The Causes of Behavior

For Skinner, the causes of behavior lie in humans' genetic endowment and the environment in which they live. The specific ways in which the environment causes behavior can be seen in the experimentally derived principles noted previously.

Skinner's approach differs sharply from most psychological theories that put the causes of behavior inside the person. Skinner believed that these internal causes were either not scientific explanations but actually behaviors themselves in need of explanation or were explanations taken from disciplines other than psychology.

Skinner regarded the "mind" as an unscientific explanation because of its status as an inference from the behavior that it was supposed to explain. While psychological theory has, since the 1970's, redefined the "mind" in two broad ways, Skinner noted that the redefining did not solve the problems posed by the requirements of science. On one hand, mental processes have become cognitive processes, a metaphor based on computer operations. Humans are said to "process" information by "encoding, decoding, storing, and retrieving" information. However, all these hypothesized activities remain inferences from the behavior that they are said to explain. There is no independent observation of these hypothetical activities.

On the other hand, the mind has been translated to mean the brain, which can be studied scientifically. Thus, the physiology of the brain is thought to explain behavior. Neither Skinner nor other radical behaviorists deny the role of the brain in a complete understanding of behavior. However, psychology and brain physiology look for the causes of behavior at different levels of observation. Psychology is viewed as a separate discipline with its own methods of scientific investigation leading to the discovery of distinct psychological explanations for behavior. In addition, research results suggest that rather than brain physiology explaining behavior, changes in the brain and changes in behavior appear to result from changes in the environment. Changes in behavior are correlated with changes in the brain, but changes at both levels appear to be the result of the environment.

Thoughts and feelings are also considered to be causes of behavior. One thinks about talking with a friend and then goes to the telephone and dials the friend's number. These two people talk together on the telephone regularly because they feel affection for each other. The "thinking" or "feeling" referred to as causes for the actions involved in dialing the telephone and talking with each other are themselves viewed as responses in need of explanation. What gave rise to thinking in early development, and what now makes thoughts of this particular friend so strong? How have feelings of affection become associated with this friend? From the radical behaviorist perspective, both the thoughts and the feeling are explained by the principles of operant or classical conditioning.

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Breaking Bulimia

Breaking Bulimia

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