Science in Christian Perspective



The Behaviorist Bandwagon and 
the Body of Christ
I. What Is Behaviorism?
Department of Psychology
York University
Toronto, Canada

From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 3-8.
This is the first of a three-part series on behaviorism from a Christian perspective.

To all appearances, they were simply an attractive and successful young couple: middle class, professional, and upwardly mobile. I had met them during a summer conference for Christian graduates, and discovered that from a liberal-church background, they had recently come into a more deeply biblical faith which they hoped the conference would expand and enrich. But further conversation revealed a complication in their lives which bid fair to ruin their marriage and shatter their young faith: they were the parents of an autistic child who was slowly driving them both (but especially the wife, who was his primary caretaker) to despair. After meeting four-year-old Billy, it was easy to sec why. Despite that preliminary impression of haunting, almost other-worldly beauty which so many autistic children seem to emanate, he had never learned to talk, and showed virtually no signs of social attachment to-or even real awareness of-his parents or anyone else. His failure to develop communication skills was ironically more than made tip for by a physical dexterity which could empty drawers of their contents in seconds flat, tear up a shelf full of books page by page, pick locks, divest Billy of all his clothes dozens of times each day, or take him ten blocks away from home the moment his mother lapsed from a state of constant vigilance over his every move. His mother was becoming weary and desperate, and his father, finding it harder and harder to deal supportively with her, was beginning to withdraw into an unhealthy over-preoccupation with his job. A month later, when I stayed at their home during a professional conference I was attending in their city, the family situation seemed on the verge of collapse because of the child, for whom they could find no place in any existing scheme for exceptional children.

The situation seemed bleak indeed-yet in our next exchange of correspondence a few months later, a
totally new note was being sounded: Billy had been accepted into a behavior modification program, and within weeks had begun to talk, to show other signs of social awareness, and desist from his bizarre behavior. His mother, progressively released from the tyranny of the child's former behavior, was full of hope, and the marriage relationship was improving steadily. The behavior modification program, she said, had been an answer to their prayers, and for the first time in years, life was worth living again.

Basic Definitions

What is behavior modification all about, and why should thinking Christians he concerned to understand it? Therapies for so-called disturbed people come and go; they all seem to work sometimes for some people, but no single one has emerged as a cure-all. Behavior modification might be just one more such tool ill the therapist's hag of tricks were it not for a couple of other considerations: on the applied level, over the past ten years or so, it has had an impressive record of bringing back to some semblance of normality certain categories of people who had long since been abandoned (after the failure of more traditional therapies) to a life of minimal custodial care. These have included not only autistic children like Billy, but hack ward schizophrenics, retardates, and certain other types of emotionally or socially disturbed persons.1 On the theoretical level, the techniques of behavior modification are undergirded by a philosophy of man and the world which has attracted both ardent disciples and hostile critics. On both levels-the theoretical and the applied-there are far-reaching implications of which Christians need to be aware.

The term 'behaviorism" (from which the clinical techniques of behavior modification originally derive) needs to be understood on three different levels: there is first of all what I will call ontological behaviorism set of faith-assumptions about the nature of human beings, and about the way they ought to he studied by psychology. Secondly, there is methodological behaviorism2-a "model" which directs much laboratory research on human and animal learning, and which may or may not presuppose ontological behaviorism, depending on the researcher. Thirdly, there is applied behaviorism, which includes techniques of behavior modification and behavior analysis and which, in turn, may have a very tight or a very loose relationship to ontological behaviorism and methodological behaviorism depending on the practitioner. To evaluate the behaviorist movement in psychology in terms of a Christian worldview, we need to know what each of these three levels comprises.

The term Behaviorism came into use in the early 1900's when many academic psychologists, anxious to sever their historic ties with philosophy and to establish psychology as a discipline amenable to the scientific method, declared that it was both possible and desirable to develop a "science of man" which made no reference to what went on inside man's head, but rather concentrated exclusively on his externally-observable behavior. Behavior (usually defined quite simply as the movement of muscles and the functioning of bodily organs) could, after all, he reliably observed and measured by the researcher, whereas one could, they claimed, only theorize and argue endlessly about the nature of internal mental phenomena such as anxiety, love, hope, hostility, and the many other processes which the ordinary man on the street would naively expect to make up the subject matter of psychology.

