Why Behaviorism, to Survive and Triumph, Must Abandon Its Very Name: An Open Letter

By Marr, A. J. | Behavior and Social Issues, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Behaviorism, to Survive and Triumph, Must Abandon Its Very Name: An Open Letter


Marr, A. J., Behavior and Social Issues


Direct contingency analysis has been shown to be important. Instead of this success providing a powerful foundation for major advances in all of the important areas of psychology, I fear that it is becoming a gold plated cage. My evidence: relatively narrow areas of interest are dominating the field, both applied and basic. We are not expanding, and a field not busy being born is a field that is busy dying. (Hayes, 2001, p. 61)

A hallmark virtue of behaviorism and behavior analysis is its adherence to a thoroughgoing empiricism with a commitment to discovering the lawfulness of behavior and the development of procedures for its prediction and control. Ultimately, the aspects of behavior that can become a subject matter for a behavioristic examination are dependent upon the capability of the tools available that can measure those aspects. Thus, respondent and operant behaviors become grist for a behavioristic analysis only because we have the devices (e.g. Skinner box, cumulative record, Pavlov's gastric fistula) available to measure and control for these responses. Unfortunately, if schools of thought become defined through the unique methodology they employ rather than the empirical principles they espouse, then these schools of thought become ultimately built on artificial principles. In the case of behaviorism, the dogmatic reliance on methodological at the expense of empirical principles not only constrains behaviorism, but as I must agree with the aforementioned quotation, may ultimately kill it.

The fact that respondent and operant conditioning have only recently been analyzed using uniform methodological principles (Donahoe & Palmer, 1993) underscores the fact that different procedures can be wrongly imputed to underscore subject matters that are incommensurable. However, the methodological divisions that can separate practitioners into different camps is presently repeating itself once again, and with results that are of key importance to the future of behaviorism.

Presently, the rapid development of new and powerful experimental tools (MRI, in vivo microdialysis, neuronal modeling, etc.) that can map neural processes has demonstrated that neuromodulator production (Barrett and Hoffman, 1991), micro-cellular processes (Stein et al. 1993), and many other neural events can now be mapped to environmental contingencies. These findings are no less behavioristic than Pavlov's measure of gastric secretions, yet because the experimental methods and devices are so different from those customarily employed by behavior analysts, the tools themselves have defined a subject matter, namely neuropsychology, that seems quite different from behaviorism, even though the former is in principle behavioristic.

A major emerging concept in cognitive neuropsychology that is being examined through the use of operant principles is the concept of embodiment, a notion that has received scant attention from behavior analysts. Embodiment, which is now held as a first principle by the major voices in neuropsychology today (e.g. Antonio Damasio (1994), Jaak Panksepp (1999)) in effect holds that behavior is not only instantiated by environmental contingencies, but is continuously guided by somatic events (e.g. muscle tension, neuromodulator production, hormonal responses, etc.) that are instigated by and mediate the effectiveness of those contingencies. Embodiment is different from the more general concept of emotion because unlike the latter, it possesses 'theoretical coherence'. In other words, embodied events represent measurable somatic responses that vary in time and across other independent measures (e.g. response contingencies) that can be altered and replicated.

Embodiment should be particularly of importance to behaviorism for the simple reason that embodiment is now at the root of contemporary bio-behavioral definitions of reinforcement. Current discrepancy models of reward hold that reinforcement is coextensive with the production of the neuromodulator dopamine that fixes attention, assigns appetitive value to perceptual events, and increases synaptic or neural efficiency. …

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