Radical behaviorism

Radical behaviorism, or the conceptual analysis of behavior, was pioneered by B. F. Skinner and is his "philosophy of the science of behavior."[1] It refers to the philosophy behind behavior analysis, and is to be distinguished from methodological behaviorismwhich has an intense emphasis on observable behaviorsby its inclusion of thoughts, emotions, and other internal mental activity in the analysis and theorizing of human and animal psychology.[2] The research in behavior analysis is called the experimental analysis of behavior and the application of this field is called applied behavior analysis (ABA).

Radical behaviorism as natural science

Radical behaviorism inherits from behaviorism the position that the science of behavior is a natural science, a belief that animal behavior can be studied profitably and compared with human behavior, a strong emphasis on the environment as cause of behavior, and an emphasis on the operations involved in the modification of behavior. Radical behaviorism does not claim that organisms are tabula rasa whose behavior is unaffected by biological or genetic endowment. Rather, it simply asserts that experiential factors play a major role in determining the behavior of many complex organisms, and that the study of these matters is a major field of research in its own right.

Radical behaviorism differs from methodological behaviorism largely by its extreme emphasis on operant conditioning, its use of idiosyncratic terminology (jargon), its tendency to apply notions of reinforcement to philosophy and daily life and, especially, in its treatment of private experience as modifiable behavior.

Common misunderstandings

Although there are many criticisms of Skinner's work, many textbooks and theorists like Noam Chomsky label Skinnerian or radical behaviorism as S–R (stimulus–response, or to use Skinner's term, "respondent"),[3][4] or Pavlovian psychology, and argue that this limits the approach. Although contemporary psychology rejects many of Skinner's conclusions, his work into operant conditioning which emphasizes the importance of consequences in modifying discriminative responses is useful when combined with current understandings about the uniqueness of evolved human thought over other animals.

Many textbooks argue that radical behaviorism maintains the position that animals (including humans) are passive receivers of conditioning, failing to take into account that:

Radical behaviorism is often dismissed as logical positivism. Skinnerians maintain that Skinner was not a logical positivist and recognized the importance of thought as behavior. This position is made quite clear in About Behaviorism.[5] A clearer position for radical behaviorism seems to be the movement known philosophically as American pragmatism.[6]

For a review and summary of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior see the article Verbal Behavior.

The basics: operant psychology

Main article: Operant conditioning

Skinner saw that classical conditioning did not account for the behavior most of us are interested in, such as riding a bike or writing a book. His observations led him to propose a theory about how these and similar behaviors, called operants, come about.

Roughly speaking, in operant conditioning, an operant is actively emitted and produces changes in the world (i.e., produces consequences) that alter the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.

As represented in the table below, operant conditioning has two basic purposes (increasing or decreasing the probability that a specific behavior will occur in the future), which are accomplished by adding or removing one of two basic types of stimuli, positive/pleasant or negative/aversive.[7]

Stimulus type Effect: increase behavior Effect: decrease behavior
Appetitive stimulus Add appetitive stimulus: Positive reinforcer (R+) Remove appetitive stimulus: Negative punisher or response cost punishment (P−)
Aversive stimulus Remove aversive stimulus: Negative reinforcer (R−) Add aversive stimulus: Positive punisher (P+)

In other words:

Negative reinforcement and punishment are often confused. It is important to note that a reinforcer is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will happen again. A punisher will always decrease behavior.

Instrumental conditioning is another term for operant conditioning that is most closely associated with scientists who studied running through a maze. Skinner pioneered the free operant technique, where organisms could respond at any time during a protracted experimental session. Thus Skinner's dependent variable was usually the frequency or rate of responding, not the errors that were made or the speed of traversal of a maze.

Operant conditioning tells something about the future of the organism: That in the future, the reinforced behavior will be likely to occur more often.

Explaining behavior and the importance of the environment

John B. Watson argued against the use of references to mental states and held that psychology should study behavior directly, holding private events as impossible to study scientifically. Skinner rejected this position conceding the importance of thinking, feelings and "inner behavior" in his analysis. Skinner did not hold to truth by agreement, as Watson did, so he was not limited by observation.

