Modern Behavioral Psychology

The Nobel Prize—winning research of Ivan Pavlov (1849—1936) addressed gastric physiology and the chemistry of digestion. But in the process of studying the formation and secretion of digestive enzymes, Pavlov discovered that initially automatic or innate reflex mechanisms could be controlled externally by associating them with specific events in the environment. His theories of classical conditioning were grounded in neurophysiology and were intended to replace the mentalistic approach of traditional psychology. In this aim he was joined by the American psychologist John B. Watson, widely regarded as the father of behaviorism.

In his influential essay "Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It" (1913), and in his widely read and cited Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919), Watson waged relentless war on introspective psychology, structuralism, "folk" psychology, and the entire tradition of philosophical speculation regarding the nature of human nature. He insisted that the only proper subject matter of any science is directly observable events, which for psychology means observable behavior. In tying his recommendations to a version of the Pavlovian theory, Watson failed to produce the sort of behavioral psychology compatible with the functionalistic and pragmatic bent already dominant in America. But his writing did much to put mentalistic psychologies on notice and promote a seemingly objective, scientific, and descriptive discipline, practical in its aims and stridently antimetaphysical.

This much of the Watsonian legacy was accepted by the most influential figure in the history of behavioral psychology, B. F. Skinner (1904—1991). In numerous books and articles, in scores of laboratory demonstrations, and through a veritable legion of students and coworkers, B. F. Skinner dominated psychology in the United States and, indeed, much of psychology around the world, for a quarter of a century. From 1950 until the 1970s, specialists in a wide variety of psychological employments came to regard themselves as "behavioral scientists," adopting the idiom and perspective of "Skinnerian" psychology and fashioning methods and measurements akin to those of the "Skinner box" and the cumulative recorder.

As early as 1938, in The Behavior ofOrganisms, Skinner had argued for the independence of behavioral science from physiology or other (even if somehow related) sciences. The facts of observed behavior, he insisted, remain what they are, no matter what the nervous system is found to be doing, no matter what the genetic composition of the organism proves to be, and no matter what theory is invented or adopted to account for these facts. Taking his lead from the research of Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949), Skinner devoted himself to the study of operant, or instrumental, behavior—the behavior that is instrumental in securing positive reinforcers or in avoiding aversive stimulation. Unlike Pavlovian reflexes (or respondents, in Skinner's terminology), operant behaviors actually operate on and alter the animal's environment. Behavior that results in positive reinforcement (food, for example) becomes statistically more probable. Nonreinforced behavior—behavior that has no systematic effect on the environment—simply drops out. Thus, behavior within an environment containing reinforcing contingencies is not unlike the evolutionary arena itself. Those behaviors that result in more successful adaptations survive, while those that do not are extinguished.

As developed by Skinner, behavioral psychology is a descriptive, empirical science—more akin to engineering, perhaps, than to physics—and is able to identify the conditions under which behavior is rendered more or less probable. Useless to this enterprise are theories laden with hypothetical processes, hidden variables, or private "states." Perhaps the most concise philosophical defense of the perspective was provided by Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind (1949), in which the Cartesian "ghost in the machine" was analytically exorcised, leaving in its wake a collection of psychological attributes uniquely specified by observable behavioral events and dispositions.

Skinner's version of behavioral psychology, though the most influential, is but one of several developed in the twentieth century. The main points of division among various schools or types are three: (1) the level of explanation to be attained by a behavioral psychology; (2) the room within such a psychology for nonobservable (mental) events and processes; (3) the proper place of such a psychology within the larger context of the natural (biological) sciences. On each of these points, major and self-proclaimed behaviorists have taken positions at variance with Skinner's.

Clark Hull (1884-1952), for example, adopted the nomological-deductive model of scientific explanation. According to the dominant version of the model, an event is explained when it is shown to be deducible from a general law, not unlike explanations in classical physics. He attempted to develop a formal theory of behavior based on a number of hypothetical constructs (e.g., "habit-strength") and intervening variables (e.g., fatigue-substances generated by muscular activity). Hullian behavioral psychology is characterized by pages of mathematical equations expressing such relationships as that between learning and practice, between strength of response and magnitude of reward, or between speed of response and hours of food-deprivation.

E. C. Tolman (1886-1959) defended a form of cognitive-behavioral psychology that grounded explanations of problem solving on the part of nonhuman animals in such notions as "cognitive maps." Rats, for example, who learn the various turns in a maze and are later placed on top of the maze box will run directly toward the goal rather than retracing the successful learned paths. What the rats have, in Tolman's theory, is a map or representation of the situation, and very different patterns of behavior can be arranged to achieve the same results.

Yet other behavioristic psychologists, notably Karl Lashley (1890-1958), retained their commitment to the study of observable behavior, while insisting that a science of behavior had to be fully integrated into the brain sciences, and had to make contact with the well-established cognitive dimensions of human and animal psychology. In this, the influences and criticisms of such Gestalt psychologists as Wolfgang Kohler (1887-1967) wrought changes on the behavioristic outlook—or otherwise rendered the outlook itself dubious.

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