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.


  3. Fantastic Blog. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    I was wondering if you could elborate on this point:

    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.

    It was my understanding that Skinner (and Radical Behaviorism) was very much anti-nativist. From stanford encyclopedia: 'For a behaviorist an organism learns, as it were, from its successes and mistakes. “Rules,” says Skinner (1984a), “are derived from contingencies, which specify discriminative stimuli, responses, and consequences” (p. 583)'

    As such, while I love the idea of marrying the notions introspection with behaviorism by pointing to neural behavioral patterns, the two seem incompatible if one notion rejects innate predispositions.

    1. Hi there, thanks for commenting and I'm glad you like my blog!

      The idea that Skinner (or any behaviorist) was anti-nativist is a misunderstanding that comes about as a result of multiple myths and misreadings of the people involved. I give some examples above of how this can't be true (like Watson originally being an ethologist studying innate behaviors, even dedicating the final chapters of his book "Behaviorism" to instinctual behaviors) and Skinner regularly discussed the existence (and importance) of innate behaviors, like in his article: The Phylogeny and Ontogeny of Behavior. There's also a good overview here: Not so fast, Mr Pinker..

      The confusion generally comes from two basic sources. The first is that behaviorists led the fight against the problematic use of the term "instinct": "Nature as Nurture: Behaviorism and the Instinct Doctrine'. But, as you can see from the linked article there, the complaint that behaviorists had wasn't against the concept of innate behaviors, but with the concept of "instinct". It was so vaguely defined and had been applied to a large array of (often conflicting) behaviors that it had become a meaningless term. At a glance, however, it's possible for an outsider to see the behaviorist fight against instinct as a fight against innate behaviors entirely.

      The second problem comes as a result of Skinner's regular comments on the levels of explanation. He would often remark that the study of behavior is a scientific field in its own right and can thus be explained without recourse to things like neuroscience or physiology. The confusion here is that he explicitly wasn't saying that those things don't affect behavior (like in the case of innate behaviors) but rather that they aren't needed to explain behavior at the level of behavior. As a comparison, chemistry is a scientific field even if they don't always appeal to physics to explain their results. Their non-use of physics in their everyday study isn't an indication that they reject physics or the fact that chemistry is based on lower order processes but rather they're happy to leave the physics to physicists and the chemists can stick to chemistry. In the same way, behavioral psychologists are happy to leave innate behaviors to the geneticists and ethologists whilst they study learnt behavior.

      As for the SEP entry on behaviorism, it is a web of misinformation that I need to tackle one day but I fear that if I start then I'll never finish. It might help though if you keep in mind that it's written by a philosopher and in academic philosophy the main behaviorist influence that they've been exposed to is logical/analytical behaviorism, which is a completely different beast to the behaviorism used in psychology.

      I hope that helps but feel free to ask follow-up questions if I haven't answered what you were asking.

  4. I guess I was hoping for some more information on Skinner's views on phylogenic patterns of behaviour. Unfortunately the relevant article was the only article I couldn't access. The others were very informative though so thanks for those - although the first was so scathing that I thought it was on the verge of falling into the combative style he was so heavily criticising.

    The problem I see with Skinner accepting innate behaviors is that it isn't compatible with some of the original tenets of RB. Namely the eliminability of inner process laws i.e. if there are inner processes describable by laws, the inner processes themselves would be the result of patterns of external stimuli. Going on to then accept that sexual attraction has both behavioral and innate components (which Skinner describes as sexual reflex acc. to Schlinger) seems to violate this and resultingly becomes more of a mentalistic account. (I am aware I am equating innate behavior with inner processes - perhaps you will disagree with me on this but I feel at the very least the two are heavily intertwined).

    I can see how it is necessary to 'update' RB to incorporate uncontestable facts but not if the picture you end up with is the antithesis of what you started with. I think the bigger problem for me can be explained by the nature/nurture distinction, or rather the complete rejection of it by the scientific community due to their inseparabilty. A great analogy is that of Newtonian space and time as oppose to Einsteinian space-time. I can't help but feel that the two being so inextricably linked does not bode well for RB. This is because Skinner needs them to be separate in order to behavior on the one hand and 'innate behaviors' (which can be left to the neuroscientists, child psychologists etc.) on the other.

