Misrepresentation: Behavior analysis oversimplifies complex problems thus yielding superficial analyses that are incapable of dealing with difficult issues involving, for example, mind and personality. Similarly, the technical achievements of behavior analysis and applied behavior analysis could have been found by applying common sense alone. Behavior analysis is, therefore, oversimplified, naive, and trivial: It merely states much of what we already know and sheds little or no new light on basic or applied issues.
Clarification: Questions of (a) oversimplification/superficiality and (b) technical achievements will be addressed separately.
Charges of oversimplification and superficiality sometimes result from misunderstandings regarding the meaning of “behavior”. It is often said that behavior analysts study “only” behavior while others study “more than” behavior. This misrepresentation stems from an overly restricted definition of behavior that is not used by behavior analysts. For them, “behavior” denotes what people do in the broad sense of “do”: publicly observable behavior and private events like thinking, perception, feelings, etc. Nothing people do is left out (see note 1). In short, all approaches to psychology and education begin with:
- The same dependent variable–behavior
- The same independent variable–the conditions under which the behavior is established, maintained, and eliminated.
Therefore behavior analysis is hardly superficial and, because it does explain the dependent variables (behaviors) of interest to everyone, it resists charges of oversimplification.
Besides overly restrictive definitions of behavior, charges of oversimplification and superficiality can result from misunderstandings regarding theoretical terms. For example, hypothetical constructs from deductive models can be reified and, because behavior analysts don’t use that vocabulary, their account is deemed superficial.
Several points can clarify this misrepresentation regarding terms:
- Hypothetical constructs refer to behavior and sometimes the conditions under which behavior occurs. So stripped of reified terms, deductive models emerge with the same physiological, stimulus, and response referents as behavior analysis. In short, behavior analysis is a more direct way of talking about the variables that concern individuals from all orientations.
- Behaviorists generally agree that superficial explanations are those that cast hypothetical constructs as a cause and then fail to explain the construct. For example, a developmentalist may argue that a child’ s sexuality results from his/her concept of what it means to be a boy or girl. The behaviorist criticism of such an argument typically takes two forms:(a) “Concept” here explains nothing. The key issue is the conditions under which a child acquires the behaviors we call “sexuality”. These conditions are external to the child–in his/her environment–not a mental event called concept, schema, or other organizational metaphor. To explain the behavior that defines “sexuality” requires describing how that individual’s history generated those behaviors.(b) The use of “concept” illustrates how an explanatory fiction works:
- First, behavior is observed
- Second, a mentalistic-sounding cause is invented (not discovered) to explain it
- Third, explanation stops–the conditions under which the behavior developed still are not specified, so we still know nothing about why the child behaved in certain ways.
The pseudoexplanations in (a) and (b) illustrate what behavior analysts would call “superficial”, “oversimplified” and circular.
In summary, the charge of superficiality is met by pointing out that:
- Behavior analysis addresses all relevant independent and dependent variables but does so without reification or references to non-material mental events.
- The apparent “depth” of models employing mentalistic and phenomenological-sounding constructs typically results from reification or lay–not operational–definitions of these terms.
A successful charge of superficiality or oversimplification would require identifying behaviors that behavior analysis cannot explain in principle or in practice. This has not been done.
Technical achievements and common sense
Consider three of many possible counterpoints to the argument that the success of applied behavior analysis could have been achieved with common sense alone:
- Behavior analysis discovered heretofore unknown phenomena such as schedules of reinforcement, which completely eluded common sense and cognitive models. These schedules have become important in all areas of experimental and applied psychology and education. A small sampling of other important phenomena clarified by behavior analysts includes stimulus equivalence’s role in reading, vocabulary development, stimulus control, academics and analysis of concepts; contingency adduction’s function in problem solving and insight; reinforcement’s use in biofeedback and pain control; and many more examples than space here allows.
- The indices of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Behavioral Assessment, Behavior Therapy, Behavior Modification, Journal fo Behavioral Education, Child and Family Behavior Therapy, Education and Treatment of Children and others describe the many successful tactics that go beyond the offerings of common sense and cognitive models
- Common sense tactics failed where behavior analysis was successful. For example, in Let Me Hear Your Voice, author and parent of autistic children Catherine Maurice describes her long journey through failed common sense advice, medical interventions, and educational practices before finding effective solutions in applied behavior analysis. At Morningside Academy in Seattle, Washington, children who repeatedly failed in school typically progress two to four times the typical rate expected in public schools (where “common sense” techniques are lauded) and many of Morningside’s students progress at over 5 to 10 times the pace of their previous educational training.
Many similar examples can be found in clinical psychology, education, industry, and other areas.
Note 1: Interestingly, the cognitive psychologists using operational definitions requiring strict public verification were responsible for excluding private events that were retained in Skinner’s radical behaviorism. See B.F. Skinner’s About Behaviorism (1974, Vintage Books) and these:
Jay Moore (1985). On behaviorism and private events. The Psychological Record, 30, 459-475.
Jay Moore (1985). Some historical and conceptual relations among logical positivism, operationalism, and behaviorism. The Behavior Analyst, 8, 53-63