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Bill Ahearn, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Bill Ahearn Ph.D., BCBA-D

The Radical in Radical Behaviorism

Psychology generally does not understand Skinner's Radical Behaviorism

The following is, for the most part, an excerpt of a book chapter I'm working on for an APA book series:

Psychologists have a long history of ignoring (e.g., Koch, 1964), not understanding (e.g., Rogers, 1964), and/or intentionally misinterpreting (e.g., Chomsky, 1959) behavior analytic interpretations of psychology. For most psychologists and the lay community, all behaviorism is an overly simplistic, stimulus-response psychology that mechanistically relates overt responses to environmental events while denying the very existence of thinking and downplaying the influence of genetic inheritance (Skinner, 1974). This, however, only neatly applies to Watson's behaviorism (1913, 1924), at least in its earliest form. This strict or classical behaviorism was abandoned by most behaviorists long ago. For instance, Hull (1943) and his neobehaviorist colleagues shifted slightly from some of Watson's ideas by incorporating intervening variables in explanations of behavior for which there is no immediately obvious contiguous cause (i.e., no apparent environmental antecedent stimulus). Tolman (1932) offered a different version of behaviorism that retained the mechanistic explanatory stance of neobehaviorism but sought to identify "a set of internal acts, states, mechanisms, processes, structures, capacities, and properties" as causes of behavior in place of the logically deduced intervening variables of Hull (Moore, 2003; see also Koch). Skinner considered these approaches methodological behaviorism in that they study overt behavior (i.e., that which can be seen by observers) as an indicator of more important processes occurring at the covert or internal level.

Skinner's radical behaviorism (1945) offered a unique conceptual framework for explaining human behavior that had no close brethren in Psychology. Skinner used the term radical to note the stark contrast between methodological behaviorism (i.e., the behaviorisms of Watson, Hull, and Tolman) and his approach. That is, this approach retained overt behavior as an important dependent variable of psychology while acknowledging the existence and significance of unobserved behavior (e.g., see chapters 15-17 of Skinner, 1953 Science and Human Behavior addressing self-control, thinking, and other private events). He did not, however, grant special causal status to such phenomena. That is, rather than place causal status in hypothetical entities or constructs, Skinner's radical behaviorism attempted to demonstrate orderly relations between behavior and environment. This approach is, at its core, a perspective of selection (Donahoe, 2003; Skinner, 1966; 1972). Radical Behaviorism views cause as a complex interaction extending across multiple temporal scales involving organisms and the environment.

This approach eschews mechanistic cause, accounts for both overt and covert behavior, and conceptualizes the organism as the locus at which behavior and environment interact (Hineline, 1990; 1992). That is, behavior evolves (or develops) for the individual in a complex manner that involves three primary sources of influence; genetic inheritance, contingencies encountered during one's lifetimes, and the socio-cultural context in which the person evolves. Natural selection at the phylogenic level operates on the species to produce the structures, reflexes, and predispositions that make up the individual. A person is the product of natural selection which operates through contingencies of survival and reproduction with hundreds of thousands of years of history influencing their bodies and behavior. Selection also affects individual organisms on an ontogenetic level during the course of their lifetime. For adapting to the dynamic nature of changing environments, selection by consequences or sensitivity to environmental contingencies allows for the evolving species to adapt to proximal changes in the environment. Selection by consequences operates on the behavior of the individual with the environment serving as the selecting "agent" with the person as the vehicle, so to speak, of behavior interacting with environment (Hineline, 1992). These contingencies shape and establish behavior in interaction with our genetic inheritance and the socio-cultural environment in which one is raised. The social context is of critical importance as the social environment in which the child develops heavily influences learning. For example, the language of the social context in which the child is raised determines the language the child learns to speak. In essence, a person's socio-cultural surroundings bring the person into contact with the collective experiences of that culture (see Dawkins' discussion of memes, 1976).

[There are way too many references to post here but any that you'd like me to clarify for you I'll be happy to post in the comments section.]

About the Author
Bill Ahearn, Ph.D., BCBA-D

Bill Ahearn is Director of Research at the New England Center for Children, a private nonprofit educational facility for children with autism.

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