Definition and History

The central idea in behaviorism can be stated simply: A science of behavior is possible. Behaviorists have diverse views about what this proposition means, and particularly about what science is and what behavior is, but every behaviorist agrees that there can be a science of behavior.

Many behaviorists add that the science of behavior should be psychology. This causes contention because many psychologists reject the idea that psychology is a science at all, and others who regard it as a science consider its subject matter something other than behavior. Most behaviorists have come to call the science of behavior behavior analysis. The debate continues as to whether behavior analysis is a part of psychology, the same as psychology, or independent of psychology, but professional organizations, such as the Association for Behavior Analysis, and journals, such as The Behavior Analyst, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, give the field an identity.

Since behaviorism is a set of ideas about this science called behavior analysis, not the science itself, properly speaking behaviorism is not science, but philosophy of science. As philosophy about behavior, however, it touches topics near and dear to us: why we do what we do, and what we should and should not do. Behaviorism offers an alternative view that often runs counter to traditional thinking about action, because traditional views have been unscientific. We will see in later chapters that it sometimes takes us in directions radically different from conventional thinking. This chapter covers some of the history of behaviorism and one of its most immediate implications, determinism.

Historical Background

Just as astronomy, physics, chemistry, physiology, and evolutionary biology broke with philosophy, so psychology broke with philosophy. Psychology’s break was relatively recent. Until the 1940s few universities had a separate department of psychology, and professors of psychology were usually to be found in the philosophy department. If evolutionary biology, with its roots in the mid-1800s, is still completing its break with theological and philosophical doctrine, it is no surprise that today psychologists still debate among themselves about the implications of calling psychology a true science, and that laypeople are only beginning to learn what a truly scientific psychology might mean in practice.

In the last half of the nineteenth century psychologists began to call psychology the “science of mind.” The Greek word psyche means something more like “spirit,” but mind seemed less speculative and more amenable to scientific study. How to study the mind? Psychologists proposed to adopt the method of the philosophers: introspection. If the mind were a sort of a stage or arena, then one could look inside it and see what was going on; that is the meaning of the word introspect. This is a difficult task, and particularly so if one is trying to gather reliable scientific facts. Nineteenth century psychologists thought that this difficulty might be overcome with enough training and practice.

Early Behaviorism

In 1913, Watson published the article “Psychology as the behaviorist views it,” soon considered the manifesto of early behaviorism. Taking his lead from objective psychology, he articulated the growing unease among psychologists over introspection and analogy as methods.

Watson wrote, psychology should be defined as the science of behavior. This science of behavior Watson envisioned would use none of the traditional terms referring to mind and consciousness, would avoid the subjectivity of introspection and animal–human analogies, and would study only objectively observable behavior. Yet even in Watson’s own time, behaviorists debated over the correctness of this recipe. It was unclear what objective meant or exactly what constituted behavior. Since these terms were left open to interpretation, behaviorists’ ideas about what constitutes science and how to define behavior have varied.

Of post-Watsonian behaviorists, the best known is B. F. Skinner (1904–90). His ideas of how to achieve a science of behavior contrasted sharply with those of most other behaviorists. Whereas the others focused on natural-science methods, Skinner focused on scientific explanation. He argued that the way to a science of behavior lay through development of terms and concepts that would allow truly scientific explanations. He labeled the opposing view methodological behaviorism and styled his own view radical behaviorism.

Free Will versus Determinism

The idea that there can be a science of behavior implies that behavior, like any scientific subject matter, is orderly, can be explained, with the right knowledge can be predicted, and with the right means can be controlled. This is determinism, the notion that behavior is determined solely by heredity and environment.

The name for the ability to choose is free will. It implies a third element besides heredity and environment, something within the individual. It asserts that despite inheritance and despite all environmental impacts, a person who behaves one way could have chosen to behave another way. It asserts something beyond merely experiencing that one has choice – it could seem to me that I can eat the ice cream or not, and yet my eating the ice cream could be entirely determined by past events. Free will asserts that choice is no illusion, that individuals themselves cause behavior.

Philosophers have tried to reconcile determinism and free will. Positions have emerged called “soft determinism” and “compatibilist” theories of free will.

Philosophers call the conventional idea of free will – the idea that choice really can be free of past events – libertarian free will.

Arguments For and Against Free Will

Proving free will (in other words, disproving determinism) would require that an act go counter to prediction even though every possible contributing factor is known. Since such perfect knowledge is impossible in practice, the conflict between determinism and free will can never be resolved by evidence.

