Radical behaviorism

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Radical behaviorism was pioneered by B. F. Skinner and is his "philosophy of the science of behavior." [1] It refers to the philosophy behind behavior analysis, and is to be distinguished from methodological behaviorism which has an intense emphasis on observable behaviorsby its inclusion of thinking, feeling, and other private events in the analysis of human and animal psychology. [2] The research in behavior analysis is called the experimental analysis of behavior and the application of this field is called applied behavior analysis (ABA), [3] [4] which was originally termed "behavior modification." [5]

B. F. Skinner American behaviorist

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, commonly known as B. F. Skinner, was an American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher. He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.

The experimental analysis of behavior (EAB) is school of thought in psychology founded on B. F. Skinner's philosophy of radical behaviorism and defines the basic principles used in applied behavior analysis (ABA). A central principle was the inductive, data-driven examination of functional relations, as opposed to the kinds of hypothetico-deductive learning theory that had grown up in the comparative psychology of the 1920–1950 period. Skinner's approach was characterized by empirical observation of measurable behavior which could be predicted and controlled. It owed its early success to the effectiveness of Skinner's procedures of operant conditioning, both in the laboratory and in behavior therapy.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a scientific discipline concerned with applying techniques based upon the principles of learning to change behavior of social significance. It is the applied form of behavior analysis; the other two forms are radical behaviorism and the experimental analysis of behavior.


Radical behaviorism as natural science

Radical behaviorism inherits from behaviorism the position that the science of behavior is a 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, and an emphasis on the operations involved in the modification of behavior. Radical behaviorism does not claim that organisms are tabula rasa whose behavior is unaffected by biological or genetic endowment.[ citation needed ] Rather, it asserts that experiential factors play a major role in determining the behavior of many complex organisms, and that the study of these matters is a major field of research in its own right.

Behaviorism is a systematic approach to understanding the behavior of humans and other animals. It assumes that all behaviors are either reflexes produced by a response to certain stimuli in the environment, or a consequence of that individual's history, including especially reinforcement and punishment, together with the individual's current motivational state and controlling stimuli. Although behaviorists generally accept the important role of inheritance in determining behavior, they focus primarily on environmental factors.

<i>Tabula rasa</i>

Tabula rasa is the epistemological theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content and that therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception. Proponents of tabula rasa disagree with the doctrine of innatism which holds that the mind is born already in possession of certain knowledge. Generally, proponents of the tabula rasa theory also favour the "nurture" side of the nature versus nurture debate when it comes to aspects of one's personality, social and emotional behaviour, knowledge and sapience.

The most precise way to describe radical behaviorism as "radical" is to understand that instances such as evolution and cell division are occurrences that just happen. There is no third party that assists in this transformation; they can, however, be explained by other naturally occurring events. They should not try to be explained through objects that are not tangible, e.g., ghosts or inner entities. Radical behaviorists therefore conclude that naturally occurring events may be examined in relation to our past and present environments through the effect they have on human beings. [6]

Common misunderstandings

Although there are many criticisms of Skinner's work, many textbooks and theorists like Noam Chomsky label Skinnerian or radical behaviorism as S–R (stimulus–response, or to use Skinner's term, "respondent"), [7] [8] or Pavlovian psychology, and argue that this limits the approach. Although contemporary psychology rejects many of Skinner's conclusions, his work into operant conditioning which emphasizes the importance of consequences in modifying discriminative responses is useful when combined with current understandings about the uniqueness of evolved human thought over other animals. [9]

Operant conditioning learning to anticipate future events on the basis of past experience with the consequences of ones own behavior; behaviors are modified by the effect they produce (i.e., reward or punishment)

Operant conditioning is a learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment. It is also a procedure that is used to bring about such learning.

Many textbooks [ by whom? ] argue that radical behaviorism maintains the position that animals (including humans) are passive receivers of conditioning, failing to take into account that:

Shaping is a conditioning paradigm used primarily in the experimental analysis of behavior. The method used is differential reinforcement of successive approximations. It was introduced by B. F. Skinner with pigeons and extended to dogs, dolphins, humans and other species. In shaping, the form of an existing response is gradually changed across successive trials towards a desired target behavior by reinforcing exact segments of behavior. Skinner's explanation of shaping was this:

We first give the bird food when it turns slightly in the direction of the spot from any part of the cage. This increases the frequency of such behavior. We then withhold reinforcement until a slight movement is made toward the spot. This again alters the general distribution of behavior without producing a new unit. We continue by reinforcing positions successively closer to the spot, then by reinforcing only when the head is moved slightly forward, and finally only when the beak actually makes contact with the spot. ... The original probability of the response in its final form is very low; in some cases it may even be zero. In this way we can build complicated operants which would never appear in the repertoire of the organism otherwise. By reinforcing a series of successive approximations, we bring a rare response to a very high probability in a short time. ... The total act of turning toward the spot from any point in the box, walking toward it, raising the head, and striking the spot may seem to be a functionally coherent unit of behavior; but it is constructed by a continual process of differential reinforcement from undifferentiated behavior, just as the sculptor shapes his figure from a lump of clay.

