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Can Behaviorism Still Apply in the Face of Overwhelming Opposition?

Eileen Pizzurro
Northwestern University

This article demonstrates the reasons behind the movement that has been growing for the past three decades against the theory of behaviorism. These are the contemporary challenges set forth by cognitive science, psycholinguistics, and philosophy. Cognitive and other psychologists reject, not the methods of behaviorism, which many use derivations from in their own studies, but the theory's insistent ignoring of mental processes as something to be studied. In other words, behaviorists are concerned purely with observable behavior, rather than attempting to probe the inner processes of the mind.

Behaviorism is a major trend in psychology, one that directly follows from functionalism, the branch of psychology that focuses on the biological significance of natural processes, including behavior. Behaviorist theory goes further in its rejection of the unique nature of mental events. It does so by declaring that psychology is the study of only observable behaviors. Therefore, purely mental events, events that occur outside the realm of behavior are not the subject matter of psychology. In terms of a definition, behaviorism is the study of the relationship between individuals' environments and their behavior, without consulting hypothetical events that occur within their minds (Carlson & Buskist, 1997).

This movement gained much attention and praise from the vast number of scientists who claimed other theories in psychology were invalid because they were not empirical, and as a result not quantifiable. Behaviorism, in contrast, maintains an objective stance to ensure that research findings will be valid and capable of being relied upon. Behaviorists achieve this objective stance by refusing to deal with what they call the "black box" of the mind. One cannot measure what goes on inside an individual's mind, or at least not with certain validity. One can, however, measure and find patterns in that individual's actions in his or her environment.

After many years of supremacy in the field of American psychology, the theory of behaviorism finds itself now on the defensive. Behaviorism's dominance in psychology restricted the science's subject matter to that of observable behavior. Thus, concepts like consciousness were considered to be outside the realm of psychology. As Burt (1962) writes, "psychology, having first bargained away its soul and then gone out of its mind, seems now...to have lost all consciousness" (p.229).

Many psychologists have turned against behaviorism and turned to the study of thinking and consciousness, known as cognitive psychology. This type of psychology utilizes an approach called information processing, or how information that is received through the different senses is "processed" by various systems in the brain. This concept of imagery occurs within the confines of the brain, and is therefore still hypothetical. However, the behavioral data compiled by questions asked about certain images are, in fact, empirical and objective. These new theories force the psychological world to say that one cannot base psychology purely on observable behavior, if one is truly to probe the mind. The data gained through cognitive psychology's methods are behavior-based. They beg the question, can any theory in psychology be valid without the foundation of behaviorism?

Psychology Is a Science

An Objective Science

Behaviorists see psychology as a natural science, with two important corollaries. The first corollary alleges that science, and specifically psychology, must be objective. The other is that psychology, as a science, must be empirically based as well. The theories and methods of B. F. Skinner are a good example of how behaviorism is perhaps the most objective sub-field within the domain of psychology. The late B.F. Skinner was a grand figure in the world of psychology, and more specifically within the realm of behaviorism. He claimed that behavior is greatly explained in terms of its consequences. Behavior, then, is consistent from one situation to the next because it is maintained by similar kinds of consequences across those situations. It changes only when the consequences for behavior change. As a result of the degree to which theorists confine themselves to behavior, their definition of personality itself becomes equivalent to and dependent upon that individual's behavior. Essentially, that what a person "is" is what a person "does." This briefly depicts Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, which arose out of his empirical data supporting his theses that there are relations between environmental stimuli and an individual's behavior. The term operant refers to the fact that an organism learns through responding to the environment. Skinner also asserted that positive or negative reinforcement (consequences)affect a subject's behavior, in that, the act will either be repeated or avoided (Carlson & Buskist, 1997 p.133).

A good example of the objective thinking behind behaviorism is given in an argument that Zuriff (1986) cites. Skinner argues that research should be conducted not to test theorems, but to find orderliness in behavior. The search for orderliness is intuitive, rather than structured by scientific method. A theory is a formulation that uses a small number of terms to explain a large number of facts (p. 712).

Skinner therefore used operant conditioning to analyze behaviors in terms of the observable events and conditions that seem to vary with them, and to find said orderliness. As a result, most behaviorists refuse to state specific motivations for behavior and try to uncover the external events that strengthen its future probability and that either sustain or alter it. Hull's drive reduction theory is an exception. Operant behavior is changed by its consequences. A behavior is called "operant" because it "operates" on the environment. The outcome of any pattern of responses--or operants--determines how likely it is that the subject is more likely to perform similar responses again in the future. If a response is positively reinforced (met with favorable consequences), then the subject is more likely to perform it again. The learning to perform the same responses again and again in response to a favorable stimulus or consequence is called operant conditioning.

