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Radical behaviorism is a philosophy that underlies the experimental analysis of behavior approach to psychology, developed by B. F. Skinner. The term 'radical behaviorism' applies to a particular subset of behaviorism.
Radical Behaviorism has always been controversial, for a number of reasons. The proponents of radical behaviorism argue that the theory is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Opponents often feel just as strongly.
The basics: operant psychology
Before Skinner, Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson studied respondent behavior. For example, the behaviors they studied (salivation and fear, respectively) are both automatically elicited by unconditioned stimuli (the presentation of meat powder in Pavlov's case and loud metallic crashings in Watson's). Pavlov was the first to find (quite by accident) that after repeated pairings of a neutral stimulus (a ringing bell) with an unconditioned stumulis (in this case the salivation of dogs is the US), the sound of the bell alone (now a conditioned stimulus, or CS) would come to elicit salivation (now a conditioned response, or CR). This process, sometimes called classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, was extended to emotional behavior (to the manipulation of the sympathetic nervous system) by Watson. However, Skinner saw that classical conditioning didn't account for the behavior most of us are interested in (like riding a bike or writing a book). His observations, building on Thorndike (1898), led him to propose a theory about how these and similar behaviors (called operants) come about.
Roughly speaking, in operant conditioning, an operant is actively emitted and produces changes in the world (consequence) that alter the likelihood that the action will occur again.
- If the strength, or frequency, of a behavior is increased as a consequence of the presentation of a stimulus, that stimulus is a positive reinforcer. R+
- If the strength, or frequency, of a behavior is increased as a consequence of the withdrawal of a stimulus, that stimulus is a negative reinforcer R-
- If the strength, or frequency, of a behavior is decreased as a consequence of the presentation of a stimulus, that stimulus is a positive punisher. P+
- If the strength, or frequency, of a behavior is decreased as a consequence of the withdrawal a stimulus, that stimulus is a negative punisher or response cost punishment. P-
Negative reinforcement and punishment are often confused. It is important to note that a reinforcer is anything that increases the liklihood that a behavior will happen again. A punisher will always decrease behavior.
B.F. Skinner loathed the use of punishers and he argued their undesirable side effects were often worse than the actual behavior that was to be reduced.
Instrumental conditioning is another term for operant conditioning that is most closely associated with scientists who studied learning that occurred over discrete trials, such as runs through a maze. Skinner pioneered the free operant technique, where organisms could respond at any time during a protracted experimental session. Thus Skinner's dependent variable was usually the frequency or rate of responding, not the errors that were made or the speed of traversal of a maze.
Operant conditioning tells something about the future of the organism: That in the future, the reinforced behavior will be likely to occur more often.
Many textbooks wrongly label Skinner or Radical Behaviorism as S-R (Stimulus-Response, or respondent (Skinner's term), or Pavlovian) psychology, and argue that this limits the approach. This error even appears in Daniel Dennett's "Consciousness explained" (1991), where he says, "...B. F. Skinner's Behaviorism, in which stimulus-response pairings were the candidates for selection..." (page 183).
Many textbooks argue that radical behaviorism maintains the position that animals (including humans) are passive receivers of conditioning, failing to take into account that
- Operant behavior is emitted, not elicited: Animals act on the environment and the environment acts back on them
- The consequence of a behavior can itself be a stimulus. One needs not present anything for shaping to take place
Explaining behavior and the importance of the environment
John B. Watson, Skinner's immediate predecessor, argued against the use of references to mental states, and held that psychology should study behavior and behavior only, holding private events as impossible to study scientifically. Skinner expanded on this idea, but for somewhat different reasons.
In Watson's days (and in Skinner's early days), it was held that Psychology was at a disadvantage as a science because behavioral explanations should take physiology into account. Very little was known about physiology at the time. Skinner argued that behavioral explanations of psychological phenomena are just as true as physiological explanations. In arguing this, he took a non-reductionistic approach to psychology. Skinner, however, redefined behavior to include everything that an organism does, including thinking, feeling and speaking and argued that these phenomena were valid subject matters of psychology. The term Radical Behaviorism refers to just this: that everything an organism does is a behavior.
