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.
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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