Misrepresentation: Behavior analysis cannot account for cognitive processes and
therefore cannot fully account for complex behavior such as language, creative thinking,
insight, and logic.
Regarding cognitive processes. Cognitive processes are not discovered, they are invented to explain the actions of people and animals.
“Cognitive” has numerous meanings. Some that bear on the misrepresentations addressed
(a) Cognition as a mental event.
(b) Cognition as a hypothetical construct in a deductive model.
(c) Cognition as a cause of behavior.
The following discussion addresses each in order.
(a) Cognition as a mental event. Cognition has been variously formulated as:
1. A mental event that affects a physical event, behavior (e.g., mind-body
2. Mere epiphenomena that result from physical activity but play no causal
3. Psychophysical parallelism, where mental events and physical behavior
are synchronized but unrelated causally.
Since the 1930s and 1940s, psychologists have given operational definitions of mentalistic
terms. These definitions involve:
*Translating the mental term into physical (usually physiological) events.
*Describing procedures for measuring publicly verifiable referents (i.e., two
individuals could observe them and agree on their occurrence).
Although operationally defined mentalistic terms reduce to physical events, they suggest
that such orientations study more than behavior (see misrepresentation #2).
Instead of redefining mental terms, radical behaviorists hold that what is introspectively
a. Our body.
b. The collateral products of our current stimulus context interacting with our
personal and genetic histories.
As Skinner said, behavior analysts do “not call these [private] events unobservable, and he
does not dismiss them as subjective. They simply questions the nature of the object
observed and the reliability of the observation” (About Behaviorism, p. 18).
This position reveals an unappreciated point: Skinner insisted on retaining private events
within psychology while mentalists were exorcising them via operationism. (See Skinner’s
1945 Wm. James Lectures for more.)
So the radical behaviorist (1) Conceptualizes cognitive processes as behaviors to be
explained–not as explanations, and (2) retrieves private events from the operationalist
(b) Cognition as a hypothetical construct in a deductive model. As a hypothetical
construct, cognition is defined in terms of publicly observable events. Within such
theories, mentalistic terms do not have mentalistic referents.
(c) Cognition as a cause of behavior. As indicated above, many behavior analysts
conceptualize private events (which include cognition) as collateral events resulting from
the interaction of a current stimulus context and an individual’s genetic and personal
histories. As such, they are neither causes of behavior nor mental. Instead, behavioral
causes are found in (a) the individual’s history of learning, (b) the current context, and
(c) the genetic history of the individual’s species. For example, perception of color and
sound is altered by discrimination training. Music teachers do “ear training” and art
students learn fine discriminations involving color, hues, texture, etc. Similar training can
be found in all areas: In literature, the discrimination of metaphor, analogy, etc.; in science,
discriminating where principles apply; in medicine, when diagnoses are based on multiple
sources of stimulus control (test results, direct examination, etc.). In short, our histories,
genetic and personal, plus current situations determine our private and public behavior.
Most behavior analysts recognize the technological limits physiological measurement
places on studying private events. Therefore neither they, not any other orientation, has a
full account of:
(1) What private events consist of.
(2) How the environment produces them.
(3) Their role in relation to easily observed behavior.
Behavior analysis’ advantage is that it is, like physiology, a natural science, therefore its
methodology and orientation are consistent with those fields that can do most to solve the
private events puzzle.
Regarding Accounts of Complex Behavior
The issue here is whether behavior analysis, without reference to private events as causes
of behavior, can account for complex responding such as language, creative activities,
insight, and logic. The specific accounts for such responding can be obtained in original
sources cited below. Only an introductory framework for reading those accounts will be
Analyses of verbal behavior have been given by Skinner (Verbal Behavior) and others, for
example, Hayes’ (1994) Behavior Analysis of Language and Cognition. Such accounts are
researched (see the journal Analysis of Verbal Behavior) and have been applied in clinical
and education settings (Murray Sidman’s work on stimulus equivalence, Siegfried
Englemann’ work on DI, etc.) Some common threads in this work are:
1. Verbal behavior was theoretically analyzed and researched without reference to
internal (mentalistic) causal variables.
2. The principles used in these accounts resulted from research on humans, and in
some cases, animals.
3. The position that verbal behavior is operantly conditioned has held its ground.
4. Complex behaviors can be explained and researched including these examples
a. Grammar and syntax
b. Rule-governed behavior.
d. Scientific knowledge.
f. Why verbal behavior as a repertoire increases so quickly during certain
times in a person’s life.
The analysis of verbal behavior is complex and requires a technical vocabulary–but it is
largely based on the fundamentals of learning theory that govern nonverbal behavior.
Regarding Creativity (Also see Issue #8).
Creativity and insight yielded to theoretical and experimental behavior analysis.
Theoretical work on creativity can be found throughout Skinner’s work (see Verbal
Behavior, Science and Human Behavior, About Behaviorism, Selection of Behavior) and
others (see Baum’s Understanding Behaviorism, p.80).
An area addressed by this research is tactics for increasing the variability and quality of
responding. For example, reinforcing childrens’ novel block design (i.e, a design not
previously done) increased the variability of the designs. In short, procedures exist for
teaching people to solve problems in creative ways directly taught. Another example is
Robert Epstein’s (1992) article “Generativity Theory in Education” in Educational
Technology (October, 1993, pp 40 to 45) where he discusses tactics for increasing the rate
and quality of creative actions.
Insight likewise has undergone theoretical and experimental analyses (see Skinner’s Verbal
Behavior, Skinner and Epstein’s Columban studies, work on stimulus equivalence, and
Epstein’s writings on generativity theory). Insight involves training basic skills in separate
contexts and then presenting a situation where these skills must occur together even
though they were never trained together. For example, in separate contexts a pigeon was
taught to push a box and peck a banana (this latter response was chosen to replicate a
classic experiment done with an ape). When a banana was presented out of the pigeon’s
reach, it pushed a box under the banana, hopped onto the box, and pecked the banana.
This is an excellent example of problem solving in animals and illustrates the novel
combination of responses occurring for the first time. So by regulating the mastery of
individual skills, and measuring their novel convergence, one can study insight and
A convergence of previously learned responses is sometimes called “contingency
adduction” and is used in educational settings (see Kent Johnson’s and T.V. Joe Layng’s
writings on techniques used at Morningside Academy such as chapter 14 of Behavior
Analysis in Education, their article in the American Psychologist “Breaking the
structuralist barrier: Literacy and numeracy with fluency”. (See also the Morningside
website at MORNINGSID@aol.com.)
In summary, well established principles used to explain and research creative behavior and
insight can be used to generate such behavior in clinical and classroom settings. All this
work proceeds without reference to hypothesized internal “creative” or “cognitive”