The following is a miscellany of misrepresentations briefly described and clarified.
Behavior Analysis is Dead
Clarification: This claim has been made regularly since 1910 despite behavior
analysis’ large number of publications and its role as a major paradigm in education,
medicine, business, and other areas.
A related error is to suggest that Behavior Analysts focus on a limited array of subjects–
particularly animals and the severely retarded. A review of articles, abstracts, and
references available on-line quickly reveals the weaknesses in this argument. More here.
Wyatt, Hawkins, and Davis (1986), Behaviorism: Are reports of its death
exaggerated?, The Behavior Analyst, 9, 101-105.
Behavior Analysts are Isolated and Disinterested in
Other Points of View
Clarification: Skinner is a fine example of how behavior analysts have not been out
of touch or disinterested in others points of view (e.g., the Selection of Behavior, edited
by Harnad and Catania, and the many other behaviorists who publish in education,
business, and medical areas to name just a few).
The Association for Behavior Analysis has members that are physiological psychologists,
cognitivists, developmentalists, educators, quantitative model theorists, and
representatives from many other fields. If behavior analysis were isolated, this would not
Generally, behavior analysts recognize the danger of being insensitive to other points of
view. It is also fair to say that behavior analysis has suffered misrepresentation and non-
representation to a degree not typically seen in other areas.
Behavior Analysts Advocate Surgical Procedures.
Clarification: Applied behavior analysis does not include training in surgery.
Perusing applied journals would quickly dispel this error.
Applied Behavior Analysis Advocates Punitive Techniques
Clarification: Behavior analysts have repeatedly taken the position that non-
aversive techniques should be favored. Skinner was probably first to suggest that negative
side-effects of punishment can make it unacceptable. In life-threatening situations, such as
self-injurious behavior, aversive control has been used but:
*Under close supervision
*In coordination with positive reinforcement procedures
Behavior analysts have led the search for finding positive alternatives to punitive
Aircribs, Skinner Boxes, and Operant Chambers.
Popular sources sometimes still confuse “Skinner Box” with Air Cribs.
Clarification: Aircribs were developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1940s to simplify
childcare and create a safer, cleaner crib or bassinet (see Ladies Home Journal, October,
1945 or Skinner’s collection of papers in Cumulative Record, page 567 for a reprint of this
article). The aircrib kept the child away from drafts, on a clean mat, and out of overly
restrictive clothes thus allowing the child to move and develop freely. Rings, a music box,
etc. were included as toys and entertainment just as they are today.
“Skinner Box” is a term Skinner did not like, preferring instead operant conditioning
chamber. These chambers are made to be infinitely variable, but the archetypal unit has a
manipulandum (such as a lever for rats to press or a round key for pigeons to peck), a
mechanism to deliver reinforcers, and a way to record rate of responding. These units in
one version or another have become part of the standard equipment in virtually every
For background on the development of conditioning chambers, see B.F. Skinner’s (1956)
“A Case History in Scientific Method, American Psychologist, 11, 221-233, also reprinted
in his Cumulative Record.
J.B. Watson, Tabula Rasa, and Behavior Analysis.
J.B. Watson’s (1924) text Behaviorism contains a quote that is sometimes said to
characterize the behavior analyst’s naive environmentalism:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to
bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to
become any type of specialist I might select–doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-
chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants,
tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (p. 104)
Clarification: This misrepresentation of Watson and behavior analysts in general
could have been avoided if the original text had been consulted, for the next line states:
I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the
contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.
In short, Watson’s “Give me a dozen…” quote was deliberate hyperbole to illustrate the
fallacy in his opponents’ position. The 70+ years since Watson published these remarks is
more than sufficient to check sources.
B.F. Skinner and many behavior analysts have no theory and
indeed reject theory.
Clarification: This misrepresentation is typically originates in a misreading of
Skinner’s article “Are Theories of Learning Necessary?” Skinner’s answer to the title’s
question is “Yes”. He was objecting not to all theory but rather:
Any explanation of an observed fact which appeals to events taking place
somewhere else, at some other level of observation, described in different
terms, and measured, if at all, in different dimensions. (See Skinner’s
1950 article in Psychological review, 57, 193-216 or a reprint in
his Cumulative Record.
So a type of theory, not theory itself was rejected. As with Watson’s quote in #6
immediately above, the original source contained sufficient information to avoid