Keep Calm and Enjoy the Victory Lap


Controversies periodically bubble up over behavior analysis and behaviorism. If you believe the critics who fuel the bubbling, we who practice such dark arts are evil. We’re stupid. We broke Psychology until the Cognitive Revolution came along to fix it. Or whatever. See this recent example in the New York Times (sorry, you may hit a paywall, but every behavior analyst has seen enough examples to know what I mean).

If you’re a behavior analyst, sometimes it can feel as if the barbarians are perpetually gathered at the castle gate, ready to torch our village on a moment’s notice.

On the list servs in which I participate, people love to circulate each new example of someone taking a potshot at behaviorism or behavior analysis. We participants take turns expressing umbrage and… then what? I’m not sure what gets accomplished except to establish that misery loves company. This is understandable, because criticism, earned or otherwise, gets under the skin.

We serve so often as society’s whipping boy that it’s easy to lose perspective, to overestimate the credibility of critics. Some are loud but express a minority view about us. Some cherry pick an isolated bone of contention while overlooking the overall positive footprint of our movement. Some use us as a narrative device rather than a point of fact [a cheap way to advance an agenda is via the either-or fallacy, which asserts that B (the agenda) must be right because A (us, of course) is wrong]. And so forth.

Look, I’m not saying that our discipline is above valid criticism — readers of this column know that I have concerns about us, and that I believe some of the venom we receive is our own fault. But it’s important to parse criticism judiciously. Take pointed feedback where it’s merited; however, if you grant each critic equal opportunity to ruffle your feathers you will quickly lose sight of a very important big picture.

For proper context about this, I love Cognitive Psychologist Henry Roediger’s (2004) cheery little essay “What happened to behaviorism?” in which he wrote:

Behaviorism is alive and well… The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior is still a lively outlet (and edited now by my colleague, Len Green), as is the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Both journals are published by the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, which has been going strong since 1957. The primary meeting of behaviorists is the Association for Behavior Analysis, or ABA, which has over 4,200 members in 2003, and at the 2002 meeting there were 3,200 registrants…. ABA has grown tremendously over the years and still attracts around 250 new members a year just in the U.S. The Society for the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior meets before and during ABA, with its own mathematically sophisticated membership. Much of the work reported at these meetings is based on research with humans (and not just pigeons and rats, as in the stereotype).

Why the enthusiasm? Because behavioristic analyses work! We know how to alleviate or eliminate phobias through extinction-based therapies; we know the power of a token economy in regulating behavior on a mental ward; we can reduce problematic behaviors and increase the probability of desired behaviors by judiciously providing and withholding reinforcements. Even for problems that cognitively oriented psychologists study, behavioristic therapies are the treatments of choice. For an autistic child, Lovaas’s behavioristic techniques provide the greatest (indeed, so far the only) hope…. Similarly, for stuttering and aphasia, as interesting as their analysis by psycholinguists may be, the treatments come largely from the behaviorists’ labs. In the field of neurobiology of learning, the central paradigm is classical conditioning and the main theoretical model is the Rescorla-Wagner model. And behavioristic analyses exist in self-management programs, in industry (Organizational Behavior Management), in sports, in parenting guides, and of course in animal training programs for pets and for zoos. Anywhere that prediction and control of overt behavior is critical, one finds behavioristic analyses at work. (emphasis added)

Roediger’s point was that people who are inclined to view cognitive science as having slain the dragon of behaviorism to achieve its ascendency (their either-or fallacy) have conveniently overlooked the profound ways in which a behavioral approach has transformed science and society. As Roediger concluded, “Perhaps … behaviorism is [ignored] today because it actually won the intellectual battle. In a very real sense, all psychologists today (at least those doing empirical research) are behaviorists. Even the most cognitively oriented experimentalists study behavior of some sort.”

Certain aspects of “our” stuff have succeeded so well that they are taken for granted. And in a sense they are no longer uniquely our own. These days our stuff influences the methods of any credible scientific effort to study behavior, not just in cognitive psychology, as Roediger observed, but also in neuroscience, psychopharmacology, and many other areas. As just one of many possible examples, check out this brief account of how neuroscientists and social psychologists have been influenced by behavioral analyses (AND may have extended what is known about one of our core concepts, punishment).

Behaviorism, once a revolution, now helps to define the status quo. So much so that even we behavior analysts may not appreciate all the ways our science has made a difference. When fretting over the next potshot that is taken at our expense, try to remember that although external criticism can sometimes make us feel abandoned and rejected, in Roediger’s words, “behaviorism won.”