But I think Billy’s point, consistently, was a much bigger point that actually had little to do with the details of the research that was being presented on any given occasion. Billy was making a foundational point regarding the importance of observability of data in the behavioral sciences. If you are studying a pigeon’s behavior, everything you are studying is observable. You study the schedule of food-related reinforcement presented to the pigeon. You study its pecking behavior. You note the relationships between the nature of the stimuli and the nature of the behavior. It’s all observable. And, from the perspective of behavioral analysis, this is the only way to go if you are really doing science at all.
The meta-message, I think, was this:
If you cannot explain the stuff you are studying in fully observable terms, you are wasting your time and you are not doing science. That is what he was really saying. Hearing him in action was almost like watching Behaviorism’s last stand. And, to be honest, it was always very educational for me and the other graduate students present. Because no matter what you are studying, and regardless of the many flaws associated with a behavioristic approach, at the end of the day, observable behavior is the ultimate outcome of any psychological process.
I have to say that while behavior analysis is hardly the field that I landed in when it comes to my own research, I think that the lessons of the behaviorists of the psychology department at the University of New Hampshire influenced my own work in a positive manner.
Why Behaviorism Matters in the Behavioral Sciences Today
When we measure any variable in a study today, we have essentially an infinite number of ways that we can study it. Think about, for instance, emotional intelligence, which is a commonly studied variable in the behavioral sciences. This variable could be studied in terms of what we call “self report” measures. We could simply ask people if they have high emotional intelligence or not.
But there is something quite lacking about such a self-report approach, isn’t there? Early on in my graduate school training, I worked with Jack Mayer and Becky Warner on the development of new measures of emotional intelligence, a construct that was in its incipient form at the time. And as Jack was one of the co-founders of this construct, it was really a great opportunity to be on the ground floor of the development of what would become a huge idea in the field over the years.
The first study I conducted as a graduate student was on the topic of measuring emotional intelligence. This study, conducted with Jack Mayer, was influenced by the behaviorist ethos in our department in many ways. I remember talking with Jack and concluding that we needed a behavioral (or at least performance-based) measure of emotional intelligence.
I was much more interested in whether some people performed relatively well on emotion-based tasks compared with others. I was less interested in whether people simply varied on how much they reported seeing themselves as relatively high or low in emotional intelligence. We got some interesting results and published the paper in the journal Intelligence (Mayer & Geher, 1996).
In terms of my own development, what was critical in my mind was that I was able to find ways to measure seemingly internal variables by actually observing performance, or behavior.
In my work since then, I’ve studied lots of variables on lots of topics. And I have often used self-report measures in my work. But my general guideline for my own research is, implicitly, very influenced by Billy Baum and the behaviorist tradition. If I can measure a variable in an observable, behavior- or performance-based way without too much trouble, I shoot for doing exactly that. Some of my own work has applied this approach to the study of political behavior (see Geher et al., 2015) and creativity (see Geher et al., 2017), for instance.
And I take this same approach in working with student researchers today. If there is a variable that can be studied in an observable way that is relatively behavioral in nature, I will generally push for that. As I see it, all things equal, it’s better to study what people actually do relative to what they say they would do. In a sense, this is the main lesson of behaviorism in a nutshell.
And behaviorism also is highly relevant today in terms of helping us understand such issues as parenting and working with children with autism.