    That said, this could all be due to a fundamental flaw in my understanding of RB. It's funny that you mention that analytical behaviorism is a completely different beast because I was taught that RB is essentially a congruent mix of psychological, methodological and analytical behaviorism.

    (Please excuse any typos, grammatical mistakes as this is now the third time I have typed this out - blogspot REALLY doesn't like mobile devices.)

    1. EDIT to paragraph 3:
      Uncontestable facts (e.g. congenital traits).
      End picture being anthithesis of start (i.e. start with non-mentalistic acc, add some facts, throw in reflex, drive and other innate things that can't be explained by behavior and suddenly you have something that looks remarkably like a mentalistic acc.)

    2. "Unfortunately the relevant article was the only article I couldn't access."

      That's a shame as it succinctly counters the myth that behaviorism rejects innate behaviors. He discusses these concepts in all of his works, including "Selection by Consequences" but I'll copy a few excerpts from the article here:

      "Yet [Watson] is probably responsible for the
      persistent myth of what has been called "behaviorism's
      counterfactual dogma" (Hirsch 1963). And it is a myth. 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 about equally conditionable
      to all stimuli" (Breland & Breland 1961)."

      "Another kind of innate endowment, particularly likely
      to appear in explanations of human behavior, takes the
      form of "traits" or "abilities." Though often measured
      quantitatively, their dimensions are meaningful only in
      placing the individual in a population. The behavior
      measured is almost always obviously learned. To say that
      intelligence is inherited is not to say that specific forms
      of behavior are inherited. Phylogenic contingencies conceivably
      responsible for "the selection of intelligence"
      do not specify responses. What has been selected appears
      to be a susceptibility to ontogenic contingencies,
      leading particularly to greater speed of conditioning and
      the capacity to maintain a larger repertoire without

      "More specific characteristics of behavior seem to be
      common products of phylogenic and ontogenic contingencies.
      Imitation is an example. If we define imitation
      as behaving in a way which resembles the observed
      behavior of another organism, the term will describe both
      phylogenic and ontogenic behavior. But important distinctions
      need to be made. Phylogenic contingencies are
      presumably responsible for well-defined responses released
      by similar behavior (or its products) on the part of
      others. A warning cry is taken up and passed along by
      others; one bird in a flock flies off, and the others fly off;
      one member of a herd starts to run, and the others start to
      run. A stimulus acting upon only one member of a group
      thus quickly affects other members, with plausible phylogenic

      He also discusses the myth that Watson was a blank slatist based on the quotemining of his 12 infants quote, and praises him for his work on instinctual behaviors as an ethologist.

      But the basic summary of the article, as Skinner puts it, is that it is often unwise to talk of any behavior as being either inherited or acquired, as usually there is a significant influence from both directions.

      "although the first was so scathing that I thought it was on the verge of falling into the combative style he was so heavily criticising."

      Sure, but I love the snark in it! I think the difference, however, is that Pinker has set up his book as basically an introduction for laymen and advertises it as a balanced overview of an academic topic. As such, he absolutely should be challenged on his obvious polemics.

      Schlinger, on the other hand, is simply rebutting Pinker within his academic circle and so there's no need to wear kiddy gloves.

      "Namely the eliminability of inner process laws i.e. if there are inner processes describable by laws, the inner processes themselves would be the result of patterns of external stimuli."

      I'm not aware of any radical behaviorist objection to inner processes though, and Skinner argued at length that they should be understood and studied in the same way we study any other kind of behavior. So I don't see how this could be an incompatibility when the existence and importance of inner processes is one of the central tenets of radical behaviorism. The existence of private and covert behaviors is precisely why Skinner's behaviorism was "radical".

    3. "seems to violate this and resultingly becomes more of a mentalistic account.

