology should not appeal to internal states can be a difficult pill to swallow. Before understanding why it is wrong though, it is important understand why it was right - in the time that Watson was writing. Although great strides had been made towards a science of psychology and the experimentation of the time was sufficiently impressive, there was still a significant problem with psychologists making inferences about inner states that were not evidence-based and which produced no useful predictions. Watson attempted to avoid the problems of the time, where neuroscience was little more than hacking at the brains of cadavers, by proposing a pragmatic ban on speculating about that which we cannot see, observe, or study - the mind. Importantly, this was not a rejection of the mind but rather a rejection of using the mind as an explanation in scientific studies. This leads us into the second misconception, which is really more of a "half" misconception:

MISCONCEPTION #2: Behaviorists believed that the mind did not exist.

I call this a "half" misconception because, as an overly simplistic description, it is not an entirely wrong representation of methodological behaviorism. They didn't reject the existence of minds but they did want the concept removed from science, and so it is easy to see how the two can be conflated. The problem, however, arises when people make the claim about behaviorism in general and especially when they try to argue that it applies to any recent or modern forms of behaviorism. It was Skinner himself who saw the flaw in the approach of the methodological behaviorists and so spent a great deal of time arguing how important inner states are to the study of psychology. As Skinner argues:
A science of behavior must consider the place of private stimuli as physical things, and in doing so it provides an alternative account of mental life. The question, then, is this: What is inside the skin, and how do we know about it? The answer is, I believe, the heart of radical behaviorism. (pp. 211–212)5
And elsewhere:
An adequate science of behavior must consider events taking place within the skin of the organism, not as physiological mediators of behavior, but as part of behavior itself. It can deal with these events without assuming that they have any special nature or must be known in any special way. The skin is not that important as a boundary. Private and public events have the same kinds of physical dimensions. (p. 228)6
As described by Baum, this form of behaviorism was not "radical" because it rejected the inner life, but rather it was "radical" because it rejected the inner-outer dualism that treats the mind as something fundamentally distinct from the physical world7. That is, Skinner argued the opposite of the position he was accused of, instead of rejecting the existence of the mind he argued that the mind is a thing composed of causes and effects, and processes that can (and should) be studied by science. This is why he was "radical", as he brought the mind, thinking, and cognition into the realm of science.

MISCONCEPTION #3: Behaviorists try to explain behavior in terms of simple stimulus-response reactions.

Stimulus-response (S-R) psychology is the idea that even very complex behaviors are just like reflexes, in that every behavior is triggered or elicited by a specific stimulus. Again, this is a reasonable representation of methodological behaviorism but is not at all a fair description of radical behaviorism. Perhaps the most famous demonstration of this misconception is Noam Chomsky's attempt to criticise Skinner's "Verbal Behavior" in his essay: "A Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior", and this review was expertly dealt with by Kenneth MacCorquodale in "On Chomsky's Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior". Chomsky's misunderstanding is best summed up early on by MacCorquodale, where he explains that it isn't surprising that a reply to Chomsky's review was delayed, given that nobody could figure out just exactly who or what he was attacking. He titled his essay as an attack on Skinner, yet spends the bulk of his work attacking S-R psychology - and so the remaining methodological behaviorists of the time ignored it since it was directed at Skinner, and the radical behaviorists ignored it because it was an attack on S-R psychology (and they agreed with the basic arguments presented).

To understand why it is wrong to think of Skinner's work as presenting an S-R approach, it is useful to look at one of the fundamental principles of his philosophy: operant conditioning. As opposed to classical conditioning, sometimes referred to as 'respondent conditioning', where the emphasis is on the response that is elicited out of the organism, operant conditioning focuses on the 'operant' - the voluntary response that is emitted by the organism. So whilst Skinner did not ignore the importance of some stimulus-response responses (i.e. it's necessarily true that dogs salivate at the sound of a bell when that sound has been paired with food), he argued that such a form of learning was not enough in itself to explain all of behavior.

MISCONCEPTION #4: Behaviorism only works with non-human animals.

