What are perspectives on Behaviorism
March 4, 2011 9:22 AM   Subscribe

How does the world view Behavioral Psychology? I keep getting conflicting viewpoints on how mainstream or accepted it is. I am currently a student of Organizational Behavior Management, and even from the professors and students do I get different perspectives on how the world sees Behaviorism.

In particular,

Does your field / profession ever use behavioral psychology?
Does your field / profession have a positive or negative additude towards behavioral psychology?
What reasons do you have for accepting / rejecting it?
Is the field thriving? Or is it a last reminant of a discredited field?
Is there a large effort to discredit behaviorism for political/economic reasons? Or do the members of the field collectively suffer from a persecution complex?

about.com definition
posted by rebent to Education (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Behavioral economics is a pretty active area of research.
posted by dfriedman at 9:29 AM on March 4, 2011

I am a professor Special Education. Behavioral principles and techniques are actively taught in many (but not all) teacher-training programs. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is used to teach new skills and treat challenging behaviors in clinical, educational, and home settings. (My background: BA in Psychology, graduate degrees in Special Education. I was introduced to ABA during my undergrad years.)

- ABA is a widely-accepted treatment for autism and developmental disabilities.

- Shows like Supernanny rely on behavioral methods to treat challenging behavior.

- Nationwide, schools are adopting Positive Behavior Support programs to improve behavioral and social outcomes for students with and without disabilities. PBS is rooted in behaviorism.

- The major ABA professional organization, ABAI, has been growing steadily and its annual conference keeps getting larger.
posted by puritycontrol at 9:54 AM on March 4, 2011

Don't confuse old school behaviorism and loose folk psychological conceptions of an amorphous umbrella term like 'behavioral psychology.'
posted by solipsophistocracy at 10:24 AM on March 4, 2011

Speaking as a member of the legal profession, the attitude of most lawyers towards behavioral psychology is pretty much the same as it is towards most other academic disciplines: apathy. BP really isn't all that relevant to most of what we do. Behavioral psychology is, as far as most lawyers are concerned, just one other type of psychological discipline from which we can call expert witnesses. There isn't all that much need for it a lot of the time, for two reasons.

1) Behavioral psychologists do mostly academic, not clinical work, so they're more likely to be able to talk about patterns and likelihoods than offer opinions as to the motivations behind a specific person's specific actions.

2) Legal disputes are far, far more likely to need the input of a physician/surgeon or engineer than a psychologist. Even when psychological testimony is required, it's mostly used to verify the existence of psychological symptoms and tie them to a particular event rather than to try to explain behavior. Behaviorists don't really do that.

On the whole though, behaviorism, as a discipline, suggests that human actions are significantly the result of conditioning. Be that as it may, the political reality is that society views people as being responsible agents, so the law tends to disfavor explanations which minimize free agency or cut against individual responsibility. This makes behaviorist arguments kind of an uphill battle, so it isn't done all that often even in the few cases where it might be relevant.
posted by valkyryn at 10:35 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Behavioral models gained prominence in a culture that was uncomfortable with people having "internal states" since they could not be objectively observed and hence were considered unscientific. This philosophy of science is rapidly becoming obsolete.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:30 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Obscure Reference, can you quantify/qualify your last sentence using examples from specific professions or academic paradigms?

Puritycontrol, valkyryn, thank you for your answers. That's exactly the type of input I'm interested in! :)
posted by rebent at 12:08 PM on March 4, 2011

If you read the beginning of Julian James before you get to his more speculative stuff, he tells of what it was like to be a graduate student in psychology in the heyday of behaviorism. I can't really do it justice in a summary here. Besides, it's a great read if you're interested in these things.
posted by Obscure Reference at 12:44 PM on March 4, 2011

Obscure Reference, can you say how your citation answers rebent's question, "can you quantify/qualify your last sentence..." "This philosophy of science is rapidly becoming obsolete"?

or give other references or arguments that do answer the question?
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:52 PM on March 4, 2011