An Empirical Science

As a result of the fact that perception and report are conceptual, observation cannot be entirely independent of knowledge and belief. However, it should be possible to establish a continuum based on the degree to which knowledge and belief contribute to a data report. For example, Zuriff (1986) uses an example of the obvious difference of two reports describing the same event. The first report was, "Smith ran five miles," whereas the other stated, "Smith unconsciously tried to impress his friends with his running" (p.701). Descriptions that command universal consent from observers are at one end of the continuum whereas those generating much opposition are at the other.

Therefore, although behaviorists differ in their theories of behavior and hence in their explanations of scientific research, theorizing, and theory confirmation, they all view science in terms of the behavior of the scientist. Behaviorists generally maintain a consequential doctrine (Hempel & Oppenheim, 1948). However, in the case against consciousness, they set forth methodological arguments rather than ontological ones(Zuriff, 1986 p.698). One of the greatest strengths of behaviorism, according to Marx (1986), is its foundational methodological advantage over all the competing perspectives (p.699).

Cognitive Psychology's Response to the Theories and Claims of Behaviorism

Psychology Is a Science Based on Inference

Although all psychological approaches are based on the study of behavior, they differ in how the behavior is used. The psychodynamic approach, such as in Freud's psychoanalysis, uses behavior as signs, inferring attributes and motives from the observable things the individual does. This differs from Skinner and other behaviorists in that they see the observed behavior as the basic unit, and the interest lies in determining what "controls" it (Mischel, 1993).

Growing evidence from several lines of research has altered theoretical perspectives concerning how behavior is acquired and regulated. It has been documented that cognitive processes play a prominent role in the acquisition and retention of new behavior patterns.

Acquisition of response information is a major aspect of learning, as much as human behavior is developed through modeling. Thus, from observing others, one will form a conception of how new behavior patterns are performed, and on following occasions the symbolic construction serves as a guide for action. Consequences serve as an unarticulated way of informing performers what they must do to gain beneficial outcomes and to avoid punishing ones (Bandura, 1977). This assertion seems quite similar to the various theories behind behaviorism. However, Bandura is asserting that all the characteristics that behaviorism assigns to operant conditioning and a simple response to one's environment are in fact cognitive responses. As Bandura (1977) clarifies, "Reinterpretation of antecedent determinants as predictive cues, rather than as controlling stimuli, has shifted the locus of the regulation of behavior from the stimulus to the individual" (p. 192).

Objections to the "Black Box" Theory

It has been argued by most of the psychological community that behavioral theories are not truly explanatory. It is stated that, at best, the "black box" theories provide input-output laws, but do not explain said laws. Only by reference to events inside the "black box" can behavior be explained. Also, the general behavioral laws used in "black box" deductive explanations are simply descriptive of observed regularities. Behaviorists state them as givens rather than as the results of the internal or mental events propitiating them.

Behaviorally oriented psychologists, in their attempt to ignore the "black box" of a mind, seem to dehumanize the person by ignoring his or her potential for freedom. In this sense behaviorists negate the entire concept of free will. For, as Boulding (1984) states, "In the case of humans we have a key to opening the black box of our minds in our capacity for reflection and communication. It seems the height of absurdity to dismiss this as 'operant control' of 'vocal musculature'" (p. 483).

Conclusion: Does Behaviorism Maintain its Validity?

The arguments in this article have attempted to outline the theory of behaviorism and the reactions against it from other theorists within the other sub-fields of psychology. In response to the arguments of behaviorism, psychodynamic, social, and cognitive psychologists have all voiced their opposition to the behaviorist theory. These psychologists state that it is too confined to the idea that psychology is the study of only observable behaviors. Therefore, behaviorism is clearly a theory that has strict limitations in the sense that it completely ignores mental events, or hypothetical feelings and consciousness, which occur outside the confined world of behavior.

It can be argued that, although behaviorism is limiting, it is also very effective as a basis for investigating other theories. For example, the image processing of cognitive psychology has its base in behavior analysis. The future of psychology as a science depends on how effectively it can use behavioral methodology, instead of focusing on either the philosophical or ideological underpinnings of the behavioristic shape of its theories. Thus, behaviorism is a theory that still has basic applicability in both its theories and methods. However, it needs somewhat of a reconstruction in order to continue to be beneficial to the world of psychology as a great theory of personality (Zuriff, 1986). Such a retooling of the theories would make the considerable capacity of behaviorism's theories more applicable to the world of today, a world more willing to search the inner recesses of the human mind.

