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Behaviorism

By Gary DeMar
Published April 1, 1989

Behaviorism originated with the work of John B. Watson, an American psychologist. Watson claimed that psychology was not concerned with the mind or with human consciousness. Instead, psychology would be concerned only with behavior. In this way, men could be studied objectively, like rats and apes.

Watson’s work was based on the experiments of Ivan Pavlov, who had studied animals’ responses to conditioning. In Pavlov’s best-known experiment, he rang a bell as he fed some dogs several meals. Each time the dogs heard the bell they knew that a meal was coming, and they would begin to salivate. Pavlov then rang the bell without bringing food, but the dogs still salivated. They had been “conditioned” to salivate at the sound of a bell. Pavlov believed, as Watson was later to emphasize, that humans react to stimuli in the same way.

Behaviorism is associated today with the name of B.F. Skinner, who made his reputation by testing Watson’s theories in the laboratory. Skinner’s studies led him to reject Watson’s almost exclusive emphasis on reflexes and conditioning. People respond to their environment, he argued, but they also operate on the environment to produce certain consequences.

Skinner developed the theory of “operant conditioning,” the idea that we behave the way we do because this kind of behavior has had certain consequences in the past. For example, if your girlfriend gives you a kiss when you give her flowers, you will be likely to give her flowers when you want a kiss. You will be acting in expectation of a certain reward. Like Watson, however, Skinner denied that the mind or feelings play any part in determining behavior. Instead, our experience of reinforcements determines our behavior.

Behaviorism originated in the field of psychology, but it has had a much wider influence. Its concepts and methods are used in education, and many education courses at college are based on the same assumptions about man as behaviorism. Behaviorism has infiltrated sociology, in the form of sociobiology, the belief that moral values are rooted in biology. What are the presuppositions of behaviorism?

1. Behaviorism is naturalistic. This means that the material world is the ultimate reality, and everything can be explained in terms of natural laws. Man has no soul and no mind, only a brain that responds to external stimuli.

2. Behaviorism teaches that man is nothing more than a machine that responds to conditioning. One writer has summarized behaviorism in this way: “The central tenet of behaviorism is that thoughts, feelings, and intentions, mental processes all, do not determine what we do. Our behavior is the product of our conditioning. We are biological machines and do not consciously act; rather we react to stimuli.“1

The idea that men are “biological machines” whose minds do not have any influence on their actions is contrary to the biblical view that man is the very image of God – the image of a creative, planning, thinking God. In fact, Skinner goes so far as to say that the mind and mental processes are “metaphors and fictions” and that “behavior is simply part of the biology of the organism.“2 Skinner also recognizes that his view strips man of his “freedom and dignity,” but insists that man as a spiritual being does not exist.

3. Consistently, behaviorism teaches that we are not responsible for our actions. If we are mere machines, without minds or souls, reacting to stimuli and operating on our environment to attain certain ends, then anything we do is inevitable. Sociobiology, a type of behaviorism, compares man to a computer: Garbage in, garbage out.

This also conflicts with a Christian worldview. Our past experiences and our environment do affect the way we act, of course, but these factors cannot account for everything we do. The Bible teaches that we are basically covenantal creatures, not biological creatures. Our nearest environment is God Himself, and we respond most fundamentally to Him. We respond either in obedience to or rebellion against His Word.

4. Behaviorism is manipulative. It seeks not merely to understand human behavior, but to predict and control it. From his theories, Skinner developed the idea of “shaping.” By controlling rewards and punishments, you can shape the behavior of another person.

As a psychiatrist, one of Skinner’s goals is to shape his patients’ behavior so that he or she will react in more socially acceptable ways. Skinner is quite clear that his theories should be used to guide behavior: “The experimental analysis of behavior has led to an effective technology, applicable to education, psychotherapy, and the design of cultural practices in general, which will be more effective when it is not competing with practices that have had the unwarranted support of mentalistic theories.“3

In other words, Skinner wants behaviorism to be the basis for manipulating patients, students, and whole societies.

The obvious questions, of course, are: Who will use the tools? Who will pull the strings? Who will manipulate the technology? No doubt, Skinner would say that only someone trained in behavioral theory and practice would be qualified to “shape” the behavior of other persons. But this is contrary to the biblical view, which commands us to love our neighbor, not to manipulate him.