Radical behaviorism is often dismissed as logical positivism. Skinnerians maintain that Skinner was not a logical positivist and recognized the importance of thinking as behavior. This position is made quite clear in About Behaviorism. [10] A clearer position for radical behaviorism seems to be the movement known philosophically as American pragmatism. [11]

For a review and summary of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior see the article Verbal Behavior.

The basics: operant psychology

Skinner saw that classical conditioning did not account for the behavior most of us are interested in, such as riding a bike or writing a book. His observations 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 (i.e., produces consequences) that alter the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.

As represented in the table below, operant conditioning involves two basic actions (increasing or decreasing the probability that a specific behavior will occur in the future), which are accomplished by adding or removing one of two basic types of stimuli, positive reinforcers or negative reinforcers. [12]

Stimulus typeEffect: increase behaviorEffect: decrease behavior
Positive ReinforcerAdd positive reinforcerRemove positive reinforcer
PunishmentRemove punishment:Add punishment stimulus

In other words:

Instrumental conditioning is another term for operant conditioning that is most closely associated with scientists who studied running 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 affects the future of the organism, that is how the organism will respond after the actions summarized above occur.

Explaining behavior and the importance of the environment

John B. Watson argued against the use of references to mental states and held that psychology should study behavior directly, holding private events as impossible to study scientifically. Skinner rejected this position conceding the importance of thinking, feelings and "inner behavior" in his analysis. Skinner did not hold to truth by agreement, as Watson did, so he was not limited by observation.

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. (The challenge was that objective observation and measurement was often impossible.) The term radical behaviorism refers to just this: that everything an organism does is a behavior [quotes and references necessary here].

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. Explaining 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:

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. Skinner does not consider people a blank slate, or tabula rasa. [13]

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 for operant behavioral theory and research.

[The author of this material has to present quotations and references for it appears that the writer is interpreting radical behaviorism rather than describing Skinner's radical behaviorism.]

Private events in a radical behaviorist account

Radical behaviorism differs from other forms of behaviorism in that it treats everything we do as behavior, including private events such as thinking and feeling. Unlike John B. Watson's behaviorism, private events are not dismissed as "epiphenomena," but are seen as subject to the same principles of learning and modification as have been discovered to exist for overt behavior. Although private events are not publicly observable behaviors, radical behaviorism accepts that we are each observers of our own private behavior.

Many textbooks, in emphasizing that Skinner held behavior to be the proper subject matter of psychology, fail to clarify Skinner's position and implicitly or even explicitly posit that Skinner ruled out the study of private events as unscientific. This is Watson's position, not Skinner's. [citations needed]


There are radical behaviorist schools of animal training, management, clinical practice, 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, Howard 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 therapies for autistic children that are based on applied behavior analysis (ABA). [This statement appears to be an error in view of the MacPherson, Bonem, Green, and Osborne 1984 paper [14] that states Skinner's “verbal behavior“ (1957) led to no research.]


Criticisms of Behaviourism focus on its supposed theoretical weaknesses as well as its "cold" methods. Psychologists today consider this classical form of behaviorism to be "wrong" in the sense that modern cognitive research has attempted to clearly demonstrate the role of mental processes in psychology. A famous, but gruesome line of experimentation by noted psychologist Martin Seligman has been used to demonstrate behaviorism's inability to explain learned helplessness. Dogs, which had previously been placed in cages with fully electrified and inescapable floors, later never bothered to discover that newer cages they were placed in had a non-electrified section (separated by a short 'wall' that control dogs had no difficulty hopping). Instead, they laid down and quietly suffered. According to the critiques this demonstrated that, internally, the dogs perceived a lack of control over their environment. This is why they never bothered to remove themselves from the aversive stimulus when they had the option. However, this phenomenon can be described and predicted from a behaviorist framework as well. [15] Through a process of extinction the dogs had learned that escaping did not lead to the negative reinforcement of escaping the shocks. Hence, they stopped trying.

See also


Related Research Articles

John B. Watson American psychologist

John Broadus Watson was an American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism. Watson promoted a change in psychology through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, which was given at Columbia University in 1913. Through his behaviorist approach, Watson conducted research on animal behavior, child rearing, and advertising. In addition, he conducted the controversial "Little Albert" experiment and the Kerplunk experiment. Watson popularized the use of the scientific theory with behaviorism. He was also editor of Psychological Review from 1910 to 1915. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Watson as the 17th most cited psychologist of the 20th century.

Operant conditioning chamber laboratory apparatus used to study animal behavior

An operant conditioning chamber is a laboratory apparatus used to study animal behavior. The operant conditioning chamber was created by B. F. Skinner while he was a graduate student at Harvard University. It may have been inspired by Jerzy Konorski's studies. It is used to study both operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

Reinforcement reinforcement is a consequence that will strengthen an organisms future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus.

In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence applied that will strengthen an organism's future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus. This strengthening effect may be measured as a higher frequency of behavior, longer duration, greater magnitude, or shorter latency.