Peer Commentary

What Is the True Difference Between Modern Behaviorism and Cognitive Psychology?

Susan Garea
Northwestern University

Pizzurro's arguments in "Can Behaviorism Still Apply in the Face of Overwhelming Opposition?" have not shown how modern behaviorism differs by more than terminology from cognitive psychology. Pizzurro dismisses behaviorism for ignoring all mental processes and instead using an input-output "black-box" theory, which obliterates the idea of free will. Modern behaviorism is in fact closer to cognitive psychology than Pizzurro allows.

Pizzurro uses the term "purely mental events" to describe internal processes beyond the realm of behavior. This terminology needs to be clarified because Skinner, a major figure in the field of behaviorism, makes the distinction between "private events," which are observable, and "mental events," which are unobservable. Skinner considers thoughts, feelings, recollections, and dreams private events. He studies these events as behavior (Baum & Heath, 1992). These are the same events cognitive psychologists study; it is therefore unclear what Pizzurro is referring to as "beyond the realm of behaviorism."

This slight terminology difference has caused numerous debates, but the important fact is that behaviorists do not seek or need to find a specific motive for an action. For this reason cognitive psychologists have been limited--no explanation can be provided for unconscious learning, but behaviorists can attribute this phenomenon to reinforcement (Overskeid, 1995).

Behaviorists do not dispute consciousness, they simply account for some reinforcement and/or inherited dispositions as leading to its existence. For example, a person carrying an umbrella is said to believe that it is going to rain, but Skinner would point to a preceding weather report instead of some inner belief. The weather report has reinforced a past experience when that person had been caught in the rain without an umbrella.

Cognitive psychologists believe that the inner thoughts and the hypothetical scenarios humans create in their minds, their consciousness, prove that they are not simply a product of positive and negative reinforcement and therefore have free will. But inner thoughts and scenarios are both products of past experiences and reinforcements and are therefore behaviors and studied by behaviorists.

Traditional behaviorism, described as a simple stimulus-response relationship with external stimuli, still has many practical applications. It must be remembered that this is the model proposed by Pavlov in the 1920's--behaviorism has come a long way since then. Obviously this simple model cannot be used and is not used to describe personality. However, the model is important for reconditioning drug addicts and creating successful community development projects with an appropriate amount of individual incentive. This simple model can also be used to describe social processes; a person does not just "like" someone--the person may be attracted to him or her to gain acceptance and positive reinforcement. These practical and widely used applications of behaviorism should be acknowledged.

To reject behaviorism in favor of cognitive psychology is to reject the basis of cognitive psychology. Behaviorism is not as cut and dry as it was in the time of Pavlov; mental processes have now been accounted for--reinforcement leads to the inner workings of people's minds. Behaviorism has brought much to the field of psychology; it cannot have outlived its usefulness when it is used constantly today.

Peer Commentary

Why I Am Not a Behaviorist: A Comment on Pizzurro

Pablo Gomez
Northwestern University

I will base my critique to Pizzurro (1998) on two issues. The first one is her lack of historical perspective on how cognitive psychology gained its status as a dominant theory, and the second one is on her notion of behaviorism as a theory that can still be relevant because cognitive psychologists still use behaviorist methods.

Pizzurro is right when she says that behaviorism is a theoretical perspective that has methodological advantages over the perspectives that were available at the time when behaviorism was the dominant theory. Associated with this advantage, behaviorists could operationalize all aspects of their theory and had a language to do so. On the other hand, other theories did not have clear definitions, and had a lot of room for ambiguities. I agree with Pizzurro when she says that behaviorism was a limiting theory; that is why, when a competing theory appeared that was less limiting and had the same methodological power as behaviorism, this new theory gained a lot of support.

This new theory, cognitive psychology, is as empirical as behaviorism, but is concerned with much more interesting and rich phenomena. In addition, it is an explanatory theory, not just a descriptive one. Pizzurro overlooks one very important issue when she discusses the rise of cognitive psychology: it was a theory that could operationalize and had clear definitions as well as a language to talk about the phenomena under study. In addition, cognitive psychologists started building mathematical models that constrained their theories and provided cognitive psychology with a way to avoid ambiguities in its theoretical formulations. For all these factors to take place, a very important event happened outside psychology: the invention of the computer.

