Behaviorism is, largely, the idea that scientific and applied psychology should only be concerned with observable actions. While somewhat limited, this approach actually holds much importance in the field today. Here’s why.
There he was, renowned behavioral analyst Dr. Billy Baum. Harvard trained and highly regarded in the field of behavioral analysis, Billy, as he is called by those who know him well, would always put on a little show at our weekly departmental colloquia for the Psychology Department at the University of New Hampshire, where I got my Ph.D. in 1997.
With a beard worthy of Santa Claus, a twinkle in his eye, and a white lab coat permanently affixed to his body, Billy, who is still writing about the nature of the behavior, to my understanding, was ready to pounce on any speaker on any topic. Never in a mean way. But always with a very particular agenda.
You see, Billy and his close colleague Tony Nevin both were what we would call old-school behaviorists. They were trained in the tradition of B. F. Skinner and others who represented a perspective that dominated the behavioral sciences for decades during the 20th century. Behaviorists saw psychology as a pure science, based completely on observable data.
Thus, the focus on behavior. Further, they followed B. F. Skinner’s lead in asserting that all animals learn via the same basic principles. Thus, to understand the forces that shape human behavior, there is no need, according to this perspective, to actually study humans. Studying rats, goldfish, or pigeons would suffice. And that is exactly what the 20th-century hardcore behavior analysts did.
The second floor of our psychology building at the time, Conant Hall, was kind of like Willy Wonka’s factory. Rarely did anyone ever come in and out. Learning-based experiments on various non-human species, largely rats and pigeons, I believe, were conducted there.
Now you see, at the time that I was getting my Ph.D., in human social and personality psychology, the lion’s share of behavioral scientists were actually quite dismissive of the entire idea of behaviorism. Many landmark studies and researchers, such as Juan Garcia (see Garcia et al., 1955), found that many of the basic premises of the behavioristic paradigm didn’t hold up.
Such researchers found that not all species learn the same way. They found that internal mental states actually exist and can be empirically studied. They found that physiological processes that underlie behavior also exist and can be empirically studied.
By the time I was in graduate school in the 1990s, most academic behavioral scientists were pretty much completely off behaviorism. Some refer to the shift that took place historically as “the cognitive revolution.”
But there in Durham, New Hampshire in the 1990s, behaviorism was alive and well. And I think that this fact kind of surprised many of our weekly guest speakers.
Billy Baum in Action
Pretty much without fail, no matter what the topic of the weekly guest lecture was, Billy would raise his hand. All eyes would turn toward this conspicuously wise senior faculty member. And the question was nearly always the same.
Taking a pause from eating his famous peanut butter sandwiches, he’d simply ask the colloquium speaker this:
Could you train a pigeon to do the tasks that were included in your study?
Of course, this question always seemed quite out of leftfield. Further, on the surface, the obvious answer almost always seemed to be “No!” We would have people talking about such advanced cognitive and social topics as learning second languages, storing long-term memories, and responding to infidelity in mateships, as a brief list.
Looking back, it was almost like a prank. And everyone was in on it except for the speaker.
Speakers’ responses varied from sheer confusion to desperate (if convoluted) attempts to actually consider the question seriously from the parameters of their own particular subfield.