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The New Behaviorism (Second Edition)

13 October 2014 08:28:00 by J. E. R. Staddon §

Behaviorism was once the major force in American psychology. It participated in great advances in our understanding of reward and punishment, especially in animals. It drove powerful movements in education and social policy. As a self-identified movement, it is today a vigorous but isolated offshoot. But its main ideas have been absorbed into experimental psychology.

Preface to the Second Edition

This edition is almost completely rewritten and about twice as long as the first. I cover two new social issues and also devote more space to the philosophy of cognitivism and the science behind theoretical behaviorism. B. F. Skinner figures less prominently in this edition than the last, but his work is a theme that still runs through many chapters – because his influence has been so great and his writings raise so many provocative issues that are identified with behaviorism. But, as readers of the first edition detected, my position is far from Skinnerian.

Many reviewers thought well of the first edition but, naturally, I want to attend to those who did not. Some felt I was too hard on B. F. Skinner. One even accused me of an ad hominem attack. Several thought that I did not present a favorable enough view of behaviorism and that my own position was little short of…cognitive. One otherwise sympathetic critic thought the book “conservative” – not a term that will endear it to most psychologists.

The critics are right to this extent. The book was not and is not an advertisement for radical behaviorism. It is, first, a short history of a fascinating movement in psychology. Sec-ond, it is an analysis of what I think went wrong with behaviorism as time went on. Third it is a proposal for a theoretical behaviorism. I describe the philosophy behind theoretical behaviorism as well as some more or less detailed applications of the approach to laboratory phenomena, ranging from choice behavior in animals to human perception. I believe that theoretical behav-iorism can provide a unified framework for a science of behavior that is now fragmented. And finally, I suggest how it can provide insights into broader practical issues such as law and pun-ishment, the health-care system and teaching.

Behaviorism began with a healthy skepticism about introspection. Conscious thought tells us very little about the springs of action. Behaviorism of all types is right about that. It is right to emphasize action over information and representation, which is the theme, even the pre-occupation, of cognitive psychology. On the other hand, not all cognitive psychology is philoso-phically or experimentally flawed. It should not be ignored. Behaviorism is right also to empha-size biology and evolution, which is driven not by thought but by action. And radical behavior-ism, as advanced by B. F. Skinner and his students, was wonderfully right in developing new experimental methods for studying the behavior of individual organisms in real time. The dis-covery of reinforcement schedules was a great advance and opened up a huge new field to be explored.

But behaviorism also lost its way in several respects. Methodological behaviorism, Skin-ner’s term – neobehaviorism was their own term - went along with the standard methods of psy-chology: between-group comparisons rather than the study of individuals, and settling for statis-tical significance as a measure of scientific success. I have little to say about it. I do discuss the serious flaws of null-hypothesis statistical testing in Chapter 9.

Although radical behaviorism accepts evolutionary continuity between man and animals, its has consistently neglected the nature part of the nature-nurture dyad. It also imposed ridicu-lous strictures on theoretical development, to the point that behaviorist theory became an oxymo-ron. Radical behaviorism also became increasingly isolated from the rest of psychology through a self-consciously idiosyncratic vocabulary and a naïve epistemology (theory-of-knowledge) that caused many philosophers to dismiss the whole field. Skinner bears much responsibility for that and for the limits he placed on theory.

And finally, Skinner’s pronouncements on society and its reform led him to extrapolate an infant laboratory science to social realms far beyond its reach. My response to this is not so much “conservative” as just cautious. Human society is immensely complex. Political decisions involve values as much as techniques. Much has been written on the organization of society. Not all of it is worthless. Almost none was addressed by Skinner. To “design a culture” as one might design a lawnmower is to confuse ‘culture’ with contraption, and place oneself far above humanity in general as a sort of all-wise, all-knowing philosopher king. We would all like to find a philosopher king, but they are in short supply. Skinner was not one.

The book is in four parts. The first part (Chapters 1, and 2) is a brief history of behavior-ism. The second part (Chapters 3-12) is the longest. It discusses the experimental methods and theory associated with Skinnerian behaviorism and the single-subject method (Chapters 3 and 4), Skinner’s views on theory, the parallel between learning and evolution, and the theoretical rela-tions between behavioral psychology and ‘rational-choice’ economics (Chapters 5-8). In Chap-ter 4, I have a longish discussion of choice behavior and, a laboratory phenomenon that has played an important part in the development of behaviorist theory. This section ends with a dis-cussion of the new consensus on a Darwinian, selection/variation approach to learning, the limi-tations of Skinner’s utopian ideas and finally Skinner’s idiosyncratic view of mental life (Chap-ter 9-12). Two chapters deal with Skinner’s still-influential proposal to ‘design a culture.’ The popularity of behavioral economics, exemplified by books like Nudge , the policies of New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and the UK’s David Cameron about things like smoking and obesity, and the continuing efforts, especially in Europe and the UK, to diminish the role of punishment in the legal system, all reflect the influence of Skinner’s ideas. Skinner, like many ‘scientific imperialists’ today, believed that science provides the ends as well as the means for enlightened social policy. So it’s OK to use science to trick the citizenry as long as it gets them to do the right thing. I examine all this in Chapters 10 and 11.

The third part expands the discussion of theoretical behaviorism that I began earlier in connection with choice and timing. I describe what it is, how it deals with some new learning phenomena and with phenomena of consciousness, in humans and in animals. (Chapters 13-16). Part 4 is a beginning attempt to analyze three major areas of society - the legal system, health care and teaching - from a behavioristic viewpoint.


John Staddon

Durham, North Carolina, June, 2013.

Behaviorism was once the major force in AmBehaviorism was once the major force in American psychology. It participated in great advances in our understanding of reward and punishment, especially in animals. It drove powerful movements in education and social policy. As a self-identified movement, it is today a vigorous but isolated offshoot. But its main ideas have been absorbed into experimental psychology.een absorbed into experimental psychology. +
The New Behaviorism (Second Edition) +
08:28:00, 13 October 2014 +
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