By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
President, bSci21Media, LLC
Yep, you heard me right. Reinforcement isn’t real. Not if you are a functional contextualist. You see there are at least two dominant philosophical views in behavior analysis: mechanism and functional contextualism. Skinner was never really clear on what he was, and he seems to have elements of both, but other people have devoted much work to parsing out these important issues.
But why should anyone focus on philosophy, you might ask? Because to those who study philosophy it isn’t something “out there” — it is something expressed in our behavior every moment as behavior analysts. You know that functional assessment you do with your kiddos? How about the way you define verbal aggression topographically in your behavior plans? You are enacting particular philosophies when you do these things and, if you do both of the things just mentioned, you may be enacting two conflicting philosophies.
If you haven’t taken the time to figure out your philosophical position, then you might be doing things in a somewhat incoherent fashion. You might call things “behavior” that really aren’t, you might say “reinforcement” when you really shouldn’t, and you might get lost when attempting interdisciplinary collaborations due to a lack of precise understanding of your own subject matter.
Philosophy defines our scientific subject matter, our analytic goals, and our worldview. You see, no amount of data can tell you what these things are — they are “pre analytic,” they come before the data. Most importantly, philosophy can distance you from your own verbal behavior and help you realize the difference between events and constructs — the latter constitute reactions of scientific workers to events around them.
A mechanist might say they are interested in “learning how the world works” and that “if we can just figure out how processes fit together, we will be able to understand our world.” In other words, mechanists view the world as a machine, and it is our job to put together the parts of the machine…if we can figure them out in the first place. Sometimes mechanists get lost in the “sandbox” of the basic laboratory, seeking “understanding” at the expense of prediction and influence. Many times, mechanists talk about “causes” impinging on behavior and mean it literally. They also tend to talk about reinforcement as something “out there” in the world operating on behavior. To them, behavior is often localized on or in the organism.
A functional contextualist, on the other hand, takes the view that behavior is a relation not localized on or in the organism, but as an act-in-context. To them, this view extends to the behavior of scientists as well. This means that everything we know about the world is a function of each individual’s unique history of operating in the world. Looking at a set of data and saying “reinforcement” is a prime example. The probability that someone says “reinforcement” in reaction to a set of data is probabilistically determined by that individual’s history. And we never actually “see” reinforcement — we infer it from observations. A functional contextualist is therefore a-ontological, they say nothing on the existence or non-existence of a “real” world in any absolute sense of the word. To them, doing so misses the point — the prediction and influence of behavior.
What do you think about these philosophies? If you want to learn more, check out some of the recommended readings below. Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!
Hayes, S.C., Hayes, L.J., & Reese, H.W. (1988). Finding the philosophic core: A review of Stephen C. Pepper’s World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 50, 97-111.
Hayes, S.C., Barnes-Holmes, D., Wilson, K.G. (2012). Contextual Behavioral Science: Creating a science more adequate to the challenge of the human condition. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1, 1-16.
Kantor, J.R. (1958). Interbehavioral psychology. Bloomington, IN: Principia Press.
Pepper, S.C. (1942). World hypotheses: A study in evidence. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.