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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

Organizational Developments

That essential incommensurability, and the growing pressure of expanding experimental and applied research, provided the principal driving forces behind reorganizing the natural science of behavior as a separate and independent discipline. The general result of this development is a foundation natural science related to all other natural sciences, not at the level of body-directing self-agents, but at the level of a body’s physics-based interactions with the external and internal environments. Working in this natural-science tradition, Skinner’s treatment of behaviorism in his 1963 article was well rounded but necessarily minimal. A decade later his book About Behaviorism provided details and helped pave the way for the sometimes-controversial steps in this reorganization, steps that Fraley and I thoroughly cover in our long paper entitled “Origins, Status, and Mission of Behaviorology.”

After some small independence-oriented steps (for example, Skinner and his colleagues founding the explicitly natural-science Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis), by 1974 natural scientists of behavior had established what has become their largest professional organization, the Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI). Margaret Peterson reported the importance of this event by quoting an early president, Nate Azrin: “What we are witnessing … may be … the birth of a new discipline … separate from psychology.” The 60 worldwide chapters of ABAI report around 13,000 members, and the annual ABAI convention bookstore features more than 1,000 behavior-science titles.

From the beginning, ABAI members emphasized political action on professional, social and cultural fronts. As important as these activities were, they distracted the organization from wholeheartedly pursuing its independence. As a result the credibility problems that inhere in gradually separating from another discipline, while still being seen as part of it, remained.

Exacerbating the controversy, behavior analysts took those and other independence-oriented steps while still a part of psychology, causing the psychology discipline to claim behavior analysis as part of itself. This leaves others, including natural scientists in general, continuously unsure and justifiably suspicious about the status of behavior analysis. While the current majority of natural scientists of behavior may still prefer the behavior-analysis label, they have taken few steps over the decades to clarify its status, and some still support its being under psychology’s wing. Consequently, using that label as a disciplinary name for a completely independent natural science of behavior remains problematic. As a result, formal separation required adopting a new disciplinary name, one free of connections with nonnatural disciplines.

In the years 1984–1987, an extensive debate filled the published behavioral literature regarding, pro and con, the question of separating the natural science and philosophy of behavior from psychology. In 1987, this culminated in a group of behavior analysts meeting to reassess the situation and take action. They came to several conclusions. First, if data from a half-century of continuously attempting to change psychology into a natural science from within, by invoking standard, evidence-based methods, had failed to produce even slight movement in that direction, then changing psychology was not going to happen within a meaningful time span. Second, their natural science of behavior was not, and never actually had been, any kind of psychology as it had never accepted the basic psychological core of mystical agential origination of behavior. And third, instead, their already well-established natural science should continue as a fully separate and independent discipline called behaviorology, a term first proposed in the late 1970s, and the only one, from among all proposed names, to have survived and grown in use.

Based on those conclusions, these behaviorologists took steps that led to their current professional organizations, The International Behaviorology Institute (TIBI) and the International Society for Behaviorology (ISB), and to the journal Behaviorology Today. Most behaviorologists also continued supporting the beneficial behavior-engineering efforts that ABAI disseminates.

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