The early behaviorists thus took it as their assumption that man could be studied in the same way the Newtonian physicist studied force and matter, or the biologist studied plants and animals: neither the physicist nor the biologist works on the assumption that the rock or the tree has internal feelings or mental processes which may account for their activities; only animistic, pre-scientific man thinks about rocks and trees in such ways, said the behaviorists. Rather, the scientist sees the rock or the tree as being essentially a passive reactor to the physical and chemical events of the environment, and the business of science as the establishment of clear relationships between environmental causes on the one hand, and their subsequent effects on matter, animal tissue, plant organs, or whatever. Indeed, science (and its offspring technology) began to make headway in the 16th century only inasmuch as it did consistently regard its subject-matter or this impersonal and objective way. The time had come, said the behaviorists, to study the behavior of man and animals in the same way, abandoning speculative pre-scientific notions about mental events which could not he seen or measured, arid concentrating rather on experiments which revealed lawful relationships between measurable environmental causes (or "stimuli") on the one hand, and the organism's measurable, external behavior (or "responses") on the other. In this way, it was claimed, behavior could ultimately be understood, predicted, and controlled with the same mastery now displayed by the physicist over his lump of matter, or the biologist over his piece of animal tissue.3 Hence, this extreme form of early behaviorism implied in the first place a mechanistic or "deterministic" view of man: man passively acted upon by his external environment rather than freely acting on it.

Secondly, it implied that human beings were devoid of any relevant, internal mental processes (such as free will, imagination, feelings, motives, or purposes) which might need to be studied over and above their externally-observable behavior in order to have a complete picture of what it means to he human.
Thirdly, extreme ontological behaviorism assumed that man was part and parcel of a totally materialistic universe-that is, a universe in which even man's apparent capacity to think, create, and make moral choices was reducible to the physical and chemical activity of the brain, leaving no place for any phenomena of a non-physical, mental or spiritual nature.

It must quickly be pointed out that this extreme form of behaviorism was progressively qualified in psychological circles (following J. B. Watson's original statement of it in 1913.4 Nevertheless, its "deterministic," "mental process-less," and "materialistic" flavor has dominated North American psychology-both academic and applied-ever since.

Methodological Behaviorism

Deterministic views of man-i.e., the notion that man is passively shaped by his environment and that as a consequence "free will" is an illusion-stretch back much further in the history of ideas than the advent of behavioristic psychology early in this century.3 What made the behaviorist notion unique was (as we have just outlined) its combined emphasis on determinism, "mental processlessness," and materialism in its view of man. In addition (and perhaps more importantly), behaviorists proposed to take their view of man into the research laboratory and test it out experimentally. In those areas of psychological research leading to the practices of behavior modification, this has led to two major streams of research known as respondent conditioning and operant conditioning. Some behaviorists indeed took their view of man into the laboratory apparently convinced in advance that the research results would progressively confirm him to be a mechanical being, whose behavior is determined almost, if not totally, by the present shape of his environment and not at all by any relevant, mental or spiritual processes. Such researchers were what we might call "hard" ontological behaviorists. Other researchers, equally committed to the same experimental methods, did not assume the underlying view of man suggested by ontological behaviorism. Rather, they merely concluded that the most convenient and fruitful way to study man's behavior was to do laboratory studies as if man were a mechanical being totally at the mercy of his present environment. It is this latter position, saying "let's suppose just for the purposes of organized research that man is in some respects like a machine," which we will designate "methodological behaviorism."

The adherence to methodological behaviorism in laboratory experimentation led, as we have just mentioned, to two major research foci: the first was respondent conditioning, which deals with those behavioral responses for which human beings appear to be pre-wired (reflexes such as heart-beat, pupil dilation, respiration, eye-blinking, sweating, and so forth); the other was the operant conditioning of non-reflexive, muscular movements which we ordinarily think of as "voluntary" (such as picking up an object, putting food into our mouths, walking to the store, and so on). The applied techniques of behavior modification later drew from loth these research traditions.

