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Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that studies observable behavior and analysis it as a process within the environment and as the history of the individual’s interactions with his environment. Behaviorism is based on experimentation and scientific measurement. It aims to establish a statistically significant relationship between environmental variables and the behavior studied without using the psyche as an explanation of actions or behavior.

It finds its application today in applied behavior analysis (ABA). Its applications extend to helping people with pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), including autism, industrial safety and more. In October 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended approaches that have been shown to be effective for early intervention in PDD in children under 3 years of age. These recommendations emphasize both the necessary involvement of the entourage in development and the importance of behaviouristic methods to implement.

Cognitive and behavioral therapies (CBTs) have incorporated behavioral operational elements despite different theoretical foundations.


Theoretical and experimental works

Watson’s Stimulus-Response Behaviorism

Historically, behaviorism appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, in reaction to so-called “mentalistic” approaches that made psychology a branch of philosophy. In the United States, the concept of conscience was increasingly questioned. William James’s 1904 article “Does consciousness exist?” posed the problem explicitly.

In 1913, John Broadus Watson established the basic principles of behaviorism, whose name he invents, claiming in an article entitled “Psychology as the behaviorist sees it“:

“Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. … It has been maintained by its followers generally that psychology is a study of the science of the phenomena of consciousness.”

Watson considered that psychology should study the behaviors of its subject of study and not their mental states. If psychology wants to be perceived as a natural science, it must be limited to observable and measurable events by theoretically disposing of all interpretations that appeal to notions such as consciousness, and condemning, on the methodologically, the use of introspection “as little useful to psychology as it is to chemistry or physics”.

The goal of behavioral science is, for Watson, to study the relationships between the stimuli (S) of the environment and the response behaviors (R) they cause. This position of principle advocated by Watson corresponds to what was later called “methodological behaviorism” to differentiate it from other currents to which it will give birth.

It became a central object for the study of behavior, which must be approached only in terms of measurable behaviors produced in response to environmental stimuli. Watson was convinced that his new behaviourism would ultimately allow the prediction and control of behavior. Some of his extreme claims in the field have been used to discredit Watson and modern behaviorism by extension, even though it is fundamentally different from Watson’s S-R paradigm.

The Stimulus-Response-Consequence or Operant Behavior Model

The experimental branch of behaviorism was formally born in 1938 with the publication of Burrhus F. Skinner’s book “The behavior of organisms“. The book summarizes the work carried out in the laboratory between 1930 and 1937. It puts into perspective two types of behavior: the responding behavior and the operating behavior or conditioning operating on the basis of the observations that it makes on the animals placed in experimental devices called Skinner boxes, during which they learn by trial and error the actions to be performed to achieve the desired result.

The first set of data presented by Skinner in “The behavior of organisms” was a graph that presented the measure of a change in behavior when food was given to a rat when he pressed a lever. Skinner noted that the first three times the food arrived in connection with the behavior, no effect was observed, but that the fourth was followed by an appreciable increase in the rate of actuation of the lever until reaching a maximum.

Ivan Pavlov highlighted the respondent behaviors that are triggered by the stimulus that immediately precedes them. The antecedent stimulus (the bright light for example) and the behavior it causes (contraction of the pupil) form a functional unit called reflex. The responding behaviors are essentially involuntary and appear as soon as the trigger stimulus is presented.

Like many other psychologists of the time, Skinner considered that neither Pavlov’s responding behavior nor Watson’s SR paradigm allowed for the explanation of the majority of behaviors, especially behaviors for which there was no such previous apparent causes in the environment. Compared with reflex behavior, most of the behaviors of organisms appeared spontaneous or voluntary. Skinner searched the broader environment for determinants of behavior that had no apparent prior causes. Through experiments with animals, he accumulated the counter-intuitive proof that the behavior is less changed by what precedes it than by what follows it. The formulation of this model is S-R-C (Stimulus – Response – Consequence), nowadays better known as operant behavior whereas the S-R model of Pavlov and Watson is generally called responding behavior.

Unlike Watson who rejected it, Skinner relies on Thorndike’s law of effect, which establishes that behavior is a function of its consequences, to develop the notions of reinforcement, shaping, programmed learning. These principles mark a profound divergence from Watson’s methodological behaviorism by accepting the idea that variables internal to the individual may be involved in the analysis of behavior.

This model of operating behavior does not replace the model of responding behavior since the reflex is a physiological reality. It helps to better account for how the environment influences behavior.

Skinner’s radical behaviorism

In parallel with his experimental work, Skinner wrote numerous books on the philosophy and epistemology of behaviorism. In 1948, Skinner published Walden Two, a fiction exploring a utopian world applying the principles of behaviorism. This book was followed by Science and Human Behavior (1953), considered one of Skinner’s main texts, in which he reflects on a possible application of the principles of behavior to complex domains such as education and psychotherapy.

Skinner’s book “About behaviorism” (1974) opens with these words: “Behaviorism is not the science of human behavior; he is the philosophy of that science.”

The theoretical issues underlying Skinner’s thinking are:

  1. Is a behavioral science possible?
  2. Can it account for all aspects of human behavior?
  3. What can be his methods?
  4. Are its laws as valid as the laws of physics and biology?
  5. What techniques can it lead to?

By incorporating internal processes, such as thoughts or emotions, under the qualification of “private events”. Skinner makes three assumptions about private events:

  1. thoughts and feelings are behaviors
  2. the behavior that takes place under the skin of an organism differs from a public event only by its inaccessibility
  3. the private event is influenced by the same types of variables as public events

In this conception of behaviorism, the principles of operative psychology can be applied to everything that concerns the human, which amounts to saying “everything is behavior”, including mental events, hence the term “radical behaviorism”.

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