Misrepresentation–Authors have argued that behavior analysis:
(a) Restricts itself to “only behavior” and therefore cannot address cognitive
(b) Is unconcerned with cognitive phenomena.
(c) Denies the existence of cognitive phenomena.
Clarification–Addressing these misrepresentations requires:
(a) Describing cause-effect paradigms in behavioral and nonbehavioral psychology.
(b) Clarifying the operational meaning of cognitive concepts.
(c) Showing how behavior analysis’ paradigm for cause-effect addresses all
phenomena, and more, than that covered by cognitive theory.
Cause-effect in behavior analysis. Behavioral causes can be either proximate
(immediately preceding a response) or ultimate (in the individual’s remote history). Reflexes clearly result from proximate causes, but explanation of operant behavior focuses on the individual’s history of reinforcement, punishment, and the situations in which those occurred. Behavior analysts study both proximate and ultimate causes of individuals’ behavior.
Behavior analysis’ approach complements the larger field of evolutionary biology of which behavior analysis is a part: Just as species change as a function of natural selection acting on populations, behavioral changes result from contingencies of reinforcement and punishment acting as selective forces that establish, maintain, and eliminate the behavior of individuals. So behavior analysis’ concept of cause as selection reflects its parent field.
Note that contingencies are involved. Therefore behavioral antecednets are included in this selective action.
To illustrate the difference between causal models in behavior analysis and cognitive psychology, consider a very simple example: A child reaches into a cookie jar. Proximate, cognitive, causes for this could include the “intention” of getting a cookie, the “wanting” of a cookie”, the “mental representation of a cookie”, etc. The historical-operant explanation is that in the child’s past, such responses in such situations resulted in a cookie (or some other consequence) that strengthened the response in such situations.
Behavior analysts argue that explanations framed as histories of reinforcement are superior in part because these histories can be studied directly: The key variables are controllable–no cognitive, phenomenological, or metaphorical models (such as information processing) are required.
(a) Histories of reinforcement and/or punishment explain current operant
(b) These histories selected an individual’s operant behavior in a manner
analogous to and complementary with natural selection’s operation on biological variations within a species.
(c) Cognitive explanations of behavior typically substitute a hypothesized
mental event or metaphor (like information processing) for an analysis of the individual’s history of learning. Therefore cognitive explanation inaccurately suggests that the causes of a response are operating just immediately preceding or concurrent with the response in question despite decades of behavior analytic research that clearly demonstrates the role of
an individual’s history of learning. This is because such explanations are “common sense”, they are what we were all taught in the culture (see pages 239-240 of Hawkins R.P. (1997) Can behavior therapy be saved from triviality? Commentary on ‘Thirty Years of behavior therapy”. Behavior Therapy, 28, 637-645).
Clarifying the Meaning of Cognitive Terms
Dependent variables. Most cognitive terms are large empty rooms that theorists and researchers furnish with operational definitions (i.e., descriptions of how to measure stimuli and responses falling within the cognitive term’s domain). If the dependent variable is, for example, “short-term memory”, this term could be defined as this 4 step sequence:
Step #1. Showing an individual some stimulus.
Step #2. Waiting a brief time.
Step #3. Testing recall of the sequence.
Step #4. Retesting for recall much later.
The difference between steps 3 and 4 measures short-term memory’s content-vs-long-term memory’s content.
Note that references to “memory” go well beyond what was actually observed in steps 1-4 and even implies that the researcher had access to cognitive activity. In 1950, Skinner summarized this variety of theory:
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. (p. 69)
In addition, “short-term memory” and “long-term memory” at best describe the results, not explain them, and they describe them “in different dimensions” from those observed. If we are to explain behavior in the real world, it would be prudent to use terms that refer directly to dimensions and properties found in that world.
Independent variables. Cognitive causes of behavior, such as information
processing constructs and hypothesized developmental processes (e.g., “maturation”) are also operationally defined. These operational definitions describe specific histories of the subject studied. For example, an individual’s “motivation” may be increased by watching others being reinforced. Such individuals may then engage in more responses or respond more quickly. The term “increased motivation” is a short-hand way of describing the
individual’s history given in the operational definition.
Behavior analysts prefer to talk directly about these histories and avoid the middle steps of operationally defining and redefining hypothetical constructs. This is done for several reasons:
#1. The middle definitional steps are unnecessary.
#2. Though operationally defined, the hypothetical constructs retain mentalistic connotations, therefore terms are used that mean more than the researcher denotes.
#3. The individual is identified as the origin of his/her actions instead of the
phylogenic (species) and ontogenic (personal) histories responsible for the behavior.
#4. They’re vague because the linkage between concept and definition is often forgotton or ignored. Also, as a practical matter, it is less clear how one can influence the behavior, since the manipulable environment is not clarly delineated as a cause.
Addressing the argument that behavior analysis is uninterested in or denies “cognitive” variables. Behavior analysis is concerned with all phenomena of interest to all psychologists. The difference is that cognitive terms are abandoned in favor of studying the individual’s behavior and the history that produced the behavior. This historical explanation is devoid of cognitive terms that have residual meaning resulting from reification or connotations not contained in their operational definitions. These residual meanings incorrectly suggest that “more” than behavior is being discussed and that mentalistic explanation is about more than a study’s dependent variables, which are behaviors.
Rejecting a mentalistic vocabulary has led some to suggest that behavior analysts reject “cognitive phenomena” i.e., the phenomena cited within operational definitions of cognitive terms. By now it should be clear that these independent variables are not rejected, only the mentalistic vocabulary, and that vocabulary’s residual meanings. No real
phenomena are avoided, rejected, or excluded from behavior analysis’ domain.
The emphasis on histories of reinforcement does not, of course, mean that current environmental–including physiological–variables are irrelevant. As Skinner so often stated, physiology will eventually describe what happens during contingencies of reinforcement–it’s just not the behavior analyst’s job to do this, nor is it prerequisite to the study of behavior. Therefore behavior analysts do not suggest that physiology is irrelevant.
Behavior analysis and physiology exist in a hierarchical relationship: Behavior analysts discover behavioral processes that physiologists will explain just as physiologists will find phenomena that biochemists must explain.
(a) Behavior analysts’ emphasis on histories of reinforcement precludes the
necessity for using cognitive terms or hypothetico-deductive models with operationally defined hypothetical constructs. This gives the appearance that:
(1) Cognitivists study something behavior analysts don’t study.
(2) Behavior analysts ignore or deny cognitive phenomena.
In fact, all phenomena are of interest and the object of study by behavior analysts.
(b) Hypothetical constructs have phenomenological or cognitive connotations, but physical denotations.
(c) Because segments of an individual’s history of reinforcement are often found in operational definitions, many behavior analysts would agree that:
(1) Hypothetical constructs are merely surrogates for the actual
contingencies of reinforcement and/or punishment.
(2) Hypothetical constructs are “explanatory fictions” because they give the
appearance of explanation but are not themselves explained. They are only placeholders for the entities that define them.
(d) No variables are ignored or denied by behavior analysts–including
(e) By now, any explanations such as “Jake has the intention to hit Sam” should automatically be seen as a misnomer under a behavioral analysis. The history that established such aggression is the issue–the intention explains nothing. This argument applies to all such mentalistic explanation.
The interested reader should consult these two articles by Jay Moore:
Moore, Jay. (1985). On behaviorism and private events. The Psychological
Record, 30, 459-475.
Moore, Jay.(1985). Some historical and conceptual relations among logical
positivism, operationism, and behaviorism. The Behavior Analyst, 8, 53-63.