skinner box

Behaviorism is the theory that all things organisms do should be seen as behavior. Behaviorism says that behavior can be studied scientifically, without knowing what the physiology of an event is, and without using theories such as that of the mind. According to behaviorism, all behavior can be observed. Behaviorists first argued that the study of behavior should be a natural science, such as chemistry or physics, without any reference to hypothetical inner states of organisms as causes for their behavior. From early psychology in the 19th century, the behaviorist school of thought ran concurrently and shared commonalities with the psychoanalytic and Gestalt movements in psychology into the 20th century; but also differed from the mental philosophy of the Gestalt psychologists in critical ways.

In the second half of the 20th century, behaviorism was largely eclipsed as a result of the cognitive revolution, which include the internal processes of the mind in its purview. While behaviorism and cognitive schools of psychological thought may not agree theoretically, they have complemented each other in practical therapeutic applications, such as in cognitive–behavioral therapy that has demonstrable utility in treating certain pathologies, such as simple phobias, PTSD, and addiction. People who influenced behaviorism include Ivan Pavlov, Edward Lee Thorndike, John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner. Pavlov investigated classical conditioning, but did not agree with Behaviorism or Behaviorists. Thorndike and Watson rejected introspective methods and wanted to restrict psychology to experimental methods. Skinner’s research focused on Operant conditioning.

This essentially philosophical position gained strength from the success of Skinner’s early experimental work with rats and pigeons, summarized in his books ‘The Behavior of Organisms’ and ‘Schedules of Reinforcement.’ Of particular importance was his concept of the operant response, of which the canonical example was the rat’s lever-press. In contrast with the idea of a physiological or reflex response, an operant is a class of structurally distinct but functionally equivalent responses. For example, while a rat might press a lever with its left paw or its right paw or its tail, all of these responses operate on the world in the same way and have a common consequence. Operants are often thought of as species of responses, where the individuals differ but the class coheres in its function-shared consequences.

Skinner’s empirical work expanded on earlier research on trial-and-error learning by researchers such as Thorndike and Guthrie with both conceptual reformulations—Thorndike’s notion of a stimulus–response ‘association’ or ‘connection’ was abandoned; and methodological ones—the use of the ‘free operant,’ so called because the animal was now permitted to respond at its own rate rather than in a series of trials determined by the experimenter procedures. With this method, Skinner carried out substantial experimental work on the effects of different schedules and rates of reinforcement on the rates of operant responses made by rats and pigeons. He achieved remarkable success in training animals to perform unexpected responses, and to emit large numbers of responses, and to demonstrate many empirical regularities at the purely behavioral level. This lent some credibility to his conceptual analysis.

As Skinner turned from experimental work to concentrate on the philosophical underpinnings of a science of behavior, his attention turned to human language with ‘Verbal Behavior’ and other language-related publications; ‘Verbal Behavior’ laid out a vocabulary and theory for functional analysis of verbal behavior, and was strongly criticized in a review by Noam Chomsky. Chompsky’s innate theory is opposed to behaviorist theory which claims that language is a set of habits that can be acquired by means of conditioning.

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