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Behaviorism at 100

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

Stephen Ledoux

From 1963 Forward

During the second 50 years of behaviorism, developments continued in both the philosophical and experimental areas, but they also expanded into the applied sciences and organizational realms. In expanding naturalistic explanations toward a more complete scientific account of behavior, the question of consciousness attracts the most attention. Basically, this science accounts for behaviors of consciousness in terms of neural behaviors such as awareness, thinking, observation and comprehension. While muscle behavior is more familiar, as it intertwines both neural processes and enervated muscle contractions, the behaviors of consciousness manifest as pure neural processes. Behavior is a natural phenomenon that happens, and changes, because variables affect the particular body structures that mediate it. No mysterious inner self-agent does the behaving or instructs the body to behave. Instead, respondent and operant conditioning processes occur nearly continuously. Both involve energy transfers between the environment (internal and external) and the body in ways that alter neural structures and thereby produce a different body that mediates behavior differently on future occasions.

Those points emphasize one of the major developments bearing on the question of consciousness in the years since 1963, namely the greater appreciation of the valuable overlap between the separate yet complementary natural sciences of physiology and behaviorology. For example, to deal scientifically with emotion requires the different analytical levels of these two disciplines. Emotion refers to a release of chemicals into the bloodstream (an area of physiology) that external or internal stimuli elicit (an area of behaviorology). That changed body chemistry produces the reactions called feelings. Perhaps more importantly, that changed body chemistry produces effects on other responses. When a bear startles you, you run faster than you would under more ordinary circumstances. Or, excising the fictitious inner agent that the bear or the word “you” can mistakenly imply, the sudden appearance of a big brown bear from behind a boulder only a meter away evokes faster running—due to the elicited body-chemistry change—than more ordinary circumstances evoke.

Still, behaviorology is not a science of how a body mediates a behavior, for example, of how striated muscle contractions are a function of neural processes, which is part of physiology. Rather, behaviorology is a science of why a body mediates a behavior, that is, of the functional relations between independent variables such as a boulder blocking a forest path, and the dependent variables of body-mediated behavior, such as the muscle contractions that the obstacle evokes which take the body around the boulder.

While behaviorology accounts for specific functional relations between real independent variables on both sides of the skin and real dependent variables of behavior changes on both sides of the skin, brain physiology accounts for the structural changes that occur as those behaviorological-level independent and dependent variables interact. That is, brains mediate behavior that occurs as a function of other real variables; brains do not originate behavior. Thus, the more brain physiologists work to account for the mediation of behavior, particularly neural behavior, the greater success they experience.

With the enhanced accounting for complex human behavior that Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior provides, the natural science of behavior has also addressed some ancient fundamental questions, leading to an exciting outcome. Since what scientists and philosophers and other knowers “do” is behavior, behaviorology is providing scientific analyses of science, philosophy and epistemology. By the 1990s such analyses also covered attitudes, values, rights, ethics, morals and beliefs, with important implications for a range of engineering concerns including robotics. These kinds of scientific extensions of behaviorology led Lawrence Fraley, in Chapter 29 of his General Behaviorology, to conclusions about reality that parallel those that Stephen Hawking reached in his Grand Design, through the logic of naturalism in physics, that our neurally behaving reality is the sole source of knowledge about reality, because we can get no closer to reality than the responses evoked by the firing of sensory neurons.

A related question arises, both on its own merits and due to its relevance to accounting for consciousness: How can we apparently respond to events that seem to be in the past or future? The basic answer is that we cannot; responses, like stimuli, take place only in the present, an important implication being that all behavior is new behavior. Every behavior occurs under the functional control of current evocative stimuli regardless of the complexity, multiplicity or interactivity of those stimuli or responses. Even memories are not stored responses. They are new responses that current stimuli evoke and that current neural structures mediate, neural structures that have their current structure because conditioning processes changed them both at and since the time of the original instance.

With our now more fully informed perspective, we return to address consciousness more completely. Using the vision modality for convenience, Skinner had described consciousness as “seeing that we are seeing (known as “conscious seeing”). But he excised any implied inner agent who “does” the seeing by pointing out two general kinds of contingencies. Our physical environment supplies the kinds of contingencies that condition seeing in the first place (called “unconscious seeing”), while our verbal community supplies the kinds that condition both our conscious seeing and our reporting of what is seen. The thing seen evokes our initial unconscious seeing responses, which in turn evoke the seeing/reporting conscious responses. Actually, the thing seen need not be present because other real variables can evoke the unconscious seeing response, which can then evoke conscious seeing/reporting responses. Equally pertinent, when current independent variables are insufficient to compel the conscious part to happen, it does not.

