Radical Behaviorism and Complex Human Behavior

Some of the facts of human experience include talking, thinking, seeing, problem solving, conceptualizing, and creating new ideas and things. A common point of view holds that behaviorism either rejects or neglects these aspects of human experience. However, a fuller reading of Skinner's works reveals that he offered a serious examination of these topics and demonstrated that behavioral principles could account for their presence in the repertoire of human behavior.

For example, Skinner's examination of verbal behavior resulted in Verbal Behavior (1957). In this book, he showed that behavioral principles were capable of explaining the acquisition and continuation of behaviors such as talking, reading, and thinking. Basic processes such as imitation, reinforcement, shaping, and stimulus control were all shown to have likely roles in the various aspects of verbal behavior.

Behaviorism's analysis of verbal behavior is directly related to the more complex forms of human behavior, often referred to as higher mental processes. For example, radical behaviorism views thinking as an activity derived from talking out loud. Parents and teachers encourage children to talk to themselves, initially by encouraging whispering, then moving the lips as in speaking but without making sounds. What results, then, is talking privately, "in our own heads." In a similar fashion, a parent asks a child to "think before you act" and a teacher asks learners to "think through" the solution to a problem in mathematics or ethics. The social environment thus encourages people to think, often shows them how to do so, and then reinforces them for doing so when the overt results of their thinking are praised or given high scores.

More complex behavior-environment relationships such as those found in concept formation have also been analyzed in terms of the principles of behaviorism. The term "concept" is defined as a characteristic that is common to a number of objects that are otherwise different from one another.

People are said to have concepts in their heads which produce the behaviors they observe. A radical behavioral analysis, however, views concepts as the appropriate response to the common characteristic. The appropriate response has been reinforced only when it occurs in the presence of the specific characteristic. For example, a child is said to understand the concept of "red" when the child reliably says "red" in response to the question "What color are these objects?" in the presence of a red hat, red fire truck, red tomato, and red crayon.

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