In summary, the ethical consequences of behaviorism are great. Man is stripped of his responsibility, freedom, and dignity, and is reduced to a purely biological being, to be “shaped” by those who are able to use the tools of behaviorism effectively.

1 David Cohen, “Behaviorism,” in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Richard L. Gregory, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 71.
2 B.F. Skinner, “Skinner on Behaviorism,” in Ibid., p. 75.
3 Ibid.

Excerpt used from Surviving College Successfully: A Complete Manual for the Rigors of Academic Combat by Gary DeMar, 1988 by Primero Resources, used by permission of Wolgemuth & Hyatt Publishers, Inc. Available from your local Christian bookstore.

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Your comments are welcome!

We would appreciate your view if you put some thurst on the different aspect of behaviourism.

Posted by Amrita Ganguly on 11/08/2008 09:07 PM #

It’s really nice. But you could have included something of Skinner’s experiments, especially the famous one on Rats.

Posted by Jayakrishnan R on 11/28/2008 10:53 AM #

Thanks for this page. I’m doing a presentation on watson and behaviorism and this has really helped me to synthesise my work

Posted by emily on 01/22/2009 03:03 PM #

This was the best help that i have had the whole day. you made it so easy and clear of what i was supposed to know. thank you very much. email me anything about new letters and columns.

Posted by Tahis Bonkabitch on 01/25/2009 05:31 PM #

The Behaviorist worldview certainly stands in opposition to the Christian worldview on many points. Thanks for this page. Back in the 70’s I watched an experiment being conducted using Skinnerian techniques to “modify” the behavior of gay men wherein an increasing shock charge was administered to the subject as he viewed slides of females interspersed with images of males. Any physiological reaction (sexual arousal)to the male images met with a jolt. A strong reaction incurred the force of a cattle prod. To my knowledge, the experiments were unsuccessful. I have known gay men and women who, once they were turely born again, were able to walk out their new lives able to overcome any temptation to return to their former lifestyles.
This may seem shocking to behaviorism! We are not human beings who sometimes have “spiritual” experiences, but rather spiritual beings having human experiences.

Posted by Dave Brooks on 02/08/2009 08:27 AM #

This is a gross misrepresentation of Behaviorism and Skinner’s theory. Your interpretation is biased, and lacking facts. It is unfortunate that other readers are actually using this page in their academic work. I encourage anyone reading this page to look for facts on behaviorism and avoid the opinions of those who do not know what they are writing about.

Posted by Denise on 02/24/2009 04:57 PM #

I agree to a certain extent that we react to rewards. But we are spirit filled and led by our consious to do right if connected to god.

Posted by christina on 03/01/2009 07:37 PM #

I agree with Denise, about the lack of view that you have when you write, is about our nature as humans, besides religions are all about shaping our behaviors for reward.

Posted by Claudio on 04/10/2009 06:55 PM #

we cant talk about human determinism without understanding motivation. Cuz if we cant control our motivation, which causes us to act, we cant control “us”

Posted by ConsciousPuppet on 05/01/2009 03:59 PM #

Your article is a fair discription of behaviorism in all aspects except the reference to Christianity. Obviously you are not a Christian. We are very much cardnal beings in the the eyes of God and do very well suffer consequences from our negative interactions with the environment and nature. Read the story of Adam and Eve. This biblical recall is only the beginning of how humans are “conditioned” as stated by Skinner, to have natural and conscious acts in relationship to our environment. Our religion do not exempt us and so eloquently reminds us.

Posted by Artspassion on 06/12/2009 05:33 PM #

Very informative. I think there is good and bad in every theory and practice. I think environment plays a role in our actions. I believe we also have choices regardless of environment. Let’s all respect each other and that is a start to a better world.

Posted by Tamara on 07/11/2009 08:58 PM #

what a disgusting picture you paint! I know many christians who work in the field as behavior therapists doing behavior modification with children who need our help!! Maybe you should have a little knowledge before you post something like this!!

Posted by behavior therapist on 07/23/2009 09:11 PM #

anyone interesting in skinner’s ideas should read the introduction and summery of his book “about behaviorism” it’s not long and it should help get rid of any rumors about behaviorism you might hear.