The verbal community conditions such seeing and reporting because doing so accrues benefits. In common terms, more effective social organization and discourse arise when the verbal responses (reports) of what we did, are doing and are about to do provide stimuli that evoke the responses of verbal community members. As members of that same verbal community, we also benefit when our own seeing and reporting evoke our own subsequent responding, for such reporting also evokes our own hearing responses which then naturally supplement the controls on subsequent responses. Often these events happen covertly as one type of conscious neural behavior called thinking, a common and vital addition to the controls on subsequent behavior (since single stimuli seldom control responses). As with all neural behavior, this thinking behavior can be difficult to separate from the neural physiology that mediates it. Still, as with all behavior, independent variables must evoke the neural behavior, including thinking.

Although we sometimes benefit from the economy of common language, it usually curtails scientific sensitivity to the natural status of human behavior. Having developed under primitive conditions that seemed to support personal agency, the common language per se unsurprisingly contains explicit and implicit references to inner agents. Thus, avoiding it in scientific discourse is best, even though it seems comfortably familiar to most audiences. However, the technical language of natural behavior science, which works to exclude agential implications, can still sound overly complicated to new audiences even as these audiences experience an improved scientific sensitivity to the natural status of behavioral phenomena, including consciousness.

Some examples relating to the central concern about consciousness may help. While these use the seeing sense modality, other examples could use other sense modalities. As an example of unconscious seeing, a hiker engaged in a focused conversation with a companion will step over an unconsciously seen football-size rock on the trail but later cannot describe that rock, as it was not consciously seen. Conscious seeing examples are necessarily more complicated, as they usually begin with unconscious seeing. For instance, under some current, relatively simple contingencies involving functional chains of external and internal (neural) stimuli and responses, a favorite kind of car is seen; it is a “favorite” kind of car due to the past variables with which it was paired. Later, unconsciously and consciously seeing the favorite car happens again under other contingencies, often with that car absent, as when, unable to get to work, seeing our old, broken down, rusty wreck in the front yard evokes seeing the favorite car replacing the wreck. Still other variables can evoke conscious seeing. When we see an acquaintance at the grocery who sells cars, that person evokes not only consciously seeing both our wreck and our favorite kind of car (neither of which is present) but also evokes the responses of describing the favorite car, asking where to buy one, how much it will cost and so on.

These responses, unconscious seeing then conscious seeing and thinking, and sometimes reporting, are typical examples of the natural phenomena of responses chaining into response sequences usually including neural responses, all in the present, all new and not requiring the thing seen to be the current source of evocative stimulation. A physically present object transferring energy to neural receptors can be an evocative stimulus, or a neural response can function as an evocative stimulus either when a genetically produced neural structure mediates it or when a neural structure that various continuously operating conditioning processes have changed mediates it. If the necessary conditioning has occurred, then once some stimulation evokes a response, that response—as a real event—can evoke a further response, which can evoke yet another response, and so on, chaining according to the current set of operating functional relations. As natural scientists, we respect the functional natural history of even extremely complex and multiply controlled response chains, such as the text composition responses of this author at this moment of writing. While it is economically wasteful to bother with the detailed analysis to identify and describe the range of variables compelling the present wording, Norman Peterson, Fraley and Skinner have provided, in their textbooks, the foundations for making such an analysis, and it will take place under appropriate contingencies.

All these considerations involve extensions of the philosophy of science that Skinner called “Radical Behaviorism.” It is radical in the sense of comprehensive or fundamental, and it informs both the naturalistic experimental science that studies human nature and human behavior, and the derivative engineering technologies of that science for effectively addressing independent variables in ways that bring about improvements in behavior at home and work, in education and diplomacy, in interpersonal relationships, and indeed in all applied behavior fields from advertising to zoo keeping. This philosophy, and the science and technology that it supports, first arose among a thoroughly naturalistic group of researchers and academics, working in early-20th century psychology, that Skinner and his colleagues and their students best represent. However, this natural philosophy, science and technology ultimately proved to be fully incommensurable with the more commonly available, agential perspectives of certain fields that popular culture supports, including psychology. As a result, a separation of disciplines was required.

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