The First Behaviorist

The year was 1913. John B. Watson published an article entitled Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, which would influence the future of psychological research. I must have seen this article referenced in at least 20 readings through my undergraduate and graduate education, but something was different this time. I was brushing up on my applied behavior analysis (ABA) history for a section in a paper I was editing, when I came across the reference again. This time, though, I felt a desire to read the article itself.

Immediately, I wondered, could I understand an article that had been written over 100 years ago? Could I even relate to the writer and its message? This was 1913, after all. The first world war had not even occurred. There were no income taxes, no central bank, and women still did not have the right to vote. Band-aids and bread slicers had yet to be invented (seriously). Forget the internet, imagine having to slice your own bread. Reading an article this old would undoubtedly be a challenge, but I decided it was important enough to give it a shot. The opening lines immediately sets the tone for the remaining six pages of Watson’s article and the following decades of psychological research:

“Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.”

Its easy to take for granted the points Watson makes throughout the article given everything we now know about behavior and the different types of biological processes. Watson made some key points:

  1. Psychology is not the study of consciousness but should be the study of observable and natural behavioral phenomenon.
  2. Experiments and studies with animals were connected and related to human behavior, even if we did not yet understand how.
  3. Removing states of consciousness from the field of investigation in psychology would be equivalent to removing a barrier
  4. In order for psychology to advance as a field, it would have to focus on a few essential problems that existed (back then) and this would lead to better ways to talk about behavior, as well as refined methods.

These basic premises seem obvious today. Surely, something has changed since 1913. We rarely see studies of consciousness or dichotomous arguments of nature and nurture. Few, if any, would argue that animals and humans have little in common. Many scientists focus on observable phenomenon. There are always exceptions. But what makes us different?

A Behaviorist will often target behaviors across species

What makes us a behaviorist and not other people?

For some time, I found myself judging others by whether or not they were board certified by the behavior analyst certification board. Sometimes, even today, I question how good someone is at modifying behavior if they’re not board certified. However, I have changed that way of thinking pretty significantly. I have seen way too many examples of people modifying behavior effectively, with and without formal training.

If you think about all the different industries that exist, they are all related in some way to modifying behavior. Marketing and sales are devoted to getting you to buy something. Technology companies are devoted to getting you to interact, work, or accomplish things in new ways. Social media changes the way we stay in touch with friends and family. E-commerce websites change the way we come into contact with reinforcers. Its all behavior. Its all shaping.

Many of these industries develop their own language and terminology, although different from behavior analytic language, it can often be effective at producing behavior change. This is especially true for specifically targeted behaviors such as buying something or using a tool. This raises an important question:

Is it fair to call someone a behaviorist because they modify behavior and have a verbal repertoire to do so?

I don’t believe so. Perhaps the best definition of what a behaviorist is today, should fall back on behavior. What does a behaviorist do? Here is a list of things I believe a behaviorist does:

1. Agrees with Watson’s (1913) original points about psychology.
2. Can analyze behavioral contingencies to determine target behavior functions.
3. Can shape a large variety of target behaviors.
4. Can teach others to do 1-3 through verbal behavior and behavioral technology.

My third criteria is probably the toughest to meet. Many behavioral professionals modify behavior under very narrow conditions. In my humble opinion, a true behaviorist strives for generalization.

The fourth part is especially important. If we can’t teach others to do what we do, we aren’t behaviorists. Learning has always been central to behaviorism. Why then are many behaviorist struggling to disseminate behavior analysis outside of the developmental disabilities field? Even within the developmental disabilities field, many behavior professionals struggle to train parents, staff, and other professionals. Perhaps we should be trying harder to generalize.

Today, technology is changing everything. Now more than ever, behaviorists can control and shape environments. (1) Learning environments, (2) shopping environments, (3) socializing environments, and (4) creative environments are moving towards the digital space. This space is ripe for behaviorists. One thing is certain:

We must go where the behavior is.

How do you define a behaviorist?