Misrepresentation: Behaviorists would pre-program individual choice thereby reducing
people to automatons. Eliminating choice also eliminates ethics and individual
Clarification: The analysis of why individuals do behavior A-vs-B or select object A-vs-B
is an empirical issue. Laboratory work on concurrent schedules of reinforcement is an
example. Here two schedules of reinforcement operate simultaneously and the subject
(animal or human) can switch (i.e., choose) between them at any point. Such schedules
produce very predictable results. For example, if reinforcement is available three times
more often on one schedule than the other, the subject’s distribution of responses across
schedules is 3:1. This same ratio also describes the total time expended on each schedule.
Modifications of schedules (such as the inclusion of avoidance or punishment) yields
similarly predictable, quantifiable relationships. More complex choice research is also
possible. The key point here is that choice is determined by the environment and can be
studied. Interestingly, Tolman, who is often cited as the originator of much of today’s
cognitive psychology, intensively studied choice intensively. And, like much of modern
cognitive psychology, his explanations contained many hypothetical constructs.
In everyday life, we are occasionally faced with two contingencies that yield about the
same reinforcement such as two or more foods with about equally reinforcing value, two
or more movies that are about equally entertaining, etc. Often such situations create a
mildly aversive situation that occasions problem solving behavior such as examining the fat
value of the food or reading movie reviews. This additional stimulus control:
(a) Tips the reinforcing efficacy in favor of one reinforcer over the other.
(b) Reduces the aversive condition where only one of two or more simultaneously
available reinforcers can be had.
In short, much decision making in everyday life involves escaping and avoiding situations
with competing reinforcers and such behavior is within the reach of an experimental
Demonstrations of what controls making choices (or engaging in purposive behavior) has
lead to charges that behaviorism is dehumanizing. Many behavior analysts would reply
that such analyses do not dehumanize people, they de-mentalize explanations of how we
make choices. Science in all areas has a long tradition of eradicating unnecessary
explanatory constructs, especially mentalistic ones, such as vis viva, DeCartes’ winds in
veins, phlogiston, etc. These explanatory fictions are seldom missed once the benefits of
more accurate, alternative views are identified.
This explanation should make it clear that the behaviors commonly described as “choice”
and “purpose” have a place within behavior analysis. This is not immediately obvious
because behavior analysts can explain such behavior with contingencies of reinforcement,
not constructs such as “choice” and “purpose”.
For many behavior analysts, freedom denotes a history of learning that results in a person
who engages in a wide range of skilled behaviors that obtain reinforcers. In short, freedom
(a) Behavior analysis accounts for the phenomena described by such terms as
choice and purpose.
(b) Behavior analysis’ work on “preference” and “purpose” may not be immediately
obvious because these terms are not part of the vocabulary needed to do a contingency
analysis of those behaviors.
The analysis of choice and purpose will not change the nature of the behavior analyzed–
people will be no more or less free and responsible than they are now. A behavior analysis
will clarify what has always been true: Behaviors such as choice and purpose are
predictable and controllable, something well understood by teachers, parents,
administrators, drug counselors, etc.
Any causal analysis of choice and purpose may undercut traditional concepts of freedom
and autonomy, but such research is a threat only to those who do not wish to know. Is it
intellectually honest to preserve traditional concepts by rejecting clearly demonstrated