Tutorial: Cognitive Psychology as a Radical Behaviorist Views It

Article excerpt

The term cognitive psychology refers to a class of positions having certain general characteristics, although specific characteristics of instances of cognitive psychology may differ widely. Recognizing this caveat to the present description, we begin this sketch by noting some of the general background and characteristics of cognitive psychology, taken from such sources as Baars (1986), Gardner (1985), Harre (2002), Lachman, Lachman, and Butterfield (1979), and J. Moore (1996,2008). Of particular interest is the underlying orientation of mentalism. We continue by noting some philosophical aspects of cognitive psychology. We then move to examine behaviorism from the standpoint of cognitive psychology, and cognitive psychology from the standpoint of B. F. Skinner's radical behaviorism. We conclude by noting the implications of the different ways cognitive psychology and radical behaviorism incorporate internal information in their explanations of behavior.

Historical Background

In a sense, cognitive psychology in one form or another has been present throughout much of human intellectual history. The ancient Greeks expressed a form; various philosophers through the years advocated a form; most organized religions are based on a form. Although different among themselves, the intellectual positions represented by such figures as Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and Jean Piaget (1896-1980) include characteristics of what we might now call cognitive psychology.

Precursors in the 20th century include information and communication theory, cybernetics, electrical engineering, mathematics and computer technology, psycholinguistics, and the verbal learning tradition. Many contemporary versions of cognitive psychology emphasize a computer metaphor and the concept of "information processing." Cognitive psychology also has an interesting relation with behaviorism, which is discussed later in this sketch. The first book bearing the title Cognitive Psychology was published in 1938 (T. V. Moore, 1938). Gardner (1985) identified Sep 11, 1956, as the birthday of contemporary cognitive psychology associated with an information-processing orientation. In 1960, the Center for Cognitive Studies was established at Harvard University, and Miller, Galanter, and Pribram published Plans and the Structure of Behavior. In 1967, Neisser published an influential general text, Cognitive Psychology. Beginning in the 1970s, cognitive psychology began to receive more and more recognition, as reflected in the publication of additional books and journals, as well as support from such philanthropic groups as the Sloan Foundation. In keeping with its evolving nature, many researchers and theorists now use the term cognitive science to characterize the movement. This term reflects an interdisciplinary trend that incorporates philosophy, neuroscience, and other branches of the social and natural sciences.

The everyday language of Western culture, often known as folk psychology, typically involves words like beliefs, intentions, wishes, wants, hopes, and desires. Taken as referring to mental entities possessed by individuals that cause them to behave in particular ways, such words reflect the pervasiveness of cognitive concepts.


An important general characteristic of positions in psychology that are called cognitive is an explicit and un--self-conscious embrace of mentalism. For present purposes, we may define mentalism as the appeal to explicitly nonbehavioral elements from an explicitly nonbehavioral dimension as casually effective antecedents in explanations of behavior. In fact, mentalism holds that a causal explanation of behavior is incomplete at best and defective at worst if it deploys only concepts from the observable behavioral dimension and fails to appeal to unobservable causal elements from a nonbehavioral dimension. Common terms for these nonbehavioral elements are acts, states, mechanisms, processes, entities, faculties, or structures, with different versions of mentalism favoring different terms. …