Behavior Modification and the Image of Humanity

Are you conditioned to believe that we only are our reinforcement histories?

Posted Apr 07, 2018

B.F. Skinner and others sparked a new psychological worldview now known as behaviorism.  It is used in schools, for example, to help children learn a sense of order in the classroom and to focus on their tasks.  It is incorporated into discipline within the family to help children learn to obey parents and to grow in a responsible way.  The science of behaviorism shows that it works and thus has a place within the shaping of behavior when that behavior needs social support from responsible adults.  

Convisum | Dreamstime
Source: Convisum | Dreamstime

When a person is rewarded (positively reinforced) for being polite, then the person is more likely to behave civilly and politely even when annoyed.

When an adolescent is punished for showing up late to school, then the student is more likely to be on time.

When a person observes (through modeling) how another makes friends easily, then the person is likely to imitate that behavior.

Because the science of behaviorism has been in existence for over 60 years, practitioners now seem to take the behavioral approach for granted.  Yet, I now wonder how many who consistently employ behaviorism in the clinic or the school or the home have reflected on the philosophy underlying the practice.  As I began to muse about this, I discovered that behaviorism itself has a specific image of humanity that is not entirely explicit in the practice of it.  I would like to describe four philosophical implications inherent in behaviorism that may not be obvious.  The point in explicating these four underlying metaphysical principles of behaviorism is this:  As a practitioner employs the techniques of reinforcement and punishment, it may be best to not use them exclusively (what philosophers would call reductionistically).  I say this because, as you will see below, the implications for humanity of a literal and exclusive application of behaviorism leads to a certain image for humanity that not all would agree is the most accurate or uplifting.  I bring them forward for your own judgement on the place of behaviorism in the raising of children and in how we think about and treat one another.  

What, then, is the human being if we all answer the call of positive reinforcement, punishment, and modeling?  When we look philosophically beneath the surface of behaviorism, this is what we find:

1. Nominalism. 

This implies that there are no common universals that we all share.  Aristotle would disagree and argue that there are universals common to us all.  He reasoned to the conclusion that we are all “rational” beings, able to reason through situations and come up with the wisest answers to our problems.  Behaviorism would claim that only those who are exposed to rational discourse and reinforced for it will develop rationally.  Aristotle would not say that we all have the same level of rationality, but we all have the same capacity for it.  Behaviorism, in contrast, concludes that we are our reinforcement histories and each person, by having a different such history, differs from all others.  We do not share a common essence of what it means to be human.

2. Materialism

There is nothing beyond this world than what we can observe and manipulate.  Spirituality is not part of the principles of reinforcement, punishment, or modeling and so it does not exist.  What we see and how we are reinforced constitutes reality.  A person who claims there is a world beyond this one has been reinforced to think so.  Love is a behavior and not some universal form that we discover and to which we are drawn and willingly commit toward others and toward the self. 

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

3. No free will

There is no free will.  People do not have intentionality or goal-setting.  Our goals are formed by our behavioral history, by the behaviors in which we engage that are reinforced or punished, by the behaviors we observe in others.  We are not responsible beings if by responsibility we mean a freely chosen way to relate to others.

4. No purpose in life.

If there is no free will, then there is no intentionality (striving toward desired goals as an end in and of itself).  If there is no intentionality, then there is no purpose to which you willingly strive in this life.  There certainly is no common purpose such as living to serve others.  Some people will live to serve others out of love because they have been reinforced for it.  Others will not because they have no behavioral history shaping them in that direction. 

What, then, do we all have in common as members of humanity?

Ultimately, the philosophy underlying behaviorism is that each person is shaped by the reinforcements and punishments received from others and by the models in the person’s life.  What, then, is happiness?  In the end, it is about how satisfied people are with the consequences given by others following one's various behaviors: the other's smiles or praise, the amount of money given, the quality and quantity of positive or negative reinforcements.

Is there more to humanity than this?  Are we intentional beings, striving for our own and others’ happiness, striving to love and be loved?  Is there a higher essence to humanity than what is implied in behaviorism?  Our image of humanity plays a part in who we ultimately become.  If you see the world primarily through the lens of behavioral theory (seeing humanity only as individual responders to reinforcements and punishments and nothing higher), might you be reducing the potential for your relationships and your own happiness?  What views of humanity should you add to the behavioral philosophy to deliberately add more love to the world as one of your main purposes for living?