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Why B. F. Skinner, Like Freud, Still Isn’t Dead

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Behaviorism is back! That’s what David Freedman proclaims in the June Atlantic cover story, “The End of Temptation: How the creepy science of behavior modification is reshaping our desires.” The article is, on one level, a hyperbolic report on apps that are “transforming us into thinner, richer, all around-better versions of ourselves” by helping people (including Freedman’s brother) overcome overeating, smoking and other bad habits. Freedman inflates this pop-culture mini-trend into a grandiose claim that B.F. Skinner, “psychology’s most misunderstood visionary,” who popularized behaviorism more than a half century ago, “may finally get his due.”

Giving Skinner credit for apps like “Lose It” and “Habit Breaker”—which I predict will turn out to be as effective, or ineffective, as other self-improvement programs—is a stretch. Freedman’s article is nonetheless a wonderful illustration of a thesis I advanced 16 years ago in “Why Freud Isn’t Dead.” My conceit was this: Ever since Freud invented psychoanalysis, critics have viciously attacked it, denouncing it as the equivalent of pseudo-scientific twaddle like phrenology, which held that skull shape mirrors personality. Countless alternative theories of and therapies for the mind have emerged in the past century, ranging from Jungian psychology up through cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology and psychopharmacology.

Some of these allegedly new-and-improved fields have yielded valuable insights. The shocking experiments of Stanley Milgram, the reciprocal altruism hypothesis of Robert Trivers, the rise in IQ scores identified by James Flynn, the exposure of cognitive bias by Daniel Kahneman. And yet psychoanalysis is still hanging in there, not—as Freudians claim—because of its scientific merits but because a century of research on the brain and mind has not yielded a paradigm powerful enough to obliterate psychoanalysis once and for all. If Freudian psychoanalysis, in some sense, resembles phrenology, so, in some sense, do all its rivals. A corollary of my thesis is that psychological paradigms never really die; they just go in and out of fashion. Their creators endure too, neither dead nor alive but undead, like zombies or vampires.

Case in point: the “revival” of behaviorism, which treats subjective mental states as an irrelevant distraction for understanding humans; only objectively observable, measurable behavior matters. (The essence of behaviorism is summed up by an old joke: After two behaviorists make love, the man says to the woman, “It was good for you. How was it for me?”) Freedman suggests that behaviorism fell out of favor because people found the behavior-modification techniques proposed by Skinner to be “manipulative,” “fascist” and “morally bankrupt.” Some critics did indeed raise moral objections to behavior modification. (See for example “The Clockwork Condition,” a fascinating essay written in 1973 and printed in the June 4, 2012, New Yorker, in which Anthony Burgess traces connections between his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, which yielded one of my all-time favorite films, and Skinner’s “evil” proposals.) But scientists abandoned behaviorism for reasons that were primarily empirical, not moral.

MIT linguist Noam Chomsky pointed out behaviorism’s flaws in a coldly brutal 1959 vivisection of Skinner‘s views of  language. Chomsky argued out that children cannot possibly acquire language through the simple stimulus-response mechanism postulated by Skinner; they must possess a priori knowledge that helps them learn rules of grammar so quickly. Children, Chomsky wrote, “generalize, hypothesize, and ‘process information’ in a variety of very special and apparently highly complex ways which we cannot yet describe or begin to understand, and which may be largely innate, or may develop through some sort of learning or through maturation of the nervous system. The manner in which such factors operate and interact in language acquisition is completely unknown.”

Note what Chomsky is saying: that neither behaviorism nor any other scientific model can explain—or is even close to explaining—how humans learn language, which is arguably our defining trait. (In spite of his own emphasis on the genetic underpinnings of language, Chomsky has been cruelly dismissive of evolutionary psychology, which he once called a “philosophy of mind with a little bit of science thrown in.”)

In a recent column on philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, I pointed out that some fields, especially “hard” ones like physics and chemistry, converge on a paradigm and rapidly progress, while others “remain in a state of constant flux.” Fields that address human thought and behavior—anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, psychology–are prime example of research endeavors that lurch faddishly from one paradigm to another.