Another aspect of Chomsky's review was his skepticism over how valid it is to extrapolate results from animals in labs to complex human behavior, and this criticism is often repeated by other detractors like Pinker. Firstly, it is important to highlight how baseless this argument is as a criticism of Skinner's work. That is, even if it were true that Skinner (and behaviorists in general) only dealt with animal behavior and tried to apply the results to human behavior, it misses the fact that behaviorists are studying universal laws or generalities across species, not species-specific behavior. So the subject of study is behavior itself, not rat behavior or pigeon behavior, etc. The reasoning for studying animal behavior, at least originally, is quite simple - if you want to learn how the engine of a 747 works, you don't start by trying to reverse-engineer a 747. You walk down to your garden shed and rip apart the engine of your lawn mower, and once you understand the basic principles behind how it works, you graduate to a more complex engine and retain the principles that are common to all engines.

Secondly, the main problem with this misconception is that it is demonstrably false. The principles of behavioral psychology have consistently proven themselves to be just as applicable to human behavior as they are to animal behavior. I touched on this in my essay "The Unpredictability of Humans" where I discuss how successful the matching law has been in describing and predicting the choice behavior of humans, but it's also pertinent to note that these applications are not only theoretically relevant. Instead, various principles derived from basic animal research have led to life-changing therapies, like systematic desensitisation for phobias, a range of tools in applied behavior analysis for self-injurious behavior, autism, eating disorders, etc, cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety, Triple-P as a large-scale intervention to improve parenting techniques and the well-being of children, and so on. To ignore its application to humans is to ignore reality.

MISCONCEPTION #5: Behaviorism is no longer relevant to modern psychology.

Outside of academia, there is a prevailing view that behaviorism is dead and that it has had no impact on the current state of psychology. Ignoring for now the controversy over the claims of a "cognitive revolution", given the paragraph above it's clear that to say behaviorism is no longer relevant must be wrong. The main reason for this misconception however seems to be a culmination of all the misconceptions above. When we realise that behaviorism is an entirely uncontroversial philosophy though, the claims that it is dead become much harder to justify. A great article by Henry Roediger counters this misconception for me perfectly where he asks "What Happened to Behaviorism?":
Perhaps the most radical answer to the question I posed is that behaviorism is less discussed and debated today because it actually won the intellectual battle. In a very real sense, all psychologists today (at least those doing empirical research) are behaviorists. Even the most cognitively oriented experimentalists study behavior of some sort. They might study effects of variables of pushing buttons on computers, or filling out checklists, or making confidence ratings, or patterns of bloodflow, or recalling words by writing them on sheets of paper, but they almost always study objectively verifiable behavior. (And even subjective experiences, such as confidence ratings, can be replicated across people and across conditions). This step of studying objectively verifiable behavior represents a huge change from the work of many psychologists in 1904. Today the fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience are highly behavioral (if one includes neural measures of behavior). True, there is nothing necessarily inherently interesting about pushing buttons on computers, but on the other hand, the basic laws of behavior in the animal lab were worked out on rats pushing levers and navigating runways, or pigeons pecking keys – not exactly riveting behaviors in their own right. In all these cases, the scientist’s hope is to discover fundamentally interesting principles from simple, elegant experimental analyses. The cognitive researcher goes further and seeks converging evidence from behavioral observations on internal workings of the mind/brain systems. But as experimentalists, both cognitive and behavioral researchers study behavior. Behaviorism won.

The mischaracterisations of behaviorism are pervasive. I've gently scratched the surface of all of the misunderstandings and it is not an exaggeration to say that there are many more that I haven't mentioned. Even in psychology departments and textbooks8, 9, 10 these misconceptions are being propagated so it is hardly unsurprising that those outside of psychology are plagued by confusion.

Of course, this isn't to say that behaviorism is a perfect philosophy, that it cannot be criticised, or can never be improved upon, but instead it is to suggest that many of the reasons for rejecting behaviorism are unfounded. To sum up this article, I think I'll leave it to Skinner himself:
Those who so triumphantly announce the death of behaviorism are announcing their own escape from the canons of scientific method.

