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What Is Radical Behaviorism?

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  • Written By: Marty Paule
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2014
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Radical behaviorism is both a philosophy and school of psychology that employs what is known as experimental analysis of behavior, an approach developed by psychologist B.F. Skinner. During Skinner's early career, psychologists struggled to offer scientific explanations for human behavior based on the very scant physiological evidence then available. Skinner, in formulating his theory of radical behaviorism, took the radical position that explanations of psychological phenomena based on human behavior were just as valid as those supported by physiological evidence. As part of his rethinking of what constituted behavior, Skinner concluded that everything organisms do is, in effect, behavior.

Skinner's theories about politics and human behavior were a radical departure from the ideas of John B. Watson, the first behaviorist. In developing his theories, Watson did not factor in mental states such as thinking and feeling on the grounds that it was behavior that could not be publicly observed. Radical behaviorism theorizes that all animal action is determined and not free, and it shares many basic principles with Watson's brand of behaviorism. These include placing value in observing animal behavior and drawing comparisons to human behavior.

Radical behaviorism also holds that environment is the primary cause of behavior. Unlike earlier forms of behaviorism, radical behaviorism employs operant conditioning, has its own unique terminology and places special value in personal experience. It also emphasizes scheduled reinforcement as a means of altering behavior.

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Operant conditioning, one of the cornerstones of radical behaviorism, is the alteration of behavior resulting from effects that the behavior draws out of the environment. An example of operant conditioning can be found in laboratory animals that, when presented with a maze, will learn over time to avoid taking wrong turns. The annoying consequences of taking wrong turns are stamped out while the satisfying consequences of taking correct turns are stamped into the animals' behavior, thus reinforcing correct responses.

Although much of Skinner's work is discounted by modern psychology, operant conditioning techniques have been used extensively in animal training and in the treatment of drug addiction. The language and methods of operant psychology have also been used to better understand animals' perceptions and their formation of concepts. A criticism of Skinner's work generally is that he portrays both humans and animals as passive recipients of conditioning, when in fact, operant behavior is just that: it operates on the environment. It also is argued that operant behavior is not elicited in the same way; for example, Pavlov's dogs salivated in response to stimuli. Rather, operant behavior is emitted and acts on the environment, and in turn, the environment acts upon the human or animal.

In 1957, Skinner wrote the book Verbal Behavior, in which he addressed human behavior through the prisms of speech, linguistics and language. He maintained that verbal behavior is subjected to the same controlling variables as all other operant behavior. He did, however, acknowledge that verbal behavior is mediated by other people, and other behavior is mediated by the subject's natural environment. In 1959, Noam Chomsky's critique of Verbal Behavior was published, pointing out the limitations of Skinner's functionalist approach to language and speech and ultimately leading to the decline of Skinner's influence on modern psychology.

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