Behaviorism at 100

By Ledoux, Stephen F. | American Scientist, January/February 2012 | Go to article overview

Behaviorism at 100


Ledoux, Stephen F., American Scientist


Over its second 50 years, the study of behavior evolved to become a discipline, behaviorology, independent of psychology

Behaviorism as a philosophy of science began with an article by John B. Watson in 1913, and its several varieties inform different behavior-related disciplines. During the past 100 years, disciplinary developments have led to a clarified version of behaviorism informing a basic, separate natural science of behavior. This recently emerged independent discipline not only complements other natural sciences, but also shares in solving local and global problems by showing how to discover and effectively control the variables that unlock solutions to the common behavior-related components of these problems.

In 1963, B. F. Skinner published "Behaviorism at 50," reviewing the varieties of behaviorism and the directions of natural behavior science. (The 1957 article reproduced nearby covers many of those topics.) By the 1960s common wisdom held that the experimentally discovered laws of behavior were largely irrelevant to normal human beings; instead, they were thought applicable mostly to treating psychotic individuals and to training animals. Skinner challenged that notion on scientific as well as philosophical grounds, and data accumulating over the next 50 years have validated his position that the natural laws governing behavior are relevant to all behavior of human beings and other animals. The 1960s were also a time when natural scientists of behavior were continuing their attempts to change psychology, the discipline in which many worked, into a natural science. Over the next 50 years, as recognition increased that resistance to those efforts was adamant, natural scientists of behavior gradually took their discipline outside psychology, founding a separate and independent natural science that some recognized formally in 1987 using the name behaviorology. That name is synonymous with "the natural science of behavior" and is conveniently shorter.

With behaviorism turning 100 in 2013, a review of those developments, and their implications for other natural sciences and today's world, seems appropriate. The natural science of behavior can elevate the status of the natural sciences, lead to solving more human problems, reduce susceptibility to superstition and mysticism (both theological and secular), and improve human intellectuality, rationality and emotionality.

Naturalism, the general philosophy of science, can enable those outcomes. Natural scientists maintain a mutual respect for the natural functional history of events. This enables their analyses to be more complete and to track well across disdplinary lines. In contrast, ignoring that natural functional history often leads to unnecessary compromises between some natural sciences and nonscientific disciplines that make claims of mystical origination of events. For example, by respecting the natural history of events, physiology can provide additional details about how an energy transfer evokes a behavior (such as how light striking the retina from a close moving object evokes ducking the object). At the same time, chemistry can provide more details about that physiology, and physics can provide still further details about that chemistry. But if natural scientists instead allow claims that ducking is, or results from, the spontaneous, willful act of some putative inner agent, then an untraceable, untestable mystical account replaces the links in that natural history. When such compromises give undeserved status to mystical accounts, natural science loses ground, reducing its benefits. Maintaining respect for the natural functional history of events thus enables a more complete and consistent account of any phenomenon, including behavior.

Becoming more aware of the progress that scientists have made on behavioral fronts can reduce the risk that other natural scientists will resort to mystical agential accounts when they exceed the limits of their own disciplinary ttaining. …

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