Radical Behaviorism and Buddhism


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

If you haven’t yet noticed, religion is a recurring topic here at bSci21.  In previous articles, we have explored the behavioral effects of prayer, ascetic practices, forgiveness from an ABA and Christian perspective, same sex marriage, and marriage as a religious vs. legal relationship.

Today we add another to the list — a rare comparison of B.F. Skinner with the Buddha.

James Diller and Kennon Lattal published an intriguing analysis of the “complementarities and conflicts” between radical behaviorism and Buddhism in The Behavior Analyst.  They noted that “at first glance, radical behaviorism and Buddhism may seem like disparate philosophical entities.” After all, one is a scientific philosophy while the other is a religious institution.  However, the authors suggest that finding “commonalities between science and religion may result in fewer competing demands placed on followers of each and…allow the emergence of new and novel solutions for socially significant problems.”

For one, religion itself is behavior.  Understanding religion will help you understand behavior, and vice versa.

The authors specifically focus their analysis on three particular areas:

  1. Goals: The readers of bSci21 likely know the goals of radical behaviorism — the prediction and control (or influence) of behavior.  If you are familiar with Skinner’s writings, he was always extrapolating said goals to society at large.  Thus, the phrase “Save the world with behavior analysis!”  In contrast, the authors suggest that Buddhism is based on “the beliefs that existence is orderly and that this order is knowable by humans.” Moreover, Buddhism, seeks to understand the nature of reality — and many would say radical behaviorism does as well (but not everyone).
  2. Conceptualization of Human Beings:  The authors state “neither school of thought presents a case for a self in the colloquial sense of an independent agent.”  For Buddhism, the “self” is interconnected with everything else and the notion that a difference exists between the two is actually an illusion.  For radical behaviorism, the self is a set of responses — you are your behavioral repertoire — and those responses vary by context.
  3. Outcomes of Following Each Philosophy:  The authors recast the latter heading as “what these philosophies allow individuals to do.”  For radical behaviorism, the major outcome is a pragmatic technology of behavior suitable to the resolution of the world’s pressing issues.  Buddhism, too, promotes world betterment — through mindfulness meditation rather than experimentation.  The authors note “being aware of the impact of the actions of one’s self…may lead to improved social interactions and, ultimately, improvement in the human condition.”

Diller and Lattal go into much more detail than can be provided here, so be sure to check out the original article and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.  Also, 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 [email protected].

1 Comment on "Radical Behaviorism and Buddhism"

  1. richard laitinen | October 14, 2015 at 7:10 am | Reply

    Behavior analysts partition our analysis of the world into either molar or molecular, “distal” or “proximal” contexts. Is mindfulness only about “being here, now” or is it about “being here and there, now”? Does “being here” allow being aware of ongoing physical environment and of our verbal behavior occurring in that environment, even if that behavior is deriving past and future temporal, causal and hierarchical relations? I’m not sure that deriving those relations, per se, is the problem but the effect they may have on the derivation of relations that are occurring “now”.
    A meditative state that produces a void of verbal behavior may work to weaken derived temporal, hierarchical and causal relations that may otherwise block and/or overshadow and/or inhibit the derivation of relations that allow for effective action in the here and now.

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