In Watson's days (and in Skinner's early days), it was held that psychology was at a disadvantage as a science because behavioral explanations should take physiology into account. Very little was known about physiology at the time. Skinner argued that behavioral explanations of psychological phenomena are "just as true" as physiological explanations. In arguing this, he took a non-reductionistic approach to psychology. Skinner, however, redefined behavior to include "everything that an organism does," including thinking, feeling and speaking and argued that these phenomena were valid subject matters. (The challenge was that objective observation and measurement was often impossible.) The term radical behaviorism refers to just this: that everything an organism does is a behavior.

However, Skinner ruled out thinking and feeling as valid explanations of behavior. The reasoning is this:

Thinking and feeling are not epiphenomena nor have they any other special status, and are just more behavior to explain. Explaining behavior by referring to thought or feelings are pseudo-explanations because they merely point to more behavior to be explained. Skinner proposed environmental factors as proper causes of behavior because:

This holds only for explaining the class of behaviors known as operant behaviors. This class of behavior Skinner held as the most interesting study matter.

Many textbooks, in noting the emphasis Skinner places on the environment, argue that Skinner held that the organism is a blank slate or a tabula rasa. Skinner wrote extensively on the limits and possibilities nature places on conditioning. Conditioning is implemented in the body as a physiological process and is subject to the current state, learning history, and history of the species. Skinner does not consider people a blank slate, or tabula rasa.[8]

Many textbooks seem to confuse Skinner's rejection of physiology with Watson's rejection of private events. It is true to some extent that Skinner's psychology considers humans a black box, since Skinner maintains that behavior can be explained without taking into account what goes on in the organism. However, the black box is not private events, but physiology. Skinner considers physiology as useful, interesting, valid, etc., but not necessary for operant behavioral theory and research.

Private events in a radical behaviorist account

Radical behaviorism differs from other forms of behaviorism in that it treats everything we do as behavior, including private events such as thinking and feeling. Unlike John B. Watson's behaviorism, private events are not dismissed as "epiphenomena," but are seen as subject to the same principles of learning and modification as have been discovered to exist for overt behavior. Although private events are not publicly observable behaviors, radical behaviorism accepts that we are each observers of our own private behavior.

Many textbooks, in emphasizing that Skinner held behavior to be the proper subject matter of psychology, fail to clarify Skinner's position and implicitly or even explicitly posit that Skinner ruled out the study of private events as unscientific. This is Watson's position, not Skinner's.


There are radical behaviorist schools of animal training, management, clinical practice, and education. Skinner's political views have left their mark in small ways as principles adopted by a small handful of utopian communities such as Los Horcones, and in ongoing challenges to aversive techniques in control of human and animal behavior.

Radical behaviorism has generated numerous descendants. Examples of these include molar approaches associated with Richard Herrnstein and William Baum, Howard Rachlin's teleological behaviorism, William Timberlake's behavior systems approach, and John Staddon's theoretical behaviorism.

Skinner's theories on verbal behavior have seen widespread application in therapies for autistic children that are based on applied behavior analysis (ABA).

See also



  1. Schneider, Susan M., and Morris, Edward K. (1987). "A History of the Term Radical Behaviorism: From Watson to Skinner". The Behavior Analyst, 10(1), p. 36.
  2. Chiesa, Mecca (1974). Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science. Reprinted by Authors Cooperative (1994): Boston, Massachusetts. ISBN 0962331147, ISBN 978-0962331145.
  3. Chomsky, N. (1959) "A Review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior". In Leon A. Jakobovits and Murray S. Miron (eds.), Readings in the Psychology of Language, Prentice-Hall, 1967, pp. 142–3.
  4. MacCorquodale, K. (1970). "On Chomsky's review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior". Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 13, 83–99.
  5. Skinner, B.F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.
  6. Moxley, Roy (2003). "Pragmatic Selectionism: The Philosophy of Behavior Analysis". The Behavior Analyst Today, 4(3), 289–314. BAO
  7. Huitt and Hummel (1997)
  8. Skinner, B.F. "On Having A Poem" in which he states: "I am not an S–R psychologist." also in About Behaviorism where he states this position again.

Further reading

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