Academic journal article The Psychological Record

They Should Have Thought about the Consequences: The Crisis of Cognitivism and a Second Chance for Behavior Analysis

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

They Should Have Thought about the Consequences: The Crisis of Cognitivism and a Second Chance for Behavior Analysis

Article excerpt

When psychology was being changed and redefined in the late 1950s and the 1960s, many psychologists saw new possibilities arising from the "cognitive revolution" and started practicing cognitive psychology. Others thought the science had little to gain from the study of unobservable mental phenomena--not behavior, its antecedents, and consequences. This latter group of people often consisted of behaviorists, and guided by B. F. Skinner's example (e.g., 1977, 1990), they have regularly attacked the cognitivist majority camp. These proponents of the mainstream's return to behaviorism have pointed out what they see as fundamental weaknesses in the thinking of cognitive psychologists, such as the assumption that mental processes may be measured. Indeed, they have pointed out the problems created by claiming that such processes exist at all (e.g., Uttal, 2000, 2004). And perhaps their most important point: By overlooking the contingencies of reinforcement, cognitive psychologists fail to gain an understanding of the consequences that strengthen, maintain, or weaken behavior (see, e.g., Pierce & Cheney, 2004).

Despite their consistent and often well-reasoned criticism of cognitivism, behaviorists have long been crying in the wilderness. By the 1990s, cognitive psychologists believed their revolution had brought about important and lasting changes. "The cognitive revolution leads to a combined ideological revolution," said Sperry (1993, p. 879). "Alternative beliefs emerge about the ultimate nature of things, and a changed cosmology brings a new set of answers to some of humanity's deepest questions," he claimed. Such perspectives may not bring about a need for discussion with infidels. Little wonder, then, that no debate seemed to be going on between behaviorism and cognitivism (see Hardcastle, 1994). Behaviorism was in decline, said some (Robins & Craik, 1994), or was simply dead and irrelevant (e. g., Medin & Ross, 1992). Such responses from cognitive psychology were those of a giant feeling secure, choosing to overlook a minor irritant.

But times have changed. For more than thirty years, cognitivism--with its core assumptions that people have mental states, the manipulation of which can be described in terms of rules or algorithms (see e.g., Marr, 1982)--has been the defining paradigm of psychology. Now it is under renewed attack. There are new groups of attackers, and there are more of them than there used to be.

What has made cognitive psychology vulnerable, I shall argue, are some but not all the weaknesses typically ascribed to it by behaviorists. Whether the cognitive psychology we know is thrown out in a new revolution or it just withers away less dramatically, there is no question that mainstream psychology is changing. This change opens an opportunity for behaviorists to affect psychology as a whole to a greater extent than has been possible for some time. However, being able to influence the process of change presupposes a notion of what can and should be changed. The present article is an attempt to have some bearing on that notion.

Functionalism, Behaviorism, Cognitivism

Functionalism was the first American paradigm to dominate psychology. A school of thought with strong roots in biology, it focused on the interaction between organism and environment. This focus led to certain assumptions: Behavior was seen as adaptive, ultimately as a way of furthering the organism's survival and its chance of spreading its genes. Mental processes were there to serve behavior. Indeed, functionalists held that understanding mental acts cannot be separated from understanding the context and consequences of those acts. Therefore, questions regarding the function of perception, thought, emotion, and overt behavior were central. Any field of research and all sound methods were acceptable if they could aid in answering such questions (see Carr, 1925; Wagner & Owens, 1992). …

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