Behaviorist methodology is very good at getting people to repeatedly perform and improve physical actions that they already understand (see any video game). Behaviorism is very bad as an instructional tool, developing new understandings (see erlwanger's famous "Benny" article.) In particular, classical bahviorism provides little or no insight into or control over the justifications and/or superstitions that students develop to explain the feedback that they recieve.
posted by yeolcoatl at 5:59 AM on March 5, 2011

Yeolcoatl, is that your personal opinion or the opinion of your profession?
posted by rebent at 6:28 AM on March 5, 2011

Yeolcoatl, I'm going to respectfully disagree. I'm a instructor who relies solely on instructional methods derived from learning principles (i.e., I implement behavior analytic intervention 6 hours a day, 5 days a week) in a school environment with children with special needs. Yes - physical responses already strongly present in someone's repertoire are much easier to shape and increase. I would argue that teaching children who have no functional vocal verbal speech to speak in sentences to communicate wants and needs qualifies as using an "instructional tool" with "new 'understanding'" emerging. Our instructional decisions are data-based and the reliability and validity of our data are confirmed regularly using in-house and third-party review systems. This is a quick response without having read the article you reference - but I'll check it out.

On another note, agreeing with puritycontrol that the prominence of behavior analysis is on the rise, but with limited scope at this point. OP, in terms of "persecution", in my realm of practice, there appears to be action taken by the American Psychological Association to limit the extent to which behavior analysts can practice. For example, because we are not "licensed" in the way clinical psychologists are (we can only become "certified"), the APA was able to push legislation in NY state that says behavior analysts can only practice (educationally? I guess?) in a school setting - e.g., not independently overseeing programs running at home to teach skills to young children with autism (which a competent behavior analyst with relevant experience may be completely qualified to do). Of course there is always contention from the popular view that Obscure Reference mentioned as well.

In terms of political/economic factors influencing the field...I can't speak to that as much. All I can say is that it's about 25% more expensive to educate a child with special needs at the private school setting at which I work than in a public school setting, but my understanding is that the skills that child would gain should allow them to be a taxpaying citizen and result in a net gain for public spending in the long run.

I think in general behavior analysis suffers from misunderstanding of what we study, what our theories account for and what our data describe. To me, this is sad, because it's the only thing that makes sense of human behavior to me in the entire field of psychology. Rebent, good luck with OBM! Sounds cool!
posted by shortskirtlongjacket at 7:15 AM on March 5, 2011

Rebent: It's very difficult to determine to what extent the opinion of others within my profession (mathematics education) agree with me. Behaviorism is certainly unpopular in word, but it is popular in deed. However, there's also the issue that people who may be using it in deed are using it precisely to shape behavior (i.e. getting students to do their homework by giving them a grade) which is something that behaviorism is (naturally) fantastic at. However, the profession also (ab)uses treatment-control models which, because they address only observable behavior, could be considered part of behaviorist methodology. I also think a lot of people in my profession using those models would deny that they're behaviorist. So go figure. I've ranted about the perils of treatment-control elsewhere on the green. I won't do it here.

Shortskirtlongjacket: Feel free to note that I am not familiar with modern behavioral psychology, only classical behaviorism and it's offshoots up until the lat 70s/early 80s or so. It's quite possible that behavioral psychology has overcome these problems since then. On the other hand, I see nothing in your post to convince me otherwise. I'm not saying that new understanding doesn't emerge. Of course it does. However, my understanding is that behaviorism doesn't give control over the details of what understanding emerges. i.e. students can do the same things for different reasons. Feel free to send me articles if behavioral psych has started to access and control internal states. I would love to read about that. However, if it does, then I'm not sure that still counts as behaviorism.

Again, I don't know what behaviorism as done in the past 30 years or so, but that's partly because it's unpopular in my profession because of the problems it had in the 70s and 80s.
(note also the distinction between behaviorism and behavioral psychology. As mentioned elsewhere, they're not the same thing).

For those of you who wish to read the article, it's here.
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:09 AM on March 6, 2011

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