Social arguments

Practically, it appears that denial of free will might undermine the whole moral fabric of our society. What will happen to our judicial system if people cannot be held responsible for their actions? We are already having trouble when criminals plead insanity and diminished competence. What will happen to our democratic institutions if people have no free choice? Why bother to have elections if choice among candidates is not free? Belief that people’s behavior can be determined might encourage dictatorship. For these reasons, perhaps it is good and useful to believe in free will, even if it cannot be proved.

Practically, it appears that denial of free will might undermine the whole moral fabric of our society. What will happen to our judicial system if people cannot be held responsible for their actions? We are already having trouble when criminals plead insanity and diminished competence. What will happen to our democratic institutions if people have no free choice? Why bother to have elections if choice among candidates is not free? Belief that people’s behavior can be determined might encourage dictatorship. For these reasons, perhaps it is good and useful to believe in free will, even if it cannot be proved.

Aesthetic arguments

Critics of the notion of free will often point to its illogic. Even theologians who promoted the idea have puzzled over its paradoxical conflict with an omnipotent God. Saint Augustine put the matter clearly: If God does everything and knows everything before it happens, how is it possible for a person to do anything freely? Just as with natural determinism, if God determines all events (including our actions), then it is only our ignorance – here, of God’s will – that allows the illusion of free will. The common theological solution is to call free will a mystery; somehow God gives us free will despite His omnipotence. From a scientific viewpoint, this conclusion is unsatisfactory because it defies logic and leaves the paradox unresolved.

In its conflict with determinism, godly or natural, free will seems to depend on ignorance. Indeed, it can be argued that free will is simply a name for ignorance of the determinants of behavior. The more we know of the reasons behind a person’s actions, the less likely we are to attribute them to free will.

The other side of this argument is that no matter how much we know, we still cannot predict exactly what a person will do in a given situation. This unpredictability has sometimes been considered evidence of free will. The weather, however, is also unpredictable, but we never regard weather as the product of free will. Many natural systems exist, the momentary behavior of which we cannot predict in advance but which we never consider free.

Free will does imply unpredictability, but this in no way requires the converse, that unpredictability implies free will. In a way, it should even be false that free will implies unpredictability. Behavior analysis omits free will, but it places no ban on using the concept in everyday discourse or in the spheres of religion, poetry, and literature; clerics, poets, and writers often talk of free will and free choice. A science of behavior might seek to explain such talk, but in no way forbids it. In this book, however, we explore how to understand behavior without mysterious concepts like free will.

Summary

All behaviorists agree on one central idea, that a science of behavior is possible. This science has come to be called behavior analysis. Behaviorism is properly viewed as philosophy about that science. All the sciences originated in and broke away from philosophy. Scientific psychology, too, grew out of philosophy and may still be breaking away from it. Two movements, objective psychology and comparative psychology, promoted this break. Objective psychology emphasized observation and experimentation, the methods that distinguished other sciences. Comparative psychology emphasized the common origin of all species, including human beings, in natural selection, and helped to promote purely natural accounts of human behavior.

The idea that behavior can be treated scientifically remains controversial because it challenges the notion that behavior arises from an individual’s free choice. It promotes determinism, the idea that all behavior originates from genetic inheritance and environmental effects. The term free will names the supposed ability of a person to choose behavior freely, without regard to inheritance or environment. Determinism asserts that free will is an illusion based on ignorance of the factors determining behavior. Since soft determinism and compatibilist theories of free will affirm the idea that free will is only an illusion, they present no challenge to a science of behavior. Only libertarian free will, the idea that people really have the ability to behave as they choose (espoused by Judaism and Christianity), conflicts with determinism. Since the argument between determinism and free will cannot be resolved by evidence, the debate about which view is right rests on arguments about the consequences – social and aesthetic – of adopting one view or the other.

For more readings :

Boakes, R. A. 1984: From Darwin to Behaviorism: Psychology and the Minds of Animals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This is an excellent historical account of the rise of early behaviorism.

Watson, J. B. 1913: Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158–77. Watson laid out his original views in this classic paper.

Zuriff, G. E. 1985: Behaviorism: A Conceptual Reconstruction. New York: Columbia University Press. This book is a compendium and discussion of various behaviorists’ thinking from the early twentieth century until around 1970.