However, Skinner ruled out thinking and feeling as valid explanations of behavior. The reasoning is this:
Thinking and feeling are not epiphenomena nor have they any other special status, and are just more behavior to explain. Explaing behavior by referring to thought or feelings are pseudo-explanations because they merely point to more behavior to be explained. Skinner proposed environmental factors as proper causes of behavior because:
- Environmental factors are at a different logical level than behavior
- One can manipulate behavior by manipulating the environment
This holds only for explaining the class of behaviors known as operant behaviors. This class of behavior Skinner held as the most interesting study matter.
Many textbooks, in noting the emphasis Skinner places on the environment, argue that Skinner held that the organism is a blank slate or a tabula rasa. Skinner wrote extensively on the limits and possibilities nature places on conditioning. Conditioning is implemented in the body as a physiological process and is subject to the current state, learning history, and history of the species.
Many textbooks seem to confuse Skinner's rejection of physiology with Watson's rejection of private events. It is true to some extent that Skinner's psychology considers humans a black box, since Skinner maintains that behavior can be explained without taking into account what goes on in the organism. However, the black box is not private events, but physiology. Skinner considers physiology as useful, interesting, valid, etc., but not necessary.
Acceptance of mental life and introspection
Radical that it treats everything we do as behavior, 's own private behavior, such as with introspection.
Many textbooks, in
Radical behaviorism inherits from behaviorism the position that the science of behavior is natural science, a belief that animal behavior can be studied profitably and compared with human behavior, a strong emphasis on the environment as cause of behavior, a denial that ghostly causation is a relevant factor in behavior, and a penchant for operationalizing. Its principal differences are an emphasis on operant conditioning, use of idiosyncratic terminology, a tendency to apply notions of reinforcement to philosophy and daily life to a thoroughgoing degree, and, particularly, a distinctly positive position on private experience.
Importantly, radical behaviorism embraces the genetic and biological endowment and ultimately evolved nature of the organism, while simply asserting that behavior is a distinct field of study with its own value. From this two neglected points issue: radical behaviorism is thoroughly compatible with biological and evolutionary approaches to psychology - in fact, as a proper part of biology - and radical behaviorism does not involve the claim that organisms are 'tabula rasa,' without genetic or physiological endowment.
Skinner's psychological work focused on operant conditioning, with emphasis on the schedule of reinforcement as independent variable, and the rate of responding as dependent variable. Operant techniques are a venerable part of the toolbox of the psychobiologist, and many neurobiological theories - particularly regarding drug addiction - have made extensive use of reinforcement. Operant methodology and terminology has been used in much research on animal perception and concept formation - with the same topics, such as stimulus generalization, bearing importantly on operant conditioning. Skinner's emphasis on outcomes and response rates naturally lends itself to topics typically left to economics, as in behavioral economics. The field of operant conditioning can also be seen to interact with work on decision making, and had influence on AI and cognitive science.
There are radical behaviorist schools of animal training, management, clinical practice (Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA) and education. Skinner's political views have left their mark in small ways as principles adopted by a small handful of utopian communities such as Los Horcones, and in ongoing challenges to aversive techniques in control of human and animal behavior.
Radical behaviorism has generated numerous descendants. Examples of these include molar approaches associated with Richard Herrnstein and William Baum, Rachlin's teleological behaviorism, William Timberlake's behavior systems approach, and John Staddon's theoretical behaviorism.
Skinner's theories on Verbal Behavior have seen widespread application in the use of effective therapies in creating and shaping effective behavior in Autistic children and adults.
References & Bibliography
- Holland, J.G., Skinner, B.F., Analysis of behavior, McGraw-Hill: 1961.
- Prilleltensky, I.(1992). Radical Behaviorism and the Social Order. Counseling and Values, 36, 104-111.
- Behavior and Social Issues
- Los Horcones, a community founded by Radical Behaviorists
- The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
- The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis
- The Behavior Analyst
- The Psychological Record
- B.F.Skinner Foundation
- MacCorquodale's Response to Chomsky's Review of Verbal Behavior
- Behavior and Philosophy: WHY PINKER NEEDS BEHAVIORISM: A CRITIQUE OF THE BLANK SLATE
- Skeptical Inquirer: Skepticism of caricatures: B.F. Skinner turns 100
- Behavior and Social Issues: Some myths about behaviorism that are undone in B.F. Skinner's "the design of cultures"
- pt:Behaviorismo radical