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Radical behaviorism
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Radical behaviorism

Radical behaviorism is a name for the behaviorism of B. F. Skinner. It is the philosophy that underlies the approach to psychology known as the experimental analysis of behavior. The term 'radical behaviorism' has also been associated with Skinner's theories of human behavior and his political ideas.

Acceptance of mental life and introspection

Radical behaviorism is radical because Skinner (in contrast with the original behaviorist, John B. Watson) accepted private life as behavior. This position can be contrasted with the dualistic position that the causes of behavior (and the locus of private life) are immaterial and unobservable mental objects, as well as the complementary methodological behaviorist position that private life is to be excluded from consideration on the grounds that it is not publicly observable. Instead, the locus of private life, and the objects of self-knowledge, are held to be within the body.

Political Views

Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control - a behavioral technology - could solve human problems which were not solved by earlier approaches or were actively aggravated by advances in physical technology (such as the atomic bomb.)

Skinner was often accused of being a totalitarian, and it is not difficult to see why. In addition to his aspirations to state design, Skinner was a determinist, believing that all of our behavior is profoundly determined and influenced by the environment. In light of this, Skinner saw the problems of political control not as a battle of control versus freedom, but as choices of what kinds of control were used for what purposes. Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment and fear and supported the use of reinforcement. His stated goal was to prevent humanity from destroying itself.

Skinner's book Walden Two presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. As in Brave New World, the reader is presented with a controversy over methods of control in light of their results. Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical work. However, as a utopian Skinner is remarkably bland, in the end asserting little more than that behavioral technology offers alternatives to coercion, that good science applied right will help society, and that we would all be better off if we cooperated with each other peacefully. Nonetheless, radical behaviorism is often identified with horrifying techniques and a systematic disregard for the worth and ability of human beings. As a consequence, the (saccharine and naive) humanism of Skinner's political views is often missed.


Radical behaviorism inherits from behaviorism the position that the science of behavior is natural science, a belief that animal behavior can be studied profitably and compared with human behavior, a strong emphasis on the environment as cause of behavior, a denial that ghostly causation is a relevant factor in behavior, and a penchant for operationalizing. Its principal differences are an emphasis on operant conditioning, use of idiosyncratic terminology, a tendency to apply notions of reinforcement etc. to philosophy and daily life to a thoroughgoing (even obsessive) degree, and, particularly, a distinctly positive position on private experience.

Importantly, radical behaviorism embraces the genetic and biological endowment (and ultimately evolved nature) of the organism, while simply asserting that behavior is a distinct field of study with its own value. From this two neglected points issue: radical behaviorism is thoroughly compatible with biological and evolutionary approaches to psychology - in fact, as a proper part of biology - and radical behaviorism does not involve the claim that organisms are 'tabula rasa,' homogenous mush or black boxes with no genetic or physiological endowment.

Skinner's psychological work focused on operant conditioning, with emphasis on the schedule of reinforcement as independent variable, and the rate of responding as dependent variable. Operant techniques are a venerable part of the toolbox of the psychobiologist, and many neurobiological theories - particularly regarding drug addiction - have made extensive use of reinforcement. Operant methodology and terminology has been used in much research on animal perception and concept formation - with the same topics, such as stimulus generalization, bearing importantly on operant conditioning. Skinner's emphasis on outcomes and response rates naturally lends itself topics typically left to economics, as in behavioral economics. The field of operant conditioning can also be seen to interact with work on decision making, and had influence on AI and cognitive science.


There are radical behaviorist schools of animal training, management, clinical practice (Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA) and education. Skinner's political views have left their mark in small ways as principles adopted by a small handful of utopian communities such as Los Horcones, and in ongoing challenges to the hegemony of aversive techniques in control of human and animal behavior.

Radical behaviorism has generated numerous descendants. Examples of these include molar approaches associated with Richard Herrnstein and William Baum, Rachlin's teleological behaviorism, William Timberlake's behavior systems approach, and John Staddon's theoretical behaviorism.

Arguably, one very important part of Skinner's legacy has been omitted. That is cognitive science. Cognitive science was so particularly shaped by his disapproval that he could (with only a little perversity) be described one of its most influential forefathers.

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