What Have Behaviorists Accomplished - and What More Can They Do?

Article excerpt

Recent assessments of behaviorism - narrowly defined as "the lines of research and theory that follow from, and closely adhere to, the seminal views of Watson and Skinner" (Lamal, 1989, p. 529) - have concluded that its contributions to society in general and psychology in particular have been minimal. Lamal (1989), for one, points out that the record so far has been dismal. He laments that in our culture, especially in literature and the arts,

if behaviorism is not ignored it is vilified ... [Furthermore,] a convincing case remains to be made that behaviorism has had a significant impact on public policy ... [and] it is clear that the discipline of psychology is not influenced by behaviorism either. (p. 530)

In a review of recent trends in social psychology, Guerin (1992) points out that "behavior analysis has had little or no impact on social psychology" (p. 589). Czubaroff (1993) believes that behavior analysis is likely to "remain professionally and culturally marginal because its concepts and principles are alien to dominant ideological frames of reference and institutional practices" (1993, p. 1). Only time will tell whether the recent Skinner memorial issue of the American Psychologist (Lattal, 1992) is more than a paean to one individual's work.

These authors and others (e.g., Bailey, 1991; Coleman & Mehlman, 1992; Glenn, 1993) have outlined several reasons for behaviorism's lack of impact, such as its philosophical divergence from the larger culture, its intellectual insularity, and its continuing focus on technical issues and terms. In various ways, these respected behavior analysts have suggested a major remedy: increased interaction and eventual cooperation with researchers and practitioners in other areas and disciplines.

As a social psychologist, I am not confident about the basic premise that behaviorism and its modern equivalent, behavior analysis, have played such minor roles in my field and our culture. I wonder: Is behaviorism ignored as Lamal suggests; is it likely to remain marginal, as Czubaroff believes; has it had no impact on social psychology, as Guerin avers? Although official interactions with outsiders may have been minimal so far, researchers in other fields appear to have taken off with many of behaviorism's basic features. What, then, would further interactions produce? These questions reflect the complex dimensions of "behaviorism" itself.

Behaviorism's Core and Periphery

Behavior analysts consider "behaviorism" to be a coherent body of work, along the line of Lamal's definition given earlier, and distinguish that body from pale and inferior variations such as cognitive behaviorism, methodological behaviorism, or social learning.

To outsiders, however, there appears to be a natural division within that body of work. There is a central core of operant principles, summarized in the fundamental paradigm:

Discriminative Stimuli[right arrow]Response[right arrow!Consequences

that is based on a vast array of laboratory experiments performed over decades by numerous dedicated researchers. The solid empirical foundation of these core principles is quite persuasive - at least for those who value objective evidence.

A large variety of methodological and philosophical implications, which rest on extrapolations from the core principles, constitute a periphery, one might say. Behaviorists consider these extensions to be logical and legitimate, and view them as integral components of behaviorism. Outsiders, however, question many of these extensions and are yet to be convinced of their legitimacy and validity; many philosophical aspects of behaviorism are considered to reflect an author's personal views that are difficult to test empirically. To continue that simile, here as elsewhere the periphery is more visible than the core, and a person's first experience is likely to be with the periphery rather than with the core. Finally, the core is likely to be more dense and specific than the diffuse periphery, and an outsider who is put off by one or another aspect of the periphery is not likely to have the patience to look objectively at the core. …