Will psychologists ever find a paradigm powerful enough to unify the field and help it achieve the rigor of, say, nuclear physics or molecular biology? William James had his doubts. More than a century ago he fretted that psychology might never transcend its “confused and imperfect state.” Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has argued that James’s concerns “have proved all too justified. Psychology has not added up to an integrated science, and it is unlikely ever to achieve that status.” Gardner once told me that questions about free will, the self, consciousness and other topics with which psychologists (and, tellingly, philosophers) wrestle might not be amenable to conventional scientific reductionism, in spite of all the advances of modern genetics, neuroscience and brain imaging. Gardner suggested that researchers should perhaps consider adopting more “literary” styles of investigation and discourse, as practiced by Freud and James–and, I would add, even Skinner, who was a decent writer, if not in the same class as Freud and James.

And if literary psychology doesn’t work out, we still have weight-loss apps.

Photo of Skinner courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science, 1996, re-published with new preface 2015; and The End of War, 2012, paperback published 2014. Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. 11:12 am 06/1/2012

    I worked with brain injury for over 20 years as a speech pathologist. While my colleagues in physical and occupational therapy could quantify goals and results in a very objective manner (number of feet walked, range of motion etc…), I found it more difficult to quantify language and cognition goals because I was trying to measure thinking. Yes, you could measure how many times someone answered yes and no questions correctly but it was much more difficult to quantify anything involving complex language and especially cognition or executive functions. I would agree that it is nearly impossible to put thinking and psychological principles into a classic scientific framework of analysis.

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  2. 2. jgrosay 6:49 pm 06/1/2012

    Stanley Kubrick’s “A clockwork orange” may contain some criticism for certain kinds of psychological treatments, for some the therapy the young bandit character in the film receives is “psychoanalysis”, but the movie is so close to being an oda to rape and violence, that one can find easy explanations about the fact that Kubrick regretted having made this movie, and even some say that he tried blocking additional difussion of it some years after its first release. The problem in some hard evil-doing in movies is that it’s not only a show, but it can induce the insane behaviour it depicts in some, at least some obviously unnacceptable behaviours go into the watcher’s memory, and you never know how it will act in the future of the person, and even less, if it can be passed involuntarily to the next generations, there are aspects of parenthood we don’t even guess they exist.

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  3. 3. Bashir 10:16 am 06/2/2012

    I couldn’t disagree more with Gardner. Look at other fields, there have been sea changes where what was once thought to be irreducible is, well, reduced. Of course the picture is always complicated, but progress is made. I think it somewhat myopic to assume the study of human behavior/cognition could not progress is such a way. Why not? Because it seems hard? It hasn’t happened yet? A lot of smart people can’t answer the questions right now? Those all seem like very poor reasons to just give up the ship.

    As far as psychology jumping between fads, I think that is to some degree true, but also a simplification. All of psychology does not move in lock step together. There are different researchers moving in different directions, researchers who wouldn’t call themselves psychologist who are doing work relevant to the larger question of human behavior/cognition. One example is developmental robotics, which in my opinion is quite relevant to human development. That might not “pay off” today or tomorrow or even in 20 years.

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  4. 4. mirogarcia2 3:17 pm 06/5/2012

    “which treats subjective mental states as an irrelevant distraction for understanding humans; only objectively observable, measurable behavior matters”. Really? No, Behaviorism do not treats subjective mental states as irrelevant for understanding human behavior. The author should read more behaviorism literature. For example:
    Tourinho, E. Z. ; BORBA, A. ; Vichi, Christian ; Leite, F. L. . Contributions of Contingencies in Modern Societies to Privacy in the Behavioral Relations of Cognition and Emotion. The Behavior Analyst, v. 34, p. 171-180, 2011.
    Friman F.C. , Hayes S. C, and Wilson K. G. Why behavior analysts should study emotion: the example of anxiety J Appl Behav Anal 31(1): 137–156, 1998
    Anderson, M.C., Hawkins R.P.& Scotti, J.R. Private events in behavior analysis: Conceptual basis and clinical relevance. Behavior Therapy, V28, Issue 1, Pages 157–179, 1997
    Another flaw of the article: “the simple stimulus-response mechanism postulated by Skinner”. Skinner did not postulated an stimulus-response mechanism, who postulated it was Pavlov. Skinner proposed “selection by consequences” as the mechanism for the acquisition and maintenance of behavior and there is nothing simple about this account.
    Behaviorism isn’t still dead because it has almost 70 years of experimental and clinical scientific research that provided and is still providing information about human behavior. Also, thanks to the data obtained by behavioral research, behaviorism is always evolving, as should do any science. Actually, there are some behaviorists that challenged some Skinner’s views (for example Staddon, Baum, Donahoe & Palmer) and propose new paradigms. The author should read those authors as well.

