Psychological Behaviorism: A Path to the Grand Reunification of Psychology and Behavior Analysis?

By Holth, Per | The Behavior Analyst Today, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Psychological Behaviorism: A Path to the Grand Reunification of Psychology and Behavior Analysis?

Holth, Per, The Behavior Analyst Today

Arthur Staats has proposed a "psychological behaviorism" portrayed as a more advanced perspective than radical behaviorism and behavior analysis. The explicit goals of psychological behaviorism is to behaviorize psychology as well as to psychologize behaviorism and, thereby, to construct a comprehensive unified theory in psychology. A scrutiny of Staats' recent concerns regarding the psychologizing of behaviorism shows that they are encumbered with at least four major problems: (1) a disregard for the insistence upon reliable analytic units, (2) a return to treating structural properties as causes of behavior, (3) an attempted redefinition of basic concepts in terms of central nervous processes, and (4) extensive misrepresentation of radical behaviorism and behavior analysis.

Keywords: psychological behaviorism, radical behaviorism, units of analysis, basic behavioral repertoire, behavior-behavior relations, emotional response, misrepresentation


Psychology is a field in which researchers, typically, restrict their observations to the exact behavioral areas that directly interest them (Sidman, 1989). Thus, a standard textbook of psychology may consist of different chapters on development, perception, consciousness, learning, memory, language, thinking, motivation, emotion, personality, intelligence, conflict, anxiety, psychopathology, psychotherapy, and social psychology. Further, each of these areas may be divided into subdivisions. Hence, a chapter on development may consist of sections on social development, cognitive development, emotional development, and so on. Such subdividing of a large field may be necessary. However, to the extent that all of this is to be considered as parts of one science, one is looking in vain for a systematic account of human behavior that is generalizable across specialized subfields (cf. Schlinger, 1995). Instead, the result is a conglomerate of independent minitheories (Horowitz, 1987) or minisciences with no common set of principles that can be applied across the boundaries of each area (Sidman, 1989). Moreover, "psychology as a basic science has failed to supply a conception which recommends itself to specialists in other fields of human behavior" (Skinner, 1969, p. 96).

The lack of a unified approach to a basic science of human behavior has also been a major concern in the writings of Arthur Staats (e.g., 1968; 1975; 1996a; 1996b; 1997; 2003). The basic idea of Staats' "psychological behaviorism" (PB; formerly pragmatic behaviorism) unification program is to behaviorize psychology as well as to psychologize behaviorism.

Staats (1996b) gives three very important reasons why psychology needs to be behaviorized. First, psychology lacks an analysis of phenomena in terms of behavior. Second, lacking an analysis of how behavior is learned, psychology has deprived itself of a way of explaining its phenomena. Third, psychology lacks descriptions of underlying principles common to different phenomena, which are necessary in order to form a unified science:

   With respect to its products, psychology is a Babel of different
   theory languages. Its innumerable research works involve
   inconsistent and unrelated concepts, principles, and findings.
   Different problem areas of study use different methodologies and
   eschew those used by others. The studies subtract from each
   other; the whole is thus less than the sum of its parts
   (Staats, 1996b, p. 4).

Based on the premise that "traditional psychology has already begun the isolation of phenomena that, with behavioral analyses, can be valuable to behaviorism as well as to psychology" (1996b, p. 12), Staats argues that, in addition to behaviorizing psychology, the unification program must also include the psychologizing of behaviorism. Generally, behaviorists can, perhaps by definition, easily sympathize with Staats' contention that psychology could profit from being behaviorized and that a basic science of behavior (whether that science is going to be called psychology or something else), needs to explore independent variables and to formulate general underlying principles of behavior.

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Psychological Behaviorism: A Path to the Grand Reunification of Psychology and Behavior Analysis?


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