Mythmaking: How Introductory Psychology Texts Present B.F. Skinner's Analysis of Cognition

By Jensen, Robert; Burgess, Helene | The Psychological Record, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Mythmaking: How Introductory Psychology Texts Present B.F. Skinner's Analysis of Cognition


Jensen, Robert, Burgess, Helene, The Psychological Record


His work spawned a division of the APA (Division 25, Experimental Analysis of Behavior); an independent professional organization (the Association for Behavior Analysis) with more than 2,200 members; two private foundations dedicated to the advancement of behavioral psychology; and a host of journals - at least 23 by one count . . . Among the personal accolades bestowed . . . that reflect the impact of his work are 30-odd honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the world, consistent ranking by psychologists as among the most important thinkers in both contemporary psychology and in the history of psychology. (Lattal, 1992, p. 1269)

Thus is summarized the depth of the influence in psychology of the late B. F. Skinner. Skinner's breadth is measured by psychologists in the United States - both recognized historians of psychology and nonhistorians alike - who acknowledge Skinner as the leading figure in the discipline. In addition, these same psychologists judge his contributions as the most important event of post-World War II developments in psychology (Gilgen, 1982).

Skinner's work embraced the whole of psychology, beginning with a methodology that defined a subject matter for psychology (behavior) and provided a means by which to examine systematically the lawful relations that might exist between that subject matter and aspects of the environment. His investigations led to discoveries of such lawfulness and resulting statements of basic behavioral principles including the most basic statement, the Law of Effect (behavior is a function of its consequences). Other principles identified the strengthening and weakening effects that environmental consequences have on behavior (reinforcement and punishment) and the significance that stimuli antecedent to behavior come to have when behavior is reinforced or punished in their presence (stimulus control). According to Skinner, human behavior is not a simple machine-like product of a stimulus, but is something dynamic, changing and in flux, as the environment is in flux. And behavior is seen to be active, that is, behavior acts on the environment. The environment in turn acts back on the behavior and on the behaver as well: Both are changed as a result of this reciprocal behavior-environment interchange (Skinner, 1953).

Furthermore, Skinner's radical behaviorism embraced both public behavior and the private parts of our experience, those psychological activities that are not yet accessible by empirical observation. A quick reading of the table of contents of books written by Skinner shows an examination of topics which are close to the marrow of both academic and popular psychology including thinking, perceiving, the self, feeling and emotion, and knowing (Skinner, 1953, 1957, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1989). These activities, typically referred to as cognitive processes, were said by Skinner not to differ in essence from those behaviors open to public observation (Skinner, 1953):

We need not suppose that events which take place within an organism's skin have special properties . . . . A private event may be distinguished by its limited accessibility but not, so far as we know, by any special nature or structure. (p. 257)

Activities such as thinking, problem solving, and remembering are behaviors, and as such are subject to the same laws that account for the development of publicly observable behavior (Reese, 1986; Stemmer, 1992).

Unfortunately, distortions and misinterpretations of the principles and methodology of Skinner's radical behaviorism occurred throughout his life. Averaging 18 citations per year for the last 10 years, according to the Social Sciences Citation Index (1995), the most widely referenced misinterpretation is perhaps Noam Chomsky's (1959) review of Skinner's (1957) Verbal Behavior. Yet there is rarely, if ever, mention of Kenneth MacCorquodale's cogent critique of that very review. MacCorquodale (1970) correctly pointed out that Chomsky, lacking an understanding of Skinner's radical behaviorism, spent much of his time attacking theories of drive reduction and S-R principles, both of which are unrelated to the functional analysis of verbal behavior proposed by Skinner. …

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