Radical behaviorism

Template:POV check Radical behaviorism is the philosophy that underlies the approach to psychology known as the experimental analysis of behavior, and is a model developed by B. F. Skinner. The term 'radical behaviorism' has also been associated with Skinner's theories of human behavior and his political ideas.


Acceptance of mental life and introspection

Radical behaviorism is radical because Skinner, in contrast with the original behaviorist, John B. Watson, 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. Instead, the locus of private life, and the objects of self-knowledge, are held to be within the body.

Political Views

Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control - a behavioral technology - could solve human problems which were not solved by earlier approaches or were actively aggravated by advances in physical technology such as the atomic bomb.

Skinner was sometimes unfairly accused of being a totalitarian by his critics, and it is not difficult to see why. In addition to his aspirations to state design, Skinner was a determinist, believing that all of our behavior is profoundly determined and influenced by the environment. However it is only the lazy minded who equate philosophical determinism with political totalitarianism. Even the Founding Fathers of the United States were state designers but are probably not equated with "totalitarianism". In light of this, 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 for what purposes. Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment and fear and supported the use of reinforcement. Freedom, or the sense of freedom, was the resistance to punishment and threat. In this sense Skinner was a great advocate of freedom. However, as a determinist, he didn't want to equate political freedom, which was desirable, to philosophical freedom, which he indicated did not exist. Furthermore, the advocates of political freedom avidly attacked and resisted the opponents of phiosophical freedom. Noam Chomsky's attacks on Skinner are clearly in this tradition. One of Skinner's stated goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself,

Skinner's book Walden Two presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical work. However, as a utopian Skinner answers a problem that exists in many utopian novels "What is the Good Life?" Skinner answers that it is a life of friendship, art, leisure, health, games and a minimum of work and unpleasantness. Additionally behavioral technology offers alternatives to coercion, that good science applied right will help society, and that we would all be better off if we cooperated with each other peacefully. Skinner's novel has been described by Skinner as "my New Atlantis" referring to Bacon's utopia.

Intellectual opponents, such as Chomsky, have in their zealous attempt to show Skinner wrong, have equated what they wanted to be wrong (Skinner's philosophic determinism0 with whatever position they found most horrible (political oppression, concentration camps) whether it had any relevance or not. The ends justifies the means in this style of intellectual mud-slinging and Skinner has been equated to political and social positions he never espoused and even explicitly objected to. The positive and humane aspects of Skinner's political views are often, perhaps deliberately, overlooked.

The level of intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy can be seen ironically in the oft cited, but apparently little read or understood "Review of Verbal Behavior" by Noam Chomsky. In it Chomsky attacks the triumvirate of operant theory - stimulus, response, reinforcement - as being applicable only to the laboratory and not "real life". In "real life" it becomes definitionally meaningless he says. He accuses Skinner of dressing up his theory with the appearance of science using the technically precise language of the laboratory to give his non-technical views on language prestige. This rather causes one to wonder how B.F.Skinner who innovated the very precise and technical language described in The Behavior of Organisms in 1938 (and sited by Chomsky) could then apparently not notice, or assume others would not notice, he was abusing the very clear technical language he himself championed not only in 1938 but throughout his life? But this is just one of many curious statements made by Chomsky in his critique not only of Radical Behaviorism, but of Empiricism itself, that allow him to include references to drive theory that Skinner rejected (and Chomsky concedes as much) but then when Chomsky demolishes drive theory we are to conclude that this also demolishes Skinner's position on Verbal Behavior. It is telling, and perhaps necessary, to take such a high-level approach in attacking Skinner's basic work or its inability to be generalized in undermining Skinner's theory of Verbal Behavior. Because if you take the basic laboratory work and analysis as proven, and even so-called cognitive scientists will do this, it becomes very hard to challenge Skinner's theory of Verbal Behavior since they so clearly parallel his basic laboratory work.


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 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, as a proper part 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.

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 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 the hegemony of 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. This is an interesting empirical development in light of Chomsky's repeated assertion in his infamous "Review" that not only was Skinner "play-acting" at science but his position was not only unproven, but impossible to prove. Chomsky was then, and still is, wrong.

Arguably, one very important part of Skinner's legacy has been omitted. That is cognitive science. Cognitive science was so particularly shaped by his disapproval that he could, with only a little perversity, be described one of its most influential forefathers. Insofar as cognitive "science" is simply the Frankenstein like rebirth of mentalistic humunculus-laden theories of inner determination they represent little more than the perpetuation of the very theories that Watson and Skinner attempted to displace (obviously with only little success). It does seem though that cognitive "science" has been shaped by Skinner in a negative sense. At least one cognitive-science based book on learning and memory has laid out a roadmap of psychology casting all pre-1950s psychology as being simply "classical psychology" while portraying itself as the leading edge of so-called Modern Psychology. Since cognitive "science" is little more than pre-Behaviorist mentalism dressed up in the latest fad computer-metaphor or neurobiological or genetic patois it can be little said to be Modern unless Behaviorism would then be "post Modern" to its Modernity. The strategy of the cognitive (or perhaps "anti-behaviorist"?) schools is to concede as little as possible where Skinner is concerned and to extend every opposing theory of any area that has an opposing theory to Skinner, to embrace many of the opposing Behaviorist theorists who didn't eschew mental constructs and to knit together a whole mismash of inconsistent theories and approaches all welded together by their common slogan of "Mind!" and their hostility to Radical Behaviorism's atheoretical approach.

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