Taking Responsibility for What We Don’t Know as Behavior Analysts

By Scott Herbst, PhD
bSci21.org Contributing Writer

I recently finished reading Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, by Ken Wilber (1995). In it, Wilber attempts to put together a theory of… well… I think, everything. And by everything, I mean how physics relates to biology, and how biology relates to psychology. Beyond that, however, he discusses how the world of matter (the physiosphere) evolves into the world of life (biosphere), and how the world of life evolves into the world of mind (the noosphere). His basic argument is that the universe, or Kosmos, as he calls it (which includes the physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere) is constituted by holons. A holon is an entity that is whole unto itself and, as such, has its own unique properties. Each holon is, in turn, constituted by parts. The parts that constitute holons are, unto themselves, also whole, and in turn constituted by parts, that are also wholes. So, the universe is made of holons, that are made of other holons, that are made of other holons, and so on – infinitely – all the way down and all the way up. You know, if you think of things like looking at organs and cell structures as going down, and then looking at things like social groups and culture as going up. Reading this, it reminded me of the arguments going on in The Behavior Analyst during the late 80’s and early 90’s, concerning the philosophical underpinnings of behavior analysis. Steve Hayes and colleagues argued for behavior analysis as a contextual science, one in which the fundamental nature of the universe is as a whole, with parts derived for the sake of analysis (Hayes, Hayes, & Reese, 1988). Skinner (e.g., 1953) hinted at this worldview without making it so explicit. Jack Marr (1993), on the other hand, argued that behavior analysis is fundamentally mechanistic, a philosophical stance that assumes the universe is made of parts, and any apparent wholeness is a result of how the parts interact and, only apparent. (And to be completely fair to Jack Marr, he really argued that it doesn’t matter so much). Wilber would say they’ve both got it wrong. The universe isn’t fundamentally whole, and it isn’t fundamentally parts either; its whole/parts. And that is the nature of reality.

Figure 1. Weber's World View

Figure 1. Weber’s World View

Bear with me. This is going somewhere, I promise. Wilber then says some pretty bad things about behavior analysis. Well, not bad, but things that would maybe – probably – be disappointing for a behavior analyst to hear. His claim is that, operating from this model of reality (holons composing holons composing holons), there are four quadrants in which one can play while conducting analysis. One the right side of the grid (Figure 1), you have those analysts who work from the outside. Purely empirical, these analysts, look at events as objectively as possible, eschew the subjective, and deny the importance (and possibly even the existence) of any internal processes. This is where behaviorism fits, in the upper-right of Figure 1. It goes in the upper right because, in the study of human phenomena, it focuses on the individual. The lower right belongs to the study of groups of humans and, though Wilber doesn’t say it explicitly, I’m guessing this is where he would put behaviorists who, drawing largely on the work of Marvin Harris, study cultural level phenomena (e.g., Glenn, 2004).

A generic way to summarize the approach given by the right side is that it is the study of “it” and “its.” It is the study of things and groups of things, and how they interact with the world outside of those things. The analysis is always from the outside, and this is reflected in the way we avoid, at least when speaking and writing technically, talking of organisms thinking, associating, learning, knowing, etc.

The left side of the quadrant is the domain of “I” and “We.” It is the area concerned with internal struggles, and the parts that constitute and interact in those struggles. This is the sort of analysis that leads to concepts such as the Ego, Superego, and Id, the stuff us behavior analysts really hate. This is the stuff I made of fun of when I taught Psych 101.

And none of this sounds too bad yet, right? Well, here’s the part you’re probably not going to like. He says that there’s really nothing wrong with behaviorism, except that we’ve overstepped our bounds. When we try to take on areas like creativity, problem solving, the self, knowing, etc. – areas that, to most people, clearly deal with the world of the internal – and try to explain them exclusively in terms of contingencies of reinforcement – that we’re committing a subtle (I would use to term sneaky) sort of reductionism. Not the sort of reductionism in which we reduce behavior down the motion of organs and neurons, but a different sort in which we try to explain everything – consciousness, passion, love, community, and so on – those universal, yet deeply personal, human experiences – in terms of a few principles that we have derived from only looking on the outside. Those things, he claims, can’t be understood by outside, objective observation; one has to take the “I” perspective. In other words, behaviorism can’t handle that stuff, and shouldn’t bother trying.

