The 1950s were a time when kids in the country went fishing on weekends

A Historical Perspective on Behaviorism

The 1950s were a time when kids in the country went fishing on weekends
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"A Historical Perspective on Behaviorism"
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In the early 20th century, psychology as a science changed dramatically.  Until that time, the main focus was on the conscious and unconscious mind, but a new school of thought arose, with its focus entirely on observable behavior.  Behaviorism made psychology a more scientific discipline.

The study of behaviorism got its start with the work of Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who while conducting studies on the digestive system of dogs discovered that behaviors could be learned through conditioned associations.  His discovery of the classical conditioning process demonstrated that the learning process could be used to form connections between environmental stimuli and naturally occurring stimuli.  On the New World side of the Atlantic, American psychologist John B. Watson was a strong advocate for behaviorism.  In his book Behaviorism (1924), he wrote:  “Behaviorism . . . holds that the subject matter of human psychology is the behavior of the human being.  Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept.”

A Definition of Behaviorism

The doctrine of behaviorism is based on the truth of three claims:

 -   Psychology is the science of behavior.  Psychology is not the science of the mind.

 -   Behavior can be described and explained without making ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes.  The sources of behavior are in the external environment and not in the mind.

 -    In developing psychological theory, if mental terms are used to describe or explain behavior, they should be either eliminated and replaced by behavioral terms, or translated into behavioral concepts.

There are three types of behaviorism:

-     Methodological behaviorism, which claims that psychology, should concern itself with the behavior of organisms.

 -    Psychological behaviorism purports to explain human and animal behavior in terms of external physical stimuli, responses, learning history, and reinforcements.

 -    Logical behaviorism says that the very idea of a mental state or condition is the idea of a behavioral disposition evident in how a person or animal behaves in one situation as opposed to another.

The rise and fall of Behaviorism

From around the second decade of the twentieth century until the 1950s, behaviorism was a favored line of research among students of behavior.  B. F. Skinner constructed a theory of what an ideal human society would be like if it was constructed according to behaviorist principles, and is the only major figure in the field to use the concept of behaviorism to describe a socio-political world view.  One area of his construct that attracted much criticism was his rejection of the idea that people creatively make their own environments.  Skinner’s view was that when analyzing human behavior one should “strip away functions previously assigned to autonomous man and transfer them one by one to the controlling environment.”

Behaviorism has lost almost all of its influence; dismissed by those scientists who develop intricate internal information processing models of cognition.  It has not, however, entirely disappeared.  It still plays a role in the approach to mental processes known as functionalism, or the states of mind that play particular functional roles in animals or systems in which they occur.

An interesting limitation in the principle of behaviorism is its application to the operation of computers and artificial intelligence.  How, for instance, can one decide if a computer is intelligent?  Alan Turing proposed a test (1950), in which held that if you cannot distinguish a computer from a human in terms of its behavior, as or example in their answers to question put to both, then, if because the human is intelligent, denying the intelligence of the computer would be difficult.  The question raised by this is whether or not the behavior of the computer that is the decisive factor in ascribing intelligence to it, or is it the internal workings of the machine?  A person answering yes to the second question would be termed a ‘mentalist,’ while anyone answering yes to the first question would be called a ‘behaviorist.’ 

Many objections have been raised to behaviorism.  Critics complain that behaviorists ignore or dismiss the internal consciousness, or the internal mental state of the object being studied.  There is also a strongly held belief that behaviorist explanations of actions are inadequate to fully explain them, that actions are far too simplified, and that they cannot analyze or define a single mentalistic term through a set of behaviors.

Behaviorism no longer dominates research as it did when it was first introduced, and it is almost entirely – but, not completely - rejected in the field of psychology.  In philosophy, with its demand for something like a rule-following conception that presumes a social conception of behavior, behaviorism still holds sway.

More about this author: Charles Ray

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