Cognitive psychologists borrowed from computer scientists and information theorists the language that allowed them to formulate explicit theories (see Medin & Ross, 1997). In addition, computers provided a tool to test the mathematical models. Pizzurro overlooks this very important historical event in her analysis. Science does not just develop in isolation; it is also a product of the social and historical context. This context determines to some extent which are relevant research issues (e.g., pilot skills after World War II; Broadbent, 1958), and what are the tools available for scientists.

My other critique to Pizzurro's paper is related to her affirmation that cognitive psychology still uses behaviorist methods, making behaviorism a relevant theory even now. For cognitive psychologists, response time is a very important dependent variable. A lot of models and theories are founded or rejected based on response time data. Behaviorists did not use response time the same way cognitive psychologists do (see Ratcliff & McKoon, 1989, for an example). Furthermore the relevance of a theory does not depend only on what method it uses, but also on its explanatory and predictive power. Astrology is not relevant today even if ancient fortune tellers started to look for regularities in the sky, just as modern astronomers do.

Peer Commentary

It Is a Matter of Empirical Evidence

Payal Naik
Northwestern University

Pizzurro presents a valid and convincing argument in her analysis of behaviorism. However, there are some problems in her critique. She clearly shows her preference for the cognitive approach in personality psychology by blasting behaviorism for its failure to acknowledge the contents of the black box. Yet, at the same time she fails to show why the content is so important. Her entire argument is based on the assumption that all people accept the free will inherent in humans.

Although this may be true for those who believe in cognitive psychology, this is not necessarily true for all people. For example, there are religions that believe very strongly in destiny and fate, which seem to negate the concept of free will. For these people, the importance of the content of the black box, which Pizzurro finds so essential, may not be as obvious. Thus, in order to make her argument stronger, she needs empirical evidence for the importance of the content of the black box, the free will she claims is inherent in all human beings.

Without cognitive empirical evidence and with the behavioral empirical evidence she presents, her argument for cognitive psychology over behavioral psychology becomes subjective. In other words, her preference for cognitive psychology is not because it is right but because it is what she wants to believe. Maybe it is what she has been behaviorally conditioned by her environment to believe.

Author Response

Free Will Is Inherent

Eileen Pizzurro
Northwestern University

All the items mentioned in the critiques I have been given are valid, insightful points, all of which deserved to be heard and addressed. All three commentaries have made one point abundantly clear: that I did not make my definition and discussion of cognitive psychology in-depth enough. I found these responses extremely helpful, in that they helped define more clearly my own view of the matter.

In response to Garea, I have to say that I agree that modern behaviorism is somewhat similar to cognitive psychology, a point I actually mention in my article; however, these two theories of psychology are quite different simultaneously. Also, because Skinner merely makes the differentiation between "private" and "mental" events, that does not mean he deems them worthy of study through his behaviorist eyes. There is of course no question that cognitive psychologists are limited--in the same sense that behaviorists are limited. Every theory of psychology possesses some flaws that upon which another tries to improve. However, a single flawless theory is yet to be uncovered. In addition, my final point refers to the fact that behaviorism is useful today because it is still constantly used, a point that which Garea mentions is lacking, producing a weakness in the article.

Gomez makes the assertion that I am lacking sufficient historical perspective in my discussion of cognitive psychology, as does Garea. He does mention a critical point that I neglected to include in the article, the influence of the invention of the computer on the basic formation of cognitive psychology. He also points out that cognitive and behaviorist psychologists use response time data quite differently. My point was not that they used behaviorist methods in the same way, but that cognitive psychologists used such methods at all, demonstrating cognitive psychologists' behavioral base.

Naik is concerned with one main point of the article, my stress of behaviorism's neglect of the significant concept of free will. She mentions that such a concept is not important in many cultures and religions, stressing beliefs such as destiny and fate. I will make the assertion that regardless of one's belief in concepts like destiny, one always knows, inherently, that one has one's own mind, and the will to make one's own choices, a gift of one's "God" or whoever created it. Her argument that the lack of cognitive empirical evidence makes my argument subjective is somewhat valid. I would not say that it was what I was behaviorally conditioned to believe, but simply that I need to revise the document to include empirical evidence for cognitive psychology. My arguments as well as the responses they received were all well thought out and well received and I thank my peers for opening my eyes to the weaknesses of my article.


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