Thoughts on Behaviorism

behaviorismAs a organizational counselor and social scientist of sorts, I enjoy great conversation and email threads from students, colleagues, and clients alike. A recent email prompted me to share my thoughts on companies that look at behaviorism as a mechanism for productivity…. much to my sadness.

Why I can speak (somewhat) intelligently about this topic:

  • 3 Masters degrees focused on organizational design, cognitive learning theory, and social psychology
  • Social scientist who does this stuff for a living

Ok. So let’s jump in. Behaviorism was founded by John Watson back in the early 1900s. He essentially believed people can be trained (behavior) regardless of any other variables. Behaviorists basically look only at the observable actions of humans, and discount internal mental considerations. B.F. Skinner was a huge supporter of this.

Over time, this theory has been debunked as we have learned more and more about deep cognitive science and the affects of more than just environment on how people behave, act, and respond.

So, I recently received an email from a student who works for a company looking to hire behaviorists to help them improve productivity… here are two threads, his email to me (removing some sensitive info) and my response:


This might be too difficult/long a question to respond to but I’m wondering if I can tap your knowledge.  As I mentioned previously, our company is partnering with XXX whose chief consultant/owner/leader is XXX.  From his website bio, he was deeply moved by Skinner’s behaviorism which is the foundation for all of his work… What importance, if any, do you see in behaviorism shaping the workplace?  Obviously reinforcement can produce results however upon my educational background and brief research calls into question an adoption of behaviorism in the workplace.  Noam Chomsky was a large critic of Skinner who believed more in transformational rules and wrote a very strongly worded response against Skinner’s application of behaviorism on humans.
There are two analogies that come to mind:
  1. The caterpillar into the butterfly – once changed, it will never go back.  We want negative behaviors to disappear for good, never to return.
  2. A vase of white carnations will turn color if dye is used in the water – there’s no effort on our part other than to ensure the proper environment for natural productive change.  This environment is constant and self-sustaining, least conflicting, and garners the desired response at the same rate across all participants.
I haven’t done this yet but am thinking of raising this as a concern before we dive deeper into this relationship with XXX.
I realize I may have left something out.  Feel free to fire back any questions or point me toward a good resource (book or article) that would help me understand this more.
OOOOOoooooOOooohhhh yeh! I love emails like this. Here’s my response:
Ok, here we go:
– NO NO AND NO. Behaviorism has been debunked time and time again as cognitive science rose into deeper scientific understanding. Behaviorism focuses primarily on the OBSERVABLE things people do. Ok… as a counselor, we never do this. Because if we focus merely on the outside then we can never help the inside issues at stake.
A simple example would be this:
A substance abuser who smokes crack and drinks a lot.
A behavioralist would say, “That’s bad. Stop doing that, Let’s make sure we change your environment (move you out of your house with negative triggers), and have you stop associating with people who do that.”
A cognitive scientist (or counselor for that matter) would say, “That’s bad. Stop doing that. Let’s look at the inner workings of how not only environment affects your behavior, but whether there may be imbalances to your brain and other stimuli. We need to better understand the whole in order to help you change….(like if you were abused at a child, you were molested, or if you have substance abuse genetic traits in your families gene pool, or have PTSD, or I mean. shit, I could go on and on)…”
A behavioralist looks at issues from a one-view vantage point (maybe unfair, but this is the basis of their tenants). This, in my opinion is very dangerous. You could end up giving people improper advice or even hurtful advise based on YOUR (the observer) cognitive and behavioral bias AND limited understanding of the WHOLE system!
Your analogies:
1 – Negative behavioral patterns go away, never return? Ugh, really? This is rediculous. So myopic! Culture trancends behavior. For example. I’ve lived in India, Korea, and Japan. I have to CHANGE my behavior patterns based on cultural nuances so I can get stuff done! If I put on my hard-ass american communication style, I will NOT be affective. To consider a behavioral pattern negative is near-sighted and ignorant. Behavior MUST change based on context. We do this, btw, all the time (i.e. you act differently around your mother in law than you do your mom).
2 – Really? We just change the environment? If that works, then shit, I just need to change all my clients walls from gray to greens and blues because those colors make me feel better about my work, therefore I’ll do better work. Crap. The great assumption in this statement is that all people react the same to environmental changes…. assuming we’re all programmable the same way as each other… . Right. Until we move to the clone wars in Star Wars, we’ll never be the same. Culture/people groups/individuals will always be divergent, different, and variable. We must endeavor to understand the whole (as much as we can) if we want to improve things.
I once heard (from colleagues years ago) a funny quote about behavioralists… something like the following: “A behavioralist is merely a politician, who looks at general patterns in people and applies those patterns to the whole, unknowingly fucking everyone up when things invariably change.”
The lesson for today? In my opinion, don’t spend money on this phoney baloney. It’s voodoo magic that is potentially harmful. 

2 Replies to “Thoughts on Behaviorism”

  1. I couldn’t agree more! I remember the behavioral vision portrayed in a 1972 Time magazine. It was distressing to think that the most complex thinking organ in the world was that easily fooled.

    Behaviorism is pseudo science. Nothing changed using these techniques remains changed. A year or so later Time published a tiny story how it did not work.


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