Some Myths about Behaviorism That Are Undone in B.F. Skinner's "The Design of Cultures"

By Wyatt, W. Joseph | Behavior and Social Issues, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Some Myths about Behaviorism That Are Undone in B.F. Skinner's "The Design of Cultures"


Wyatt, W. Joseph, Behavior and Social Issues


One of my interests involves the ways in which behaviorism is consistently misrepresented in both popular and academic sources. Such misrepresentations have appeared so steadily that a Special Interest Group to study them was formed within the Association for Behavior Analysis International.

The group, Behavior Analysis League for Accuracy in News, Commentary and Education (BALANCE), has identified several frequently seen misrepresentations about behaviorism. They include the following (Wyatt, Lamal, Newman & Hobbie, 1997):

1. That behaviorism leaves us devoid of values.

2. That behaviorism ignores individual uniqueness.

3. That behaviorists are strict environmentalists who ignore genetic influences.

4. That behaviorism leaves humans without purpose or intention.

5. That behaviorism reduces mankind's behavior to that of lower animals.

6. That behaviorists fail to acknowledge learning based on factors other than reinforcement.

7. That behaviorists have no account of language development.

8. That behaviorists mainly advocate punitive means of control.

9. That behaviorism is amoral.

10. That behaviorists either do not believe in, or fail to account for, thinking.

These are all myths. All are untrue concerning behaviorism and behaviorists. It has now been forty years since publication of "The Design of Cultures." To the extent that Skinner's work represents behaviorism, each of the above myths is undone in "The Design of Cultures."

Regarding numbers one and nine above, Skinner began his article by asking, in essence, "With what special wisdom are non-scientists endowed, that they alone should be the (values-driven) designers of cultures?" Later in the paper he pointed out that moral and ethical practices ought to be analyzed, and that is especially true regarding the moral and ethical practices of the cultural designer.

Regarding numbers two and five above, Skinner pointed out that the social institutions of mankind are founded on, or emerge from, more than the instinctive patterns of animals. "They are the achievements of individuals..." whose coordinated activity of a family, a large company or a great city are very different from those of the anthill or beehive.

Do behaviorists discount or ignore genetic influences? Not according to Skinner. In a "scientific analysis," Skinner wrote, "...The probability of a behavior is accounted for by appeal to the genetic endowment of the organism and its past and present environments..."

Critics have asked how behaviorists are able to discuss the intentional design of a culture, given those critics' perception of a behavioristic disavowal of purpose and intention. Here Skinner made clear that it is the criticism that is wrong. "Our present understanding...permits us to construct new forms of behavior. …

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