Instinct inherent inclination of a living organism

Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a corresponding clearly defined stimulus.

In psychology, cognitivism is a theoretical framework for understanding the mind that gained credence in the 1950s. The movement was a response to behaviorism, which cognitivists said neglected to explain cognition. Cognitive psychology derived its name from the Latin cognoscere, referring to knowing and information, thus cognitive psychology is an information-processing psychology derived in part from earlier traditions of the investigation of thought and problem solving.

Social Learning Theory is a theory of learning and social behavior which proposes that new behaviors can be acquired by observing and imitating others. It states that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction, even in the absence of motor reproduction or direct reinforcement. In addition to the observation of behavior, learning also occurs through the observation of rewards and punishments, a process known as vicarious reinforcement. When a particular behavior is rewarded regularly, it will most likely persist; conversely, if a particular behavior is constantly punished, it will most likely desist. The theory expands on traditional behavioral theories, in which behavior is governed solely by reinforcements, by placing emphasis on the important roles of various internal processes in the learning individual.

<i>Verbal Behavior</i> book

Verbal Behavior is a 1957 book by psychologist B. F. Skinner, in which he inspects human behavior, describing what is traditionally called linguistics. The book Verbal Behavior is almost entirely theoretical, involving little experimental research in the work itself. It was an outgrowth of a series of lectures first presented at the University of Minnesota in the early 1940s and developed further in his summer lectures at Columbia and William James lectures at Harvard in the decade before the book's publication. A growing body of research and applications based on Verbal Behavior has occurred since its original publication, particularly in the past decade.

The psychology of learning is a theoretical science.

The law of effect is a psychological principle advanced by Edward Thorndike in 1898 on the matter of behavioral conditioning which states that "responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation."

<i>Beyond Freedom and Dignity</i> book by Burrhus Skinner

Beyond Freedom and Dignity is a 1971 book by American psychologist B. F. Skinner. Skinner argues that entrenched belief in free will and the moral autonomy of the individual hinders the prospect of using scientific methods to modify behavior for the purpose of building a happier and better-organized society.

The cognitive revolution was an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s as an interdisciplinary study of the mind and its processes, which became known collectively as cognitive science. The relevant areas of interchange were between the fields of psychology, anthropology, and linguistics using approaches developed within the then-nascent fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, and neuroscience. A key goal of early cognitive psychology was to apply the scientific method to the study of human cognition by designing experiments that used computational models of artificial intelligence to systematically test theories about human mental processes in a controlled laboratory setting.

In psychology, mentalism refers to those branches of study that concentrate on perception and thought processes: for example, mental imagery, consciousness and cognition, as in cognitive psychology. The term mentalism has been used primarily by behaviorists who believe that scientific psychology should focus on the structure of causal relationships to conditioned responses, or on the functions of behavior.

In behavioral psychology, stimulus control is a phenomenon that occurs when an organism behaves in one way in the presence of a given stimulus and another way in its absence. Any stimulus that modifies behavior in this manner is referred to as a discriminative stimulus. Stimulus control of behavior occurs when the performance of a particular behavior is controlled by the presence or absence of a discriminative stimulus. For example, the presence of a stop sign at a traffic intersection increases the probability that "braking" behavior will occur.

In psychology, a stimulus is any object or event that elicits a sensory or behavioral response in an organism.

Psychological behaviorism is a form of behaviorism — a major theory within psychology which holds that generally human behaviors are learned — proposed by Arthur W. Staats. The theory is constructed to advance from basic animal learning principles to deal with all types of human behavior, including personality, culture, and human evolution. Behaviorism was first developed by John B. Watson (1912), who coined the term "behaviorism," and then B. F. Skinner who developed what is known as "radical behaviorism." Watson and Skinner rejected the idea that psychological data could be obtained through introspection or by an attempt to describe consciousness; all psychological data, in their view, was to be derived from the observation of outward behavior. The strategy of these behaviorists was that the animal learning principles should then be used to explain human behavior. Thus, their behaviorisms were based upon research with animals.

Joel Greenspoon was an American psychology researcher, professor, and clinician. Greenspoon made notable contributions to the field of behaviorism in psychology through pioneering work on verbal operant conditioning and counterconditioning in the treatment of anxiety.


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  8. MacCorquodale, K. (1970). "On Chomsky's review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior". Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior , 13, 83–99.
  9. Arthur W. Staats (2012). The Marvelous Learning Animal . Retrieved April 18, 2018.
  10. Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.
  11. Moxley, Roy (2003). "Pragmatic Selectionism: The Philosophy of Behavior Analysis". The Behavior Analyst Today, 4(3), 289–314. BAO
  12. Huitt and Hummel (1997)
  13. Skinner, B.F. "On Having A Poem" in which he states: "I am not an S–R psychologist." also in About Behaviorism where he states this position again
  14. MacPherson, Bonem, and Osborne 1984
  15. https://imgur.com/a/nLr4a

Further reading