Radical Behaviorism aint the only game in town!

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

Most bSci21 readers are familiar with B.F. Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism.  In the opening lines of About Behaviorism Skinner states that it is not a science, but the philosophy of a science.  The philosophy rests on one simple assumption — that psychological events are comprised of behavior (i.e., actions) and nothing else.  From this perspective behavior is all there is.  The “mental processes” of other perspectives are “verbal behavior” or perceptual behavior in this perspective.  In fact, we have shown in a recent bSci21 article on dreaming that behaviorism can tackle even the most elusive of psychological phenomena.

Skinner’s behaviorism came directly from the laboratory and was influenced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  These influences gave rise to the linear-causal orientation of Skinner’s central construct, the three-term contingency.  For example, the antecedent-behavior-consequence denotes three things happening one after another.  In a basic animal experiment, this might be a light (antecedent) then a bar press (behavior) followed by a food pellet (consequence).  Additionally, these three things are connected together through causation.  So we say someone did that “because their behavior was reinforced in a particular setting.”  Moreover, Skinner spoke of these causal forces in terms of selection by consequences (see “Do you really understand selection by consequences?”).  

Another type of behaviorism — Interbehaviorism — started at the opposite end of the spectrum from Skinner’s Radical Behaviorism, and took on a very different form.  The founder of Interbehaviorism was J.R. Kantor, who also started The Psychological Record journal that we know today.  Whereas Skinner’s approach started in a highly controlled lab and was influenced by biology, Kantor’s approach started with the complexities of the naturalistic environment and strove to rid his system of any borrowing of metaphorical terms.  His rationale for doing so was to ensure that what the scientist says about his/her data is in full contact with what is actually observed.

Unlike Skinner’s linear-causal three-term contingency, Kantor focused on the event-field.  In short, the event-field constitutes interrelations among stimulating and responding set in a field of factors, including one’s own history.  Kantor’s event is found in the ever-evolving present moment, rather than discretely separate events connected together through causal forces.  To return to the bar pressing example, Kantor might discuss the light as interrelated with the behavior of seeing, the bar interrelated with the act of pressing, and the food pellet interrelated with the behavior of eating.  Moreover, these interrelations are set in a field of setting factors such as contact with the chamber floor, ambient temperature, internal physiological conditions, light levels, and the animal’s history.  All of this is happening now — in the ever-evolving present moment.  The event-field is purely descriptive.  As such, there is no need to connect phenomena together with causal forces.  

In fairness, both approaches have different analytic goals. Skinner’s is inherently pragmatic, with a focus on the prediction and influence of behavior.  Kantor, by contrast, has as his goal the description of events.  However, these advantages also bring disadvantages — Skinner’s approach is sometimes criticized as overly simplistic, and not suited for the complexities of the naturalistic environment.  By contrast, Kantor’s approach is sometimes criticized as overly descriptive and disconnected from practical utility.  After all, if your goal is description, it isn’t exactly clear when you are finished describing.  At the same time, if your goal is to predict and influence, you don’t really need to account for every possible factor.

Some behavior analysts combine both views in a system of checks and balances.  Skinner’s pragmatism acts as a check on Kantor’s descriptive pursuits while Kantor’s detailed analyses acts as a check on oversimplifying events from the laboratory.  Some would also argue that Kantor’s approach has the edge regarding interdisciplinary research as he devoted considerable time articulating the subject-matter of psychology as it relates to other sciences.

Both men have written voluminously about their respective behaviorisms, but I will leave you with two sources to get you started — Skinner’s (1974) About Behaviorism and Midgley & Morris (2006) Modern Perspectives on J.R. Kantor and Interbehaviorism.

Let us know what you think about Interbehaviorism in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org.

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8 Comments

  1. Very interesting. I hadn’t heard of Kantor. I wonder though, whether Skinner’s detailing of operant contingencies couldn’t also be considered a description – of a deeper phenomenon. Does Kantor have more to say about how his more descriptive analysis adds to the explanatory nature of behavior. In other words can more be inferred in relation to what we know about contingencies?

  2. I think if Kantor read your comment he would focus on your use of the word “infer” if it means something different than “observed.” Last ABA I was part of a symposium on Skinner and Kantor. One of the assertions made was that “reinforcement” and “cause” etc… are actually inferences that aren’t observed. The idea is that we observe rate of behavior increase when we present a consequence and then scientists respond by saying this “is because the behavior was reinforced.” A theme in all of Kantor’s writings is the distinction between events and constructs. A construct is any verbal statement about the world. One of his goals was to align constructs with observed events. Even the laboratory is a construct as it is an artificial creation by humans.

  3. J.R. Kantor it seems to me at least, hasn’t created a separate form of Behaviorism. He has instead only created a sub-discipline to Radical Behaviorism in that Interbehaviorism is really only an attempt to study topography as a relevant part of Radical Behaviorism, overall.

    • Interesting idea. Kantor was a bit older than Skinner and his perspective developed first. Most proponents of Kantor say his is a more functional approach as it isn’t organocentric, or doesn’t focus on the movements of the individual and “causal forces” impinging on the individual. Rather, it focuses on functional relations between stimulating and responding, in a non-causal, non-linear, descriptive fashion. Kantor would say Skinner’s processes might fit in to his analysis of “investigative operations” but he would do away with the metaphor of selection by consequences and causality.ll

  4. I wonder how many of us “wandered” into the field of ABA because of its track record of successful clinical outcomes, only to be faced with some weighty and pervasive philosophical implications that refused to be ignored. I think this is a fascinating conversation that is especially intense because it technically seeks to advance our understanding of, among other things, the very processes – thoughts – that make it possible to participate in philosophical debate in the first place.

  5. I had many discussions with Paul Mountjoy about these issues when I was working on my Ph.D. at WMU. Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had. He was not about to change my views much, but made me think about them a lot. I miss Paul.

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