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Behaviorism Deathwatch: A Collection of Premature Obituaries and Other Naive Comments on the Status of Behaviorism

Behaviorism Deathwatch

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Behaviorism, founded in 1913 by John B. Watson, is almost a century old. For almost as long, behaviorism has been declared "dead," "dying," "moribund," or at least not in good health.

Behaviorists know different, of course.

Behaviorists' main professional organization, the Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA) was founded in 1974 at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. ABA started with approximately 100 members who had broken off from the Mid-Western Psychological Association. ABA now has over 5000 members and continues to grow. Attendance at ABA conventions has more than doubled in the last 10 years from about 2000 people in 1998 to 4310 in 2007. ABA conventions are so crowded that they can no longer fit in even the largest hotels. To keep the program at a manageable size, contributors are now limited to giving only two first-author presentations.

Graph showing growth in ABA convention attendance.

The international ABA meetings are new feature added several years ago to recognize and accommodate the large international growth of behavior analysis. Meetings held in Brazil, Italy, China, and Australia already attract more attendees than the main meeting did in the early years. The number of graduate programs specializing in behavioral psychology is increasing. More and more journals are devoted to behaviorism or include significant behavioral content. It is hard to keep up with the expanding number of behavioral professional organizations.

Behaviorism can no longer be accurately conceived of as a branch of the animal conditioning and learning enterprise. That is, just because there are fewer people running around our universities with rats in their pockets does not mean we can conclude that behaviorism is dead. To hold that view means to be naive and unobservant: it has not been true for almost two generations.

Most behaviorists work exclusively with people in autism, developmental disabilities, head injury, social skills, and many other applied areas. Bringing the early basic research work with animals full circle, application extends to other species. Behavioral methods of shaping responses, discovered by B.F. Skinner during his work developing the first "smart bomb," have revolutionized animal training. Centuries of reliance on punishment and other forms of aversive control have been replaced by methods that rely exclusively on reinforcement.

Even with the emphasis on application, basic research has not been neglected. The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB), founded in 1958, continues to flourish. Oddly enough, back in the supposed heyday of behaviorism, JEAB was run out of a basement--it was quite literally produced on a typewriter--and the worry was about how to get enough articles to fill the pages. Now that behaviorism is dead, the problem is what to do with all of the research reports. A recent single issue of JEAB on the "Relation Between Behavior and Neuroscience" was over 380 pages long.

Some non-behaviorists are quite aware that behaviorism is not dead. But many people seem to think otherwise. Thus, in the interest of giving those individuals "equal time," BAAM presents its "Behaviorism Deathwatch"--a collection of premature obituaries of behaviorism. Perhaps one day statements such as these will be true. In the meantime, behaviorism will continue to be not dead and behaviorists will continue to advance the science of behavior the in the ways people who are not dead often do.

BAAM members and other interested persons are encouraged to submit additional items using BAAM's suggestions page.

Deathwatch Comments

Behaviorism was one of the now-discredited psychological theories of the last century, championed by B.F. Skinner, according to which mental states do not matter because behavior can be programmed directly. Mario Beauregard and I talk a bit about this in The Spiritual Brain.

Actually, the mere mention of the placebo effect should be enough to sink behaviorism as a theory. Basically, for many illnesses, mental states play a huge role in how well treatments work (placebo effect) - or DON'T work (nocebo effect).

Of course, W. H. Auden took a down-to-earth approach to how the theory was used in practice. He said,

Of course, Behaviourism "works". So does torture. Give me a no-nonsense, down-to-earth behaviourist, a few drugs, & simple electrical appliances, & in six months I will have him reciting the Athanasian Creed in public.

Denyse O'Leary (January 10, 2008)

O'Leary, D. (2008, January 10) "Does Behaviorism Work." From the Blog, "Mindful Hack"*

*Since this item was originally posted in her blog, O'Leary has removed a lengthy corrective response to her critique, and refused to post an additional comment questioning the validity and basis of her attack on behavior analysis.