Posted by Emily on 09/24/2009 04:12 PM #

Great synthesis. Very concise.The point you bring up that I find very interesting is when you ask “Who will pull the strings?” Well I got news for you, strings have been pulled for a while now, by a group of people that have learned it from the very Master of Manipulation. You know what I’m talking about. The economic crisis, the flu scam, they are all schemes that have been orchestrated by a group, an New World Order, that have been pulling strings for centuries in order to achieve total control of humanity and they dangerously excel at it. The proof is that millions of ignorant are running to vaccinating centers to get this death serum into their veins because they were told by the media (the strings!!!)that they were in danger. Wake up, cut the strings!!!! Before its too late!!

Posted by jobiner_99 on 11/12/2009 05:01 PM #

Wow, someone who can put it in plain English at last. However, I do worry about the Christian Therapist review, were they reading the wrong site or in need of being re-educated in their field. I won’t be asking for their help…..

Posted by Minime on 03/09/2010 07:37 AM #

Gary,
WOW, there are some serious peeps with strong opinions throughout the reviews of your article. I have a BS in Applied Psychology, an MBA and am currently attending University of the Rockies for my PhD in Psychology. Having said that, so what?
I enjoyed your writing style it is succinct, yet detailed enough to get the principles of Behaviorism as it is used today. I have read all the original works and experiments and psychological reviews and honestly they bog me down.
So, to those casting the largest stones, I wonder when they moved out of their glass houses or perhaps their backyard is so pristine, they now know the words of God’s view on your writing. LOL
Cool, well keep up the good work. I plan to use you as one of my sources on my doctoral paper and to heck with those who feel the need to hurdle boulders at your writing.

redd

Posted by Redd on 07/20/2010 06:47 PM #

Kudos Red!
I’m right there with you brother. There’s nothing like a good old fashioned lynching! (Artspassion needs to stop with the hatin!)

Wow, so many opinions, so little space to hold it.
Just a thought…isn’t it time we all just took a deep breath and considered the possiblities of any and all ideas having their place in the world. We are all ‘right’. There is no ‘wrong’. There just IS.

Namaste’

Posted by susan on 09/27/2010 12:36 PM #

Behaviorism dismisses the cognitive connection dogs share with us as it aligns with nature. I am about to release an 18 year study which clearly shows the issues relating to behaviorism and the dog and human dynamic. Within the behaviorist framework the context of dominance is taken out of context. It is part of the science delusion sold “as is” by radical behaviorist. I invite people to check out Cesar Millan’s facebook page – discussion area, to see behaviorism take a beating. What is presented on this page is right on the money.

Posted by Dale McCluskey on 01/31/2011 08:21 AM #

Your comments on behaviourism seem great with respect to adults seeking unfair advantage over others; however, when applied to the training of the child, it is reall helpful. ‘Train up a child…” Of course, the key word is LOVE which is able to make the trainer help his/her subject to perform wonders!

Posted by L Fraser on 05/30/2011 09:14 PM #

I am a student and just learning about the psychological view; however, I’ve been a Christian for 14 years and have studied Christianity thoroughly. It is my belief that one of the major differences between humans and animals aside from the obvious is that animals have instinct. They are born knowing how to birth and nurse their young and knowing how to hunt. They hunt to feed with no regard to whether or not it is wrong to kill because it is their instinct. Man,however was given a Spirit, something animals do not have. The Spirit of God lived in Adam until the fall of Adam. Up until Christ died for us there was no hope of ever having God’s spirit dwell within us again. But when we are baptized, we are baptized for the forgiveness of sins and it is at that point God’s spirit comes to dwell within us. Acts 2:38. That was the reconciliation of God and man. I say all this not to completely disagree with Behaviorism, because I think that our environment does play a role in shaping who we are; however, as a whole mankind searches their whole lives to find what is missing from their lives,and they try to satisfy with money, sex, power, drugs, alcohol….nothing will give them the joy and sense of completeness until they have found a relationship with Jesus. He puts the Spirit back where it belongs, within us. Read the Bible….you cannot explain it away.

Posted by Jennifer Price on 04/07/2012 12:07 PM #

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