Radical behaviorism

Radical behaviorism is a name for the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner. It is the philosophy that underlies the approach to psychology known as the experimental analysis of behavior. Radical behaviorism is not 'radical' (as is commonly assumed) because Skinner was particularly vociferous in his rejection of private (mental) life. Rather, it is 'radical' because Skinner completely accepted private life as behavior. This position can be contrasted with the dualistic position that the causes of behavior (and the locus of private life) are immaterial and unobservable mental objects, as well as the complementary methodological behaviorist position that private life is to be excluded from consideration on the grounds that it is not publicly observable. Skinner found certain mentalistic concepts to advert explicitly to immaterial, unobservable and dualistic causes of behavior; not believing these existed, he presented forceful criticisms. It is these criticisms which have received the most attention, contributing to the illusion that Skinner was not only an unabashed materialist and determinist (each of which he was,) but that he also denied the existence of a private life, a notion he called 'foolish.' In this Skinner differs profoundly from John B. Watson, whose simple 'behaviorism' is often confused with Skinner's 'radical behaviorism.'

The term 'radical behaviorism' has also been associated with Skinner's ideas in two other areas: Skinner's experimental psychology (also called behavior analysis, the experimental analysis of behavior, or EAB) and Skinner's utopianism. 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.

Skinner's political science (better referred to as cultural design) writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control (a 'behavioral technology') could solve human problems which were being actively aggravated by advances in physical technology (such as the atomic bomb.) Skinner was accused of being a totalitarian on the basis of these same writings (presumably on the basis that his suggestion amounted to use of unnatural, perhaps even insidious coercion to achieve ends which were covertly fascist.) In some cases, such as that of Noam Chomsky, this was a political smear tactic used successfully to advance competing points of view (and careers). In other cases, it was the result of legitimate misunderstanding. Neither outcome is surprising in light of Skinner's unorthodoxy, the sensitivity of the topics he dealt with, and his difficulty in expressing his ideas without using language which was provocative and sometimes confusing, especially to someone who had no or only incomplete exposure to behaviorism (such as Chomsky).

However, enough is clear about Skinner that it is not difficult to see why he was not a totalitarian, even at his worst. Skinner was a determinist, believing that all of our behavior is profoundly determined and influenced by the environment (and, reciprocally, that our behavior determines our environment, the idea expressed in the name of operant conditioning.) Seeing this to be the case, Skinner saw the problems of political control not as a battle of control versus freedom, but as choices of what kinds of control were used and what changes they should bring about. Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment and fear (the same serving as the principal methods of the totalitarian state) and supported the use of reinforcement (the same principle which takes most of us to work every day). He wanted to prevent humanity from destroying itself while using little or no coercion or punishment, and beyond that had an agenda which was recognizably utilitarian, green, and even could be described as 'libertarian' in the sense that even in a determined system people can be held responsible for their actions, and social control can emphasize natural rather than contrived (read governmental) contingencies.

Skinner's book Walden Two presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society which applies a fundamentally scientific approach together with a futuristically advanced understanding of behavior to peacefully eliminate numerous serious social problems. As in Brave New World, the reader is presented with a controversy over methods of control in light of their results. Skinner's view naturally compels an acceptance of methods which are ostensibly both more effective and humane than those presently in use, while being no more controlling. Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment (the techniques used in Walden Two do not actually exist any more than Newspeak or the technique it represents) and a piece of propaganda (a description to which Orwell's masterful book, 1984, answers very well.) However, as a utopian Skinner is remarkably bland, in the end asserting little more than that behavioral technology offers alternatives to threat, imprisonment, execution and assassination, that good science applied right will help society in innumerable ways, and that we would all be better off if we cooperated with each other peacefully. Nonetheless, radical behaviorism is to this day erroneously identified with horrifying techniques (e.g., the technique used in Clockwork Orange, the violent abuses used to 'reform' troubled teenagers) and a systematic disregard for the worth and ability of human beings.

Radical behaviorism is generally associated with opinions on many other topics too numerous and complicated to cover fully here. It 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 etc. to philosophy and daily life to a thoroughgoing (even obsessive) 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 Skinner viewed radical behaviorism as a subfield of biology) , and radical behaviorism does not involve the claim that organisms are 'tabula rasa,' homogenous mush or black boxes with no genetic or physiological endowment. In fact, there are other areas of interdisciplinary study which radical behaviorists have engaged in. Operant techniques are a venerable part of the toolbox of the psychobiologist, and many neurobiological theories - particularly regarding drug addiction - have made great use of the notion 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. Emphasis on outcomes and response rates naturally dovetails with microeconomics, and a few literatures such as behavioral economics have grown out of that. The field of operant conditioning can also be seen to interact with work on decision making, and has a long history of influence on AI and cognitive science (including Marvin Minsky, whose early work included the Stochastic Neural-Analog Reinforcement Computer as well as an explicit dissection of the assignment of credit problem, early and modern reinforcement learning, and connectionism).

Radical behaviorism has generated numerous descendants. Among these outgrowths have been approaches associated with Herrnstein and Baum, Rachlin's teleological behaviorism, Neuringer's indeterministic variant, Timberlake's behavior systems approach, and Staddon's (politically anti-Skinnerian, but no less Skinner-influenced) theoretical behaviorism, among others (please include others!) 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 the hegemony of aversive techniques in control of human and animal behavior.

Arguably, one very important part of Skinner's legacy has been omitted. That is cognitive science. Cognitive science was so particularly provoked by Skinner and so particularly shaped by his disapproval that he could properly be described one of its most influential forefathers. To this day many papers in cognitive psychology are labeled so by the ritual destruction of a behavioristic straw man, and to this day it is often difficult to discern any unifying principles in cognitive science other than opposition to behaviorism as it was characterized in the first rhetorical blasts of the 'cognitive Revolution.' This opposition is easily as integral to cognitive psychology as the internal state, the unconscious process, and the computer analogy.




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