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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

Interdisciplinary Developments

With its informing philosophy of radical behaviorism, behaviorology contributes to the capabilities of other natural scientists in important ways. So many of the seemingly intractable problems facing humanity today are problems of human behavior as much as they are problems of physics or chemistry or biology. In a 2007 speech, Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., the 17-year leader of the Natural Resources Defense Council, acknowledged the importance of changing peoples’ behavior as part of solving world problems and implicitly added a plea for coordination with an effective natural-science of human behavior. “Global warming is the greatest threat we face, but it is not the only threat.… Too many wild places are disappearing, too many species are being snuffed out, and too many babies are being born with bodies and brains damaged by man-made chemicals and pollution.… To win [these battles] … we must change how people think—and how they act.” The solutions to such problems require natural scientists of all relevant subject matters to work together. In part, behaviorologists moved decisively for formal independence when they did, so that their science could contribute to the expertise and energy needed to solve such problems within the necessary time frame; under these circumstances, they concluded that not going independent—instead spending much energy over many more likely fruitless years trying to change psychology—would be essentially irresponsible.

The behaviorology discipline contributes in other ways to the capabilities of other natural scientists. After becoming basically familiar with behaviorology, scientists in many disciplines are more able to remain naturalistic in dealing with subject matters at the edge of, and beyond, their particular specializations, rather than slip into the compromising use of agential accounts. They may also add desirable details to accounts within their specializations. For example, when natural scientists (Sam Harris and Michael Shermer, for example) say that science can account for morals and values, mentioning the controlling relations that behaviorology describes for these topics strengthens their point. Also, behaviorology provides the students of natural scientists with a natural-science alternative to the nonnatural disciplines that these students currently study when covering behavior-related subject matter.

For their part, other natural scientists can also help themselves by contributing to behaviorology through support for the wider availability of academic behaviorology programs and departments. Increasing the contact that most people have with behaviorology can reduce the interference in solving problems that stems from susceptibilities to behavior-related superstition and mysticism. This need is difficult to meet because, as a result of the historical circumstances of the origins of their discipline, many academic behaviorological scientists remain scattered in departments of nonnatural disciplines. A meaningful amount of contact for most people will not happen until behaviorology is a requirement in high-school science curricula along with physics, chemistry and biology. To achieve that goal, science teachers must have behaviorology courses available in their college training programs. To make those courses available, faculty to teach them must be trained in this discipline. And for that to happen, programs and departments of behaviorology need to become more widely established at colleges and universities.

One of the obvious places from which to grow behaviorology in the academy is from within departments of biology. Skinner recognized early in his “Behaviorism at 50” article that the natural science of behavior was an offshoot of biology. As he described in The Shaping of a Behaviorist, even though he was earning his doctorate through the psychology department at Harvard University in the 1930s, much of Skinner’s work occurred under W. J. Crozier, who headed the physiology section of Harvard’s biology department and who had been a student of biologist Jacques Loeb. Both Crozier and Loeb not only emphasized studying the whole organism, including its movement (behavior), but they also emphasized studying the causal mechanism of selection which Skinner subsequently adapted from biology and applied to behavior.

In its second 50 years, the value and legacy of behaviorism broadened substantially. The natural science that Skinner’s radical behaviorism supports and informs has emerged as an extensive, multifaceted discipline, although its independence as behaviorology only began about a quarter-century ago. Its academic homes will continue to expand because of the effectiveness of approaching human behavior naturalistically. Other disciplines faced similar circumstances in the past and prevailed. The astronomical discoveries by Galileo 400 years ago helped move our home, the Earth, beyond superstitious, mystical accounts. The biological discoveries of Darwin 150 years ago helped move the human body beyond superstitious, mystical accounts. And, based on the naturalism of Skinner’s radical behaviorism, the current discoveries of behaviorological science help move human nature and human behavior beyond superstitious, mystical accounts. On that basis, our continuing efforts both improve effective scientific thinking across all subjects, and increase success in solving personal, local and world problems.


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