That was a pretty big punch in the gut to me. And at the same time, I think he’s half right. We do tend to be reductionistic about things like love, community, spirituality, joy, sadness, etc. Much of Skinner’s writing that still gets read is an attempt to fit everything in the entire human experience into a few basic principles of respondent and operant conditioning. And, while it is brilliant theorizing, I think we often forget that it is, in fact, theorizing. How many of us take Skinner’s (1957) analysis of self-knowledge for granted? Or, working the other direction, think that selection at the level of culture is an empirical fact? As behaviorists, I see we have a tendency to speculate how our principles may account for these phenomena, and then forget that our speculations are just that – speculations. We are too quick to mistake our speculations for explanations. And when we do that, we forget why we showed up in the first place: to predict and influence behavior. An explanation that looks backwards, that looks at an event that already happened, and says why it may have been the result of the contingencies of reinforcement is no explanation at all. At least, not against the goal of prediction and control of future events. We haven’t explained anything until we can call our shot. When the statements we offer can help two people fall and stay in love, then we’ve explained what love is. When we can take what we know and offer someone the experience of being an integrated, whole and complete, human being, and reliably deliver on that experience, then we can say we’ve explained the self. When we can call our shot on changing a cultural practice, and predict and control rates of recycling, then we’ll have an adequate cultural analysis. Until then, I think the best we can honestly say, is “we don’t know.” Joe Cocker might know what love is; we don’t.

This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with the speculation. The speculation is healthy, as long as its followed by experimentation. But speculation in place of experimentation and explanation isn’t only unhealthy, its arrogant, and it may have something to do with why people aren’t jumping on our bandwagon and seeing things our way.

So, going back to Wilber, I agree with him – to a point. Where I disagree is with the notion that behaviorism can’t contribute to other three quadrants. He’s probably right that the brand with which he’s familiar can’t. But there’s been a lot of progress in the last 20 years, and developments that should give us greater access to looking at both the “I,” and the “We” in his model. I think relational frame theory (RFT), gives an access to approach both.

With regards to dealing with “I,” researchers have been doing some very cool things to “look inside” by using the Implicit Relational Assessment Procedure (IRAP) (see Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, Stewart, & Boles, 2010 for an overview). Basically, what the test does is present stimuli along with some sort of evaluative word (e.g., “Good,” “Bad,” “Gross,” etc.) and then asks you to say whether the relation makes sense or not. Sometimes you have to respond consistently with what you “implicitly” believe, and sometimes you have to respond the opposite to that. Based on your response latencies during the different trial types, it can show if you have any implicit biases against people of a certain race, sex, age, or even if you are biased against trees, or bowling balls, or anything else you might want to investigate. In my lab, we’re currently looking to see if we can capture whether people relate to themselves as happy or not, and if we can capture changes in happiness based on activities participants complete. If you are interested in playing around with the IRAP, you can download it here. The community that investigates these things is very generous with the tools they’ve developed and offers a lot of great resources for free. You can plug in your own stimuli and investigate people’s attitudes about anything you think they might have opinions about.

On the other hand, its my opinion that RFT has a lot to offer in terms of how we view, understand, and the influence culture and cultural practices. If you want a fun tutorial to learn the basics of RFT, you can check this out. One of the really neat things about RFT is that it shows us, behaviorally, how symbolic representation works. In other words, it specifies what we are doing when we look at a word and respond to it in terms of the thing that it “represents.” It explains how rule-governed behavior works; why I can tell you something about somewhere – a restaurant perhaps – you’ve never been, and then you can follow my directions and have an idea of what’s good on the menu and what to avoid despite never having been there yourself. It explains why we’re such good problem solvers and have constructed such amazing things, and alternatively why we can be so unhappy amidst these amazing things. Basically it boils down to the fact (yes, fact) that the words we use influence the way the world looks (and sounds, and tastes, and so on), and our behavior toward that world is largely a function of how it looks, sounds, tastes, etc.