      Which would only be a problem if the 'mentalistic' account is mentalistic in the sense that behaviorists rejected. Skinner's description of "mentalism" referred to processes that existed outside of the empirical and natural world, accounts and explanations of behavior which (by definition) were self-caused and supernatural. In other words, he rejected accounts of behavior that relied on substance dualism.

      I see no reason to think that an inclusion of inner processes requires an acceptance of dualism, and Skinner didn't think so either.

      "(I am aware I am equating innate behavior with inner processes - perhaps you will disagree with me on this but I feel at the very least the two are heavily intertwined)."

      I have to say that I'm sure quite sure how the two are intertwined at all but maybe we're using different definitions. "Inner processes" to me usually refers to things like cognition (thoughts, emotions, etc) and sometimes physiological processes underpinning them.

      Cognition, I think, is surely undeniably a distinct concept from innate. Most thoughts that we have are not innate in any meaningful sense. The physiological processes of the brain may have more innate components but it's still heavily affected by environment and learning so again it's still distinct from innate.

      "I think the bigger problem for me can be explained by the nature/nurture distinction, or rather the complete rejection of it by the scientific community due to their inseparabilty."

      Agreed! And this was one of the main points that Skinner makes in most of his work - you cannot separate nature from nurture, and to attempt to do so is a fool's errand. He repeated it so often and so consistently that I personally consider it to be a core belief of RB.

      "This is because Skinner needs them to be separate in order to behavior on the one hand and 'innate behaviors' (which can be left to the neuroscientists, child psychologists etc.) on the other."

      This isn't true at all. Even if we ignore behaviorism for now and just focus on science in general, we see that it is overwhelmingly accepted that nature and nurture are inextricably intertwined. And yet we also see that geneticists study genes and sociologists study society.

      There are valid fields of study that exist that investigate the same broad empirical questions but we don't need to mix them for either one to be "scientific". That was all Skinner was arguing. He was absolutely not opposed to mixing them, especially when the investigation required it, and instead he was simply arguing that it is scientific to study learning as a field in itself, in the same way that it is scientific to study chemistry without referencing physics in every paper.

      "I was taught that RB is essentially a congruent mix of psychological, methodological and analytical behaviorism."

      That's very strange as RB and analytical behaviorism are not compatible. Ryle essentially developed analytical behaviorism as a reaction to what Skinner argued for, and he rejected Skinner's position.

      And I'll be honest, I only heard about "psychological behaviorism" a few months ago and I still don't really understand what it is. It seems to just refer to behaviorism as applied to psychology but I don't see how that differs from behaviorism as a whole.

      "End picture being anthithesis of start (i.e. start with non-mentalistic acc, add some facts, throw in reflex, drive and other innate things that can't be explained by behavior and suddenly you have something that looks remarkably like a mentalistic acc.)"

      Just a quick note on this - did you know that Skinner was one of the earliest researchers in reflex and drive theories? They were largely developed and studied by behaviorists, like Pavlov and Watson.

  5. Surely the thing about nature & nurture is that (a) they can easilly be conceived as separate inputs (to a mechanism-development process) but (b) the outputs of that process (the mechanism and the behavior produced by that mechanism) are such that different features of those outputs cannot easilly be ascribed to nature or nurture. The outputs are not simply mixed but cooked. A simple analogy is a cake (output) produced by a mix of eggs and flour (inputs). We cannot point to different parts of the cake and say this bit is 20% due to egg and 80% due to flour. Actually in some cases we can separate the effects of different contributions in the output e.g. nature: children have an innate ability to learn to speak but nurture: children raised in France mostly speak French. And a similar thing can occur with songbirds - innate song pattern is modulated by a local (learned) dialect.

  6. I don't think Pavlov called Respondant conditioning "Classical Conditioning". I think the Russian word he used was closer in meaning to the word "respondent".

    Second, it is misleading to say that Radical Behaviourists accept the existence of minds- Skinner was pretty explicit in his rejection of them in "About behaviorism" (1974).

