Some hold firm to the idea that the division between behaviorism and cognitivism is a vast divide; where there is a winning theory and a losing theory. You’ll hear them- “Behaviorism died decades ago!” and “Thoughts about thoughts? That’s just unprovable mentalism!” shouted from entrenched believers until they are blue in the face. There may be some salient historical details that explain why they feel that way; behaviorism (arguably) replaced many of the mentalism and introspective psychological methods well into the 20th century. Then, some would say that the behaviorist movement was halted by Chomsky’s rebuttal of B.F Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” and the rise of the 1960’s “Cognitive Revolution”. The deep division could be argued as unbridgeable. As someone who was not practicing at the time of these contrasting theories coming to a head; I always wondered what it would have been like. Did everyone see it as a giant butting of heads? Did all the researchers and scientists find themselves marked on either side? Are the loud entrenched voices of today just echoes of the past that haven’t been resolved? If so, how did cognitive behavioral therapies do so well blending the two perspectives? There had to be more than just a line in the sand. Enter Terry L. Smith, and his book “Behavior and it’s Causes”- relating the exact sentiment which I was so curious about.
“I had (just like everyone else) read Kuhn (1970), and so almost reflexively interpreted cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology as competing paradigms (see Leahey, 1992, for a discussion of how common, and mistaken, this interpretation is). Cognitive psychology was clearly on the rise, so I inferred that the Skinnerian program must be on the decline. Indeed, I thought it must have disappeared by now… What I discovered was that during the 1960’s, the Skinnerian program had actually grown at an accelerating rate. This baffled me. How could operant psychology have survived and even prospered in the midst of “the cognitive revolution”?”
How could that be? Terry L. Smith’s book explores this topic, speculates on some great points, and comes to several strong conclusions. I won’t spoil it for you aside from one- “Operant psychology” as Smith calls it, separated itself from being tied down to every philosophical tenet of Radical Behaviorism. It was Radical Behaviorism, in Smith’s view, that had taken the beating because it was too rigid on what it would allow to be studied, and cut too much out of what could be considered the study of behavior. This was a fascinating point, to me, since I had already studied what B.F Skinner had done with Radical Behaviorism to broaden it from Methodological Behaviorism (ie. private events). We’ve heard this one before, right?
“Radical Behaviorism does not insist upon truth by agreement and can therefore consider events taking place in the private world within the skin. It does not call these events unobservable”- Skinner, 1974
This was one of the larger distinction B.F Skinner made from Watson’s methodological approach which was strictly focused on observable stimuli and responses. If we take Smith’s interpretation on what “operant psychology” is today; it goes even further from radical behaviorism by cutting the divide and seeing itself within the broader breadth of psychology as a whole. This rings true for me when I speak to the behaviorists and practitioners I see in the field- there is still that aversion to “mentalism”, but the focus on the observational thrust that comes from Watson’s strict view is mainly practical- data collection is best done when people can see and define what they track. The behaviorist tradition still lives on in the practice of Applied Behavior Analysis, for example, but Skinner’s written word is not taken as a biblical truth; the components of the philosophy and science that propelled behavioral psychology to continue to progress are still empirically validated. They are scientific findings. The ones that work and do the most good remain.
This is Smith’s main point on “operant psychology” during the “cognitive revolution”; it continued on stronger than before on its own steam because the findings were strong and reproducible. While Chomsky, and other cognitivists, had made some compelling points on the limitations of Radical Behaviorism as an idea and philosophy; it did not undercut the behavioral science as a whole. The practices, techniques, and ideas of both Methodological and Radical behaviorism that came through in the empirical work remained. The broader reaching philosophy that might limits on the science with no empirical backing? Not so much.
Keep in mind that during the “cognitive revolution” beginning in the 1960’s- research in brain mapping and neurobiology had come a long way from the days when Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner began their work. Behavioral theory had been running strong for the beginning of the 20th century, and was now met with convergent findings. Both had their uses, and the ideas that did not refute one another but did overlap when it came to the theories. Internal processes were becoming more understandable through the biological discoveries; which some strict behaviorists may have misinterpreted as just another form of mentalism. That’s a hang up that did not help them. On the other hand, some cognitivists still thought all of behaviorism was comparing humanity to basic stimulus-response (S-R) machines. Another misunderstanding, another hang up. My interpretation is that people fought over those illusory extremes. Those were the voices that screamed the loudest but at the same time were the most misguided on what was actually happening. I equate this to the kind of thing we see on the internet- the “strawman arguments”, where someone constructs an exaggerated facsimile of their opponents’ ideas and tears those down rather than confronting what is actually said. It creates an easy target, but does not actually represent the reality. Strict behaviorists get some things right. Strict cognitivists get some things right. Sometimes…just sometimes… both groups get things wrong too! Surprising, right? That is how anything based in theory and following the scientific method actually works.
Maybe Terry L. Smith is on to something. Maybe we consider ourselves all a part of Psychology with a capital P, and put our findings and theories out there. The right ones that can empirically and reliably help people will be the legacy.
To be fair though, I am not completely in the objective virtuous middle; I’ve read Noam Chomsky’s review of Verbal Behavior and believe he missed the point.
Thoughts? Likes? Comments? Questions? Leave them below.
Chomsky, N. (n.d.). 4. A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. The Language and Thought Series. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674594623.c6
Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.
Smith, T. L. (2011). Behavior and its causes: Philosophical foundations of operant psychology. Dordrecht: Springer.
Photo Credits: http://www.pexels.com