“While physics and mathematics may tell us how the universe began, they are not much use in predicting human behavior because there are far too many equations to solve. I’m no better than anyone else at understanding what makes people tick, particularly women.” Stephen Hawking
By Alex P. Vidal
WE walk into a theater and suddenly crave popcorn.
We feel relaxed in a blue room and anxious in a red one.
Feeling down in the dumps, we take a friend’s advice and just try keeping a smile on our face; miraculously we soon feel better.
How do we explain such things?
Is there an objective way to speak about feelings?
Do we need to refer to the “mind” or “unconscious impulses” to explain them?
Or does it all boil down to a bunch of chemical reaction in the brain?
According to Michael Macrone in Eureka, behaviorism, generally speaking, is a school of psychology with particular answers to such questions.
Unlike Freudians, he explains, this school has no use for hypothetical (that is, unobservable) concepts such as “the Unconscious” or the “id” in explaining psychic events.
“Taking what they consider a more scientific approach,” remarks Macrone, “behaviorists restrict themselves to observable data. And in the case of human psychology, what is observable is behavior—hence the name.”
Behavioristic notions trace back at least as far as the writings of Thomas Hobbes, who viewed the human organism as a superior sort of machine, Macrone observes.
(In Thomas Hobbes’s view, feelings and actions could be described as resulting from physical events or “motions” within the body.)
But as a school and as a cause, Macrone says behaviorism is essentially the creation of the American psychologist John B. Watson, whose 1914 tract Behavior announced its arrival.
Watson vehemently rejected the idea, held since Rene Descartes, the mind and body operate according to different rules, and that the best (and really only) way to study the mind is through introspection.
Second of all, Macrone explains, introspection produces nothing even remotely like hard data: Its findings cannot be quantified.
If psychology were to be scientific, said Watson, it would have to concern itself with hard, observable, and objective data.
And it must leave aside vague (and he thought nonexistent) entities such as “consciousness” or “desire.”
Very much along the lines of Ivan Pavlov, whose work with animals he only read later, Watson and his followers thought that scientific psychology lay in the study of relationships between external and stimuli and individual responses, Macrone reveals.
“If we can show by experiment that some event (say, a bell ringing) regularly causes a particular behavior (say, a nervous twitch), then we’ve established a psychological claim,” says Macrone.
“The total collection of such event/behavior associations suffices as a data pool, and only on such evidence are we justified in making psychological inferences.”
The behaviorists say, events become associated with behavior through a process of learning or “conditioning.”
If a dog is regularly rewarded with a bone every time he obeys the command “Sit!” then he will learn that obedience is pleasurable and the command “Sit!” will henceforth cause him to sit, almost as a reflex.
(Behaviorist B. F. Skinner called this “positive reinforcement.”)
Similarly, Macrone adds, if as children we learn that going to the movies means popcorn, we become conditioned to associate the event (going to the movies) with the behavior (eating popcorn), and the former will provoke an action to achieve the latter.
The basic idea of behaviorism, in short, is that behavior is not just a sign of some mental state but is in effect the same as a mental state.
“We don’t get anywhere by concocting such absurdities as ‘temperament’ or ’id,’ which are just theoretical abstractions from how people behave,” says Macrone.
“It is just as well, and more scientific, to ascribe such phenomena as ‘neurotic behavior’ to conflicting reflex responses to overlapping stimuli. Besides, the behaviorist view supports the ultimate behaviorist goal: Their concern is not with theoretical models, but with making people act better. That is, if you can fix the environment, you can fix people.”