In what someone, somewhere clearly thought would be a good way of filling time during the quiet news month of January, many influential writers and thinkers were asked, "what scientific idea is due for retirement in 2014"?
Among the 174 responses, which include a range of topics such as quantum physics, statistics, and evolutionary biology, is a contribution from leading autism expert, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. Prof. Baron-Cohen thinks that "Radical Behaviourism" should be retired in 2014. He claims that radical behaviourism:
- "was displaced by the cognitive revolution, because it was deeply flawed scientifically".
- that Chomsky's (1959) now infamous review of B.F. Skinner's (1957) book, Verbal Behavior, essentially killed-off an entire field of study before it had even begun.
- that "there is more to behavior than just learned associations. There are evolved neurocognitive mechanisms".
- that radical behaviourism is "scientifically uninformative".
- and that it should cease to be implemented via "'behavior modification' programs, in which a trainer aims to shape another person's or an animal's behaviour".
- Baron-Cohen then mentions a researcher who conducts research at "the interface of neuroscience and ethics" who examined the life of a captured orca, or killer whale, "involved" in the deaths of three people, which "may have been a reaction to the Radical Behaviorists who were training this orca to show new behaviors".
Here, I wish to briefly address the stated reasons for why Baron-Cohen thinks radical behaviourism should be wiped from the annals of scientific history. In so doing, I will revisit many of the same issues and mistakes made by undergraduates as they grapple with the history of psychology and with behaviorism's place within it.
Point 1. Do Amoeba Dream of Blackfish?
First, it's unclear whether Baron-Cohen is aware of the difference between J.B. Watson's methodological behaviourism and B.F. Skinner's radical behaviourism. The latter, radical behaviourism, was so named because Skinner was determined to emphasise the differences between his account and Watson's. These differences included the consideration of "private events" or thoughts, feeling and attitudes, etc. in a science of behaviour.
Now, that's radical compared to Watson's behaviorism in which all unobservable events were excluded from scientific analysis. Watson emphasised overt, observable dimensions of behaviour as his sole subject matter. He wasn't concerned with what may be going on "under the hood".
So, thinking and feeling do play a role in modern radical behaviorism (and are far more complex than simple stimulus-response associations); it's just that such events are not given causal status in behavioural analysis. It's a complex, philosophical argument to fully describe but private events are basically deemed "behaviour" (as a mass noun, not a count noun) and all such behaviour is the product of environmental events working in tandem with evolutionary (phylogenic) and individual (ontogenic) variables. Change the environment and behaviour changes (including thoughts).
Point 2: We're Not Talking About A Revolution!
Talking in terms of a "cognitive revolution" is now old hat and a woeful over-simplification of how the self-corrective processes of science actually work. As Henry Roediger has written ("What Happened to Behaviorism?"), it is a "cartoon view of the history of psychology" and behaviourism has today "won the intellectual debate".
Point 3: Dear Reader, Please Don't Believe the Hype.
Skinner's account, while limited, has been cited countless times and forms the basis of numerous effective and well-validated intervention strategies designed to get people with developmental disorders, brain injury, and other conditions to speak (or once lost, to regain the ability to speak). For sure, it may not have had quite the impact outside of behaviour analysis that many would have liked, particularly in the domain of complex human language and cognition, but if Baron-Cohen had kept up with his reading over the past few decades he would have encountered more than a fair share of exciting modern developments in this domain. Relational frame theory (RFT), for instance, is a post-Skinnerian behavioural account of language and cognition that has generated lots of research and aims to move beyond some of the limitations of Skinner's conceptual account, which is, let's face it is more than 50 years old!
Point 4. Is this the Psych 101 Class?
No one doubts the role of evolved abilities and neurocognitive systems in language, certainly not in behaviourism. Most behaviourists agree with Baron-Cohen that "there is more to behavior than just learned associations". Indeed, discriminative stimuli, conditional stimuli, contextual cues, motivating operations, reinforcement history, and other current and situational demands all exert an influence over behaviour.
But anyone with even a passing knowledge of behaviour principles would know that. Sometimes, all of the answers to life's questions can't be answered on the basis of a Psych 101 class.
Point 5. The Road to Nowhere.
How does one evaluate the claim that radical behaviourism is "scientifically uninformative"? With a Talking Heads video, of course!
Radical behaviourism, the philosophy of the science of behavior, is elegant, practical and parsimonious. It rejects hypothetical constructs and mediational variables. They simply impede progress towards the stated goals of science: prediction and influence (with precision, scope and depth). It rejects the hypothetico-deductive model, emphasises inductive research methods (including single case or small-n designs), acknowledges a clear role for theory, particularly what is known as analytic-abstractive theory, in science and forms the basis of modern, functional contextual approaches to human psychology. Uninformative? I think not.
Point 6: Has Anyone Seen Blackfish?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Baron-Cohen's misinformed tract against radical behaviourism, is his failure to acknowledge the empirical support for treatments based on radical behaviourism, such as applied behaviour analysis for autism spectrum disorders. Instead, Baron-Cohen concludes his piece with an anecdote about animal training, such as that undertaken with killer whales at places like Seaworld in the USA (and the subject of a compelling recent documentary called Blackfish).
Putting animal training aside, Baron-Cohen must be aware of the effectiveness of applied behaviour analysis for autism. After all, he chaired the committee responsible for drawing up the NICE clinical guidelines on autism in adults. Quoting from the guidelines (thanks to Richie May for this), we find:
"1.5.3 When deciding on the nature and content of a psychosocial intervention to address challenging behaviour, use a functional analysis. The functional analysis should facilitate the targeting of interventions that address the function(s) of problem behaviour(s) by:
- providing information, from a range of environments, on:
- factors that appear to trigger the behaviour
- the consequences of the behaviour (that is, the reinforcement received as a result of their behaviour)
- identifying trends in behaviour occurrence, factors that may be evoking that behaviour, and the needs that the person is attempting to meet by performing the behaviour."
Now, that sounds very behavioural to me.
Perhaps Baron-Cohen prefers to think of radical behaviourism as being synonymous with 'behavior modification', in which the underlying causes of the behaviour in question were often overlooked at the expense of conducting a reductive intervention, and not with 'applied behaviour analysis', where the function of behaviour is matched to (individualised) treatment, then so be it.
I hope I have shown that this is an historically inaccurate stance which only serves to reinforce the impression that he is a little too far removed from what he is critiquing.
Coming next: my take on quantum mechanics!
**Update: 24/1/14: More reaction and comment here - Hank Schlinger and Bob Remington give Baron-Cohen a C+ and Simon Baron-Cohen’s Fantastically False Article on Radical Behavior: An Example of Valid, but False Premises***