And, aside from all of the buildings, government agencies, churches, sports teams, etc., the most prominent feature of a culture is all of the things that the people in that culture are saying. And, it is those things that they (we) are saying that are influencing their (our) behavior toward one another, toward the environment, and toward the world. It’s my speculation that we can use what we’re learning about language to alter the practices of the culture, and that we can do so from the inside out, without waiting for the environment to select beneficial practices. It is, I think, what Skinner (1953) was dreaming about when he wrote about changing cultural practices.

To summarize, I think behavior analysis is at a place where we can begin to tackle those things that, up until recently, we’ve only theorized about. Likely, the field will have to head in new directions. Those new directions will likely include new methods, new principles, possibly even some new dimensions of applied behavior analysis. I think we have a lot more to offer the world than we have. Doing so will require being responsible for what we do and do not know, and measuring what we know against what we believe to be a good measure of knowing, and that will entail predicting and controlling those things about which we know. We’ve got to learn what love is.

Does this article resonate with you?  If so, share your thoughts in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox.



Barnes-Holmes, D., Barnes-Holmes, Y., Stewart, I., & Boles, S. (2010). A sketch of the implicit relational assessment procedure (IRAP) and the relational elaboration and coherence (REC) model. The Psychological Record, 60(3), 527-542.

Glenn, S. S. (2004). Individual Behavior, Culture, and Social Change. The Behavior Analyst, 27(2), 133-151.

Hayes, S. C., Hayes, L. J., and Reese, H. W. (1988). Finding the philosophical core: A review of Stephen C. Pepper’s World Hypothesis: A Study in Evidence. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 50, 97-111.

Marr, M. (1993). Contextualistic mechanism or mechanistic contextualism? The straw machine as tar baby. The Behavior Analyst, 16(1), 59-65.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Oxford, England: Macmillan

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. East Norwalk, CT, US: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Wilber, K. (2000). Sex, ecology, spirituality: The spirit of evolution (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site atwww.SixFlexTraining.com, or email at [email protected] for more information.

2 Comments on "Taking Responsibility for What We Don’t Know as Behavior Analysts"

  1. “When we try to take on areas like creativity, problem solving, the self, knowing, etc. – areas that, to most people, clearly deal with the world of the internal – and try to explain them exclusively in terms of contingencies of reinforcement – that we’re committing a subtle (I would use to term sneaky) sort of reductionism.”

    The critique of reductionism is common and I think important to untangle. I think the issue is epistemological, and deals with the kinds of claims behaviorism ought to be making.

    If behaviorists are claiming that they can explain *everything* about creativity or love through behavior analytic principles alone, as we know them today, we would indeed be reducing complex phenomena into simplistic answers. If on the other hand, we are merely claiming that behavioral principles are the most empirical, parsimonious, scientific way to understand creativity or love, and that as far as we know, behavior analytic principles are the best way we have of explaining them, to the extent that we currently can. We are not reducing or simplifying the phenomena, but rather appropriately constraining ourselves to a scientific, rather than mentalistic process.

  2. Very interesting read. Not sure what I make of Wilber’s holons and other distinctions he makes but I think the topic of reductionism in behaviorism and science in general is very interesting.

    It’s particularly interesting to me in behavior analysis because I think we often walk a tight rope between “explaining” a phenomena based on behavior analytic epistemology (as Eli points out) and “explaining away” the phenomena. I think this is a separate issue from the topic of what behavior analysis has yet to explain (which is a lot!), even with RFT making great advances.

    I often find that what people are objecting to is when they feel that their own first person conscious experience is somehow seen as less important or even some extreme cases, dismissed as not “true” because it is not couched in scientific behavioral terminology. Or that once we have a behavioral explanation, that the personal experience is no longer needed as it’s been reduced to behavioral lingo.

    I think this is a mistake. As functional contextualism rightfully points out, behavior analysis is about approaching behavior for very specific scientific purposes with very specific goals and the epistemology/methods used are in service of those goals. That however does not undermine someone’s personal conscious experience of their life, nor does it replace it with a “better” scientific one. It adds to it, it has the personal conscious experience AND the scientific explanation.

    To take the example of love, I think we would all agree that various behavioral principals can be utilized to explain love (predict and influence) but that also doesn’t substitute or reduce or explain away the personal experience of love or the qualitative account of love that people give.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.