When we stood aside to show behaviorism the door, we let in all of the problems of a science of these slippery, shadowy mental phenomenon.

Sonja Yoerg (2001, p. 101)

Yoerg, S. (2001). Clever as a fox: What animal intelligence can tell us about ourselves. Harrisonburg, VA: Donnelley*

*Among her many, many misconceptions about behaviorism,Yoerg also makes the astonishing claim that Skinnerian behaviorism had "psychology in a headlock for decades" (p. 77) and that "Through the 1970s, most psychology majors in the United States, including those destined to become psychanalysts, would have been rigorously schooled in conditioning principles and would have learned to teach a rat to press a bar for food." (p. 77). These are remarkably uninformed claims given that behaviorists in general, and Skinnerian behaviorists in particular, have never been more than a minority in psychology (see Todd & Morris, 1992). Yoerg might as well be claiming that Apple Computer has a stranglehold on the desktop personal computer business just because its founder is highly visible. Ceding about 90% of desktop market to Windows-based computers is just a technicality.

We might presume that the widespread behaviorist indoctrination, had it existed, would be seen in the psychology textbooks of the period. Psychology textbooks, alas, have always been almost all non-behaviorist in perspective, relegating what Yeorg imagines was the most dominant force in psychology legely to just one chapter on conditioning near the beginning of the book (see Todd, 1994; Todd & Morris, 1983). I myself, looking around at those psychologists my age and older, rarely see anyone who knows much about conditioning, much less claims to be a behaviorist. With all that supposed behaviorist training everywhere, where did all the behaviorists go?


Todd, J. T., & Morris, E. K. (1983). Misconception and miseducation: Presentations of radical behaviorism in psychology textbooks. The Behavior Analyst, 6, 153-160.

Todd, J.T. & Morris, E.K. (1992). Case histories in the great power of steady misrepresentation. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1441-1453.

Todd, J. T. (1994). What psychology has to say about John B. Watson. In J. T. Todd & E. K. Morris (Eds.). Modern perspectives on John B. Watson and Classical Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

This presents me with something of a problem because the editors request that I include my opinion on the state of the art in terms of the substantive topic, the important issues for the future, and so forth. Given that neobehaviorism is over and done with, what relevance does the topic have for contemporary psychology? This question simmers beneath the surface of Mills's book, breaking through overtly in several places, from time to time, especially in the introduction and the conclusion.

John L. Smith (2001)

Smith, J.L. (2001) Review: The legacy of behaviorism: Historical appraisal versus contemporary critique. [Review of: A history of behavioral psychology by John A. Mills.] The American Journal of Psychology, 114(4), 654-658

Behaviorism is dead. The few protected remnants in the universities have no intellectual vitality, and the occasional recitation of behaviorist slogans by the practitioners of behavior modification has little to do with the actual success or utility of their methods.

Robert L. Campbell (1999)

Campbell, R. L.. (1999). Ayn Rand and the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology. Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, 1, 107-134. (HTML Version)

When you restrict your definition of institution to behavior alone, then you eliminate all of the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual aspects of social mechanisms. This is an impoverished view of society and psyche which harks back to the failed attempt in the early 20th century to redefine everything in the social sciences in terms of behavior alone, i.e. Behaviorism. Behaviorism is dead, I glad to say, but its ghosts still linger on in our words and thoughts.

Loren Cobb (2005)

Comment on: Powelson, J. (2005). Powelson's Laws: Everything depends on everything else. The Quaker Economist, 5 (122) (HTML)

But times have changed. No one now could seriously maintain that most philosophical problems are at root problems about language, and metaphysics has been respectable for several decades. Moreover, behaviorism is dead, and concepts are now one of the half dozen most central concerns in the flourishing field of cognitive science. It's time to reconsider conceptualism.