    The reason being that people make a distinction between "the mind" and what it supposedly does. For example, a person might say that they "see a thing in their mind", but the only evidence of the mind is the "seeing". The only evidence a person who says they have a mind can have is that they sense things, feel, and think.

    Skinner's argument was that these things are things people do, and as such are behaviour of people/animals, and not things minds do.

    1. Cont. Although, if you really wanted to, there would be nothing wrong with saying "minds exist", if by that you mean "people think/feel/sense", but this seems somewhat Superfluous, because this isn't really how people use the word.

    2. Hi Anon,

      Thanks for your response. On the 'classical conditioning' point, you're definitely right. I was simplifying to try to keep terms consistent and avoid the typical problem of learners being introduced to multiple terms for the same ideas but it is misleading to suggest that he specifically termed it that.

      You're right that Skinner rejected the concept of mind but I don't think he rejects the concept that most people mean by mind, which is the point I'm trying to emphasise. If by "mind" somebody means a discrete entity, like a kind of homunculus then Skinner obviously didn't support that.

      But I think Skinner's understanding and acceptance of cognitive processes is consistent with Gilbert Ryles' concept of mind, where it is just a label for a set of mental states and cognitive processes.

      I understand that I'm using terms slightly differently to how Skinner would understand them on a surface level, but when discussing these issues I find that people struggle to accept behaviorist arguments because there is so much complexity involved in the terminology that misunderstandings arise when they're not aware of the arguments behind the choice of terminology.

      So even though you're right that Skinner didn't accept "the mind" in the way you describe it, people interpret this as meaning that Skinner rejected inner states or cognitive processes, which is not only untrue but was in fact the basis of his radical behaviorism.

  7. Dear Mike,

    Thank you for your blog. The biggest misunderstanding regarding behaviorism is in my opinion the fact that what is written cannot bridge the gap between what is written and what is said. Only what is said can bridge this gap, but only when it is Sound Verbal Behavior (SVB). In SVB, the speaker's voice is perceived by the listener as an appetitive stimulus. In Noxious Verbal Behavior (NVB), by contrast, the speaker's voice is experienced as an aversive stimulus by the listener. I would very much like to talk with you about this. You can also go to my blog and read about it on:
    Let me know what you think of my writing. Thanks. Kind greetings, Maximus

    1. Hi Maximus, sorry for the slow reply. I'll be honest, I only have a basic understanding of research in verbal behavior so I'm not sure how much I could add to your ideas, but feel free to email me if you wanted to talk at length:

      Your distinction between NVB and SVB sounds interesting, and on your blog I see that the distinction to you seems to carry a lot of value judgements, but I wonder if it could be viewed more simply as just a difference in function. So NVB is controlled by variables that reinforce things like "dominating" a conversation, or "winning" a debate I guess, whereas SVB is reinforced by a perception that there's a mutual understanding occurring or that the other person has come to a genuine understanding of the subject matter being discussed.

      But maybe I'm misunderstanding what your argument is and I'll have to read your blog more.

    2. Thanks for your reply Mike. From what you describe you understand, but you do not yet experience what I mean with the distinction between SVB and NVB. Indeed, the difference between SVB and NVB can be viewed as simply just the difference in function. However, after many years of experimenting it has become clear to me as well as to everyone who has become familiar with the SVB/NVB distinction that SVB is the only intelligent way of communicating and that NVB is a blunt, dumb, unintelligent and deeply problematic way of talking. This fact can and should be verified. NVB keeps us unconscious, it impairs our relationships and it creates psychopathology. In the process of discriminating between SVB and NVB the question of understanding always arises in the absence of experience. If we were to have some real conversation with each other it would be crystal clear that experience of SVB comes before one can understand it. We can skype with each other and explore and this will make writing about it very different. I would really appreciate if you would also respond to my blog. I look forward to explain more and hope we can put this crucially important distinction on the map. Sound greetings, Maximus

  8. This is really interesting. Have you considered posting to I would totally follow you.

  9. Peculiar article, totally what I wanted to find.

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