1. Pavlov, I., (1927/1960). Conditional Reflexes. Dover Publications, New York.

2. Watson, J. B., (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

3. Watson, J. B., (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.

4. Pinker, S., (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Allen Lane, London.

5. Skinner, B. F., (1974). About behaviorism. Knopf, New York.

6. Skinner, B. F., (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.

7. Baum, W., (2011). Behaviorism, private events, and the molar view of behavior. The Behavior Analyst. 34:185–200.

8. Lamal, P. A., (1995). College students’ misconceptions about behavior analysis. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 177-180.

9. Arntzen, E., Lokke, J., Lokke, G., & Eilertsen, D. E., (2011). On misconceptions about behavior analysis among university students and teachers. The Psychological Record, 60(2), 8.

10. Todd, J. T., & Morris, E. K., (1983). Misconception and miseducation: Presentations of radical behaviorism in psychology textbooks. The Behavior Analyst, 6(2), 153.


  1. The difference between a turbine based engine for a 747 and a piston based engine for a lawnmower is enormous. So enormous that my uncles, one in aviation and the other in trucking, do not share many "principles that are common" when discussing their work.
    I think that the evolutionary "thrust" provided by our complex brains requires a species specific focus to best understand complex human behavior.

    1. Hey Anon - thanks for the info about engines. I'll admit that it's not exactly my subject area so I'll take your word for it. Despite the factual inaccuracies of the actual comparison, I hope that the point I was making is still understandable.

      Anon says: "I think that the evolutionary "thrust" provided by our complex brains requires a species specific focus to best understand complex human behavior."

      I'm not so sure about that. What we do know from behavioral science is that there is very little difference, behaviorally, between humans, rats, pigeons, insects, etc. We have discovered so many universal laws that it's really undeniable that working our way from the bottom up is a valuable/productive approach.

      Evolutionary psychology can be a useful approach to studying psychology as well, of course, but currently I don't think there are any results that could justify suggesting that there have been any evolutionary spurts that have caused a significant difference between humans and animals. Not to say that there hasn't been, but just that at the moment we haven't faced any difficulties in explaining most complex human behavior through universal and general laws.

  2. oooooh... much to think about and comment on!

    As it is getting late, I'll start with the maximum defense of Watson that I can give (I really don't like the guy). I will only mention that I think Watson's claim regarding transforming children into doctors or thief's at will is not an overstatement. Surely parents do that to their children all the time. I think the confusion comes from reading far more into the quote than what Watson actually said. All Watson claimed was that he could take a baby and produce an adult with a particular profession. He didn't claim the person would be particularly good at the profession, he didn't claim they would be happy at the profession, he didn't claim he could do it with an older child, and he certainly didn't claim he would have control over all aspects of the person's life. He also picked a list of professions that do not require particular physical endowments (e.g. he did not include professional gymnast).

    At a time when folks believed much more strongly than today that a person's race limited their abilities to succeed in certain professions, and folks believed much more strongly than today that some people were born with built in moral compasses that would exclude other professions, this was a strikingly bold claim.

    However, I think in today's environment it is pretty mundane. Most folks believe that any normally functioning child can grow up to be any of those things. If they can become that, then you can manipulate the environment to make them more likely to become that. Thus, today the issue is about how high a probability you could achieve, not an issue of racial limitation, etc.

    Alright, no more defending Watson. Other stuff later.

    P.S. Have you seen my earlier posts on behaviorism, like this one?

    1. Hey Eric, thanks for the comments.

      I agree that his comment could be interpreted as a weaker claim where proficiency in the profession is not necessary, and that even this would be a strong claim for the beliefs of his time. I think it's hard to interpret it this way given that he suggests that he can make a child into "any specialist" but I also think it's useful to interpret it in the most extreme way possible and mount a defence against that - as it's less likely that I'd be accused of dodging the "true" issue, or redefining his position.

      Your last paragraph, I believe, sums up the problem most people have with getting their heads around behaviorism. Watson's claim (especially when interpreted in the way you suggest) is spectacularly uncontroversial within our current framework of knowledge and this seems to be true of a lot of the core assumptions of behaviorism. The problem arises when we, looking back on their arguments, fully accept what they seem to be saying but assume that they must have meant something else, otherwise why would people oppose it? As such, we end up ascribing ridiculous positions to the behaviorists and the misunderstanding continues.

      On your posts about behaviorism, I think I have read over some of them a while ago but I'll check over them again later and make comments if something stands out to me.