Chris Swoyer (2006)

Swoyer, C. (2006). Conceptualism. In P. F. Strawson and A. Chakrabarti (Eds.),. Universals, Concepts and Qualities. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. (PDF)

One breakthrough I noticed in the materials we read and what we heard is that basically behaviorism is dead. Basically in a certain way, sociobiology is dead because we're now getting solid scientific evidence that many of our distinctively human qualities, like for example, language, have a natural foundation, that they're innate in some sense.

Peter Lawler (2004)

Neuroscience, Brain, and Behavior III: Council Discussion (President's Council on Bioethics, April 1, 2004) HTML

The topic of consciousness, after a long period of neglect in the philosophical and
psychological literature, is back with a vengeance. Behaviorism is dead, and its demise has freed us to speak of consciousness without using the hushed, somewhat sheepish tones that are still de rigueur for discussions of mystical" topics such as Bergsonian elan vital or even Cartesian dualism.

Christopher Williams Cowell (1992, p. 2)

Cowell, C. W. (1992). Minds, Machines and Qualia: A Theory of Consciousness. Dissertation submitted to Harvard University. (PDF).

The theoretical base that caused some teachers to characterize Mark Gabehart as a Marble Tower Academic several years ago has now gained popular acclaim. Few question that behaviorism is dead and that constructivist approaches to teaching and learning prove more effective. In the constructivist view of learning, learners construct their own understandings.

Miguel Guhlin (1997)

Guhlin, M. (1997). Dancing with Change: Should You Lead or Follow? (HTML)

Behaviorism is dead; we all know that. But why did it die, and is there anything of it worth resurrecting? In his very readable The New Behaviorism, John Staddon addresses these questions and much, much more. He argues that philosophically Watsonian and Skinnerian behaviorism were fundamentally flawed, but that nonetheless they yielded valuable techniques and results.

Robert Brandon (undated, circa 2000)

Brandon, R. (~2000). Amazon website comments on Staddon's The New Behaviorism (HTML)

I agree Utmost. Behaviorism is dead in my book. Its application for humans is very limited because is fails to consider our higher cognitive reasoning abilities and complex phenomenological perspectives.

"Habanero" (2004)

"Habanero" (July 16, 2004). Comment on The Enneagram Institute Discussion Board. (HTML)

It is now widely accepted that behaviorism is on the decline, its loss of vigor the result of its inability to come to grips even with the existence of innate behaviors, much less with their mechanisms and evolutionary origins.

James L. Gould (1982, p. 8)

Gould, J. L. (1982). Ethology: The mechanisms and evolution of behavior. New York: Norton.

Behaviorism is a dead doctrine that was abandoned for good reason.  A major strand of O’Regan’s and Nöe’s view turns out to be a type of behaviorism, though of a non-standard sort.  However, the view succumbs to some of the usual criticisms of behaviorism.

Ned Block (2001)

Block, N. (2001). Behaviorism revisited. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, p. 24

Most psychologists, however, felt that conscious and unconscious experience should not be neglected by psychology....For this reason, thoroughgoing behaviorism was rather short lived in the United States.

Floyd Ruch (1948)

Ruch, F.L. (1948). Psychology and life. 3rd. ed. Chicago: Scott Foresman, p. 38

If one traces through the history of behaviorism from approximately 1913,...one finds a story of progressive attenuation of the position from within and, more recently,... increasingly and very strong attrition from without.*

Sigmund Koch (1964)

In Wann, T.W. (Ed.) (1964). Behaviorism and Phenomenology: Contrasting Bases for Modern Psychology, p. 98

*Later the same year that Koch made this statement,1964, the APA Division for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (Division 25) was founded because the Division of Experimental Psychology (Division 3) could not provide sufficient program space for all of the new behavior analytic research. By 1973, Division 25 was larger than Division 3 with 1,241 versus 1,158 members respectively. (From J. Todd's history of Division 25 in Dewsbury's Unification Through Division: Histories of the Divisions of the American Psychological Association, 1996, APA Books.)