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  5. 5. myaliasisjamessmith 4:17 am 06/14/2012

    Your response here is made pre consequintial and is an antecedent to the behavior of other organisms who happen to read your article. Your words are behavior. Most scientist that I know don’t talk about Darwin’s idea (natural selection) being a thing of the past. The environment selects our behavior, that is what Skinner said. It was true then and is true now. His idea and methods are still alive and well. Autistics benefit more than most from Skinner’s methods. Applied Behavior Analysis is one modern form of behaviorism.

    I’ve read the article you mentioned and I found it refreshing to see that some good is coming from the truths uncovered by Skinner and how they are being applied even if they’re not directly descended from him.

    Candy bars have been too long at the check out for my behavior; hopefully you could see the advantage to offering healthy choices to consumers in a time saving convenient way when they’re checking out. Although the phylogeny of behavior also plays a role in why we’d walk to the back of the store to get a candy bar or a bag of chips I believe better choices would be made if the environment only provided what is best. A bowl of oranges vs a bowl of skittles in my local public school without any verbal behavior only a sign that says your choice a or b but not both would easily demonstrate what I mean by what is best.

    Please do what is best, it effects others.

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  6. 6. Mr Parsimony 3:57 pm 06/18/2012

    Horgan echoes all the tired old misrepresentations of behaviorism: 1) that it neglects mental events (behavior analysts call them unobserved, or private, events, and ever since Skinner (1945), have dealt with them extensively and parsimoniously as an extension of the public events that are understood according to the laws of behavior); and 2) that Skinner explained language according to a “simple stimulus-response mechanism (such a statement couldn’t be further from the truth and all Mr. Horgan would need to do is actually read Skinner); and 3) that “scientists abandoned behaviorism for reasons that were primarily empirical, not moral” (Really? What scientists? Certainly not Chomsky who is not a scientist and has he ever been one).

    Horgan has shed responsible journalism for hearsay and has relied on and secondary sources instead of Skinner and other behavior analysts. If wouldn’t be as bad if there weren’t decades of peer-reviewed, scholarly articles debunking these misrepresentations, which are easy to find if one simply looks.

    As for his comments about psychology, well that’s a different matter and is certainly fair game for discussion, but even then, perhaps Mr. Horgan should have consulted the fairly extensive literature by psychologists themselves on this matter.

    Not one of John Horgan’s shining journalistic moments.

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  7. 7. jonsey 9:32 am 07/26/2012

    Yet another article by someone critical of Skinner and behavior written by someone who doesn’t understand behaviorism. It contains the usual lies and misrepresentations typical of people who can’t be bother to be fair and accurate.

    “which treats subjective mental states as an irrelevant distraction for understanding humans” FALSE

    “only objectively observable, measurable behavior matters.” FALSE

    I am willing to bet that you have never actually read any of Skinner’s books. Am I right?

    One more thing. It is also incorrect that “behaviorism fell out of favor because people found the behavior-modification techniques proposed by Skinner to be “manipulative,” “fascist” and “morally bankrupt.” FALSE again.

    This is only partly true. Behavior mod failed to gain wide acceptance because it was so successful when used by experts in the field, that amateurs who didn’t really understand it tried to use it and predictably failed. It is the failures of unqualified people that killed it off.

    Are there area of behavior that operant psychology cannot cope with? Sure. But there is no other approach to psychology than can claim to explain everything.

    Behaviorsim will always come back because it focusses on a hard core of human nature – consequences shape behavior. It is just as Daniel Dennett’s explains in his perfectly titled article: “Why the Law of Effect Won’t Go Away.”

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