Respondent Conditioning

In the area of respondent conditioning, the classic experiments (as every introductory psychology student knows) were done by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, who demonstrated with dogs that the "unconditioned" (that is, "built-in") response of salivation following the placement of meat-powder in the mouth could become "conditioned" to a stimulus (such as the ringing of a bell) which originally had no power to elicit salivation at all, provided that the hell was first paired for several trials with the original meat-powder, which could later he withdrawn. Pavlov, of course, went m to demonstrate that the situation was more complicated than this: the dog who has learned to salivate to the sound of a bell will not do so indefinitely if he is never given meat-powder again-his salivation response will "extinguish". Further, if he has learned to salivate to the tone of middle-C, for instance, his salivation will usually "generalize" somewhat to B and to B-flat, or to C-sharp and D in direct proportion as those tones are like the original. However, we can get the dog to "generalize" his response lessthat is, to make it more "discriminating"-by making sure, during the training period when hell and powder are presented together, that he is always given meat-powder with the middle-C tone, but never to any other tone, no matter how close to middle-C. Research in respondent conditioning has undergone many sophisticated refinements since these early experiments, but the above description suffices to give the reader a general idea of its approach to the study of learned behavior,

Operant Conditioning

The second stream of laboratory research contributing to the behavior modification movement is that of operant conditioning, in which we are not dealing with an environmental stimulus (such as a bell, or meat-powder) which precedes and "pushes out", or elicits, a reflex response, such as salivation or fear rather we are taking advantage of spontaneously emitted motor responses and "shaping" them in the way we want them to go by rewarding them immediately after they occur.

In the classic experiments of this research tradition, B. F. Skinner used hungry pigeons placed in what is now universally known as the Skinner box, an apparatus in which, to get hits of food, the animal has to learn to peek at a plastic disc, which then automatically releases a bit of grain into a trough. The animal's disc-pecking behavior is shaped by "reinforcing" with food first its mere proximity to the disc, then a little later, proximity plus raising its head toward the disc, and finally only actual pokes with its beak at the disc itself. Again, the animal's behavior is assumed to he totally determined by the environmental conditions in its internal environment, the pigeon is hungry; in the external environment, the experimenter has set certain conditions which the pigeon must meet with its behavior in order to eat-and eventually, it does. The situation can be complicated by requiring the pigeon to peck not once, but perhaps ten times for

Can the researcher assume that all behavior is determined, and proceed to establish universal laws about the causes of any and all behavior, including such things as moral actions, aesthetic preferences, and religious activity?

every piece of grain, in which case it will peck harder and faster to reach the imposed quota. Or we might reinforce the pigeon with grain on an erratic schedule -after random, unpatterned numbers of peeks, in which ease the animal will continue his pecking behavior indefinitely, even after the grain-reward has been permanently withdrawn. We can also build in what are known as "secondary reinforcers": if the pigeon's pecking yields grain only when a red light is on in the Skinner box, the animal will learn to work to get the red light (the secondary reinforcer) to turn on so that he can then peck successfully for food.

Human Conditioning

Early research in both respondent and operant conditioning was conducted entirely on animals. But it was not long before laboratory experiments were being conducted which seemed to show similar conditioning propensities in human beings.

As an example of respondent conditioning in human beings, a puff of air to the eyeball reflexly causes a person to blink; if the puff of air is preceded often enough by, say, a hell or a flash of light, eventually the "conditioned stimulus" of bell or light will be enough, by itself, to elicit the eye-blink response. In a more practical example, a toddler touching a hot stove will very quickly and very reflexly withdraw his hand. Thereafter, the mere sight of the stove (previously neutral, or even attractive to the child) will act as a "conditioned stimulus" to produce a "stay-away response."

Operant conditioning could also be reliably demonstrated in human beings. For instance, a child before a set of colored buttons in the laboratory may be required to learn that pushing the "blue button" will yield him the "reward", or "positive reinforcement" of a marble. Although the child may start out playing with all the buttons in a more or less random fashion, once he has discovered that "pushing the blue button" yields a marble, he is more apt to focus his buttonpushing "responses" on the particular "stimulus" of the blue button to the exclusion of the others. Or, in a more everyday example, the child learning to talk will make all kinds of unstructured babbling sounds-but gradually, as his parents use praise and encouragement to "positively reinforce" those sounds which approximate real words, the child begins to use such real-word approximations more and more to the exclusion of nonword babblings.

In all of this, the question again naturally arises: is the animal or person in a respondent or operant conditioning situation a totally passive organism, simply reacting to the conditions set up by the experimenter, unable to "think about," or "choose" his responses? Is lie reacting as passively and thoughtlessly to externally
imposed, present conditions as two chemicals react to the manipulations of the chemist? And if he is, can the researcher then assume that all behavior-both human and non-human-is so determined, and proceed to establish, through further experimental research, universal "laws" about the causes of any and all behavior, including such things as moral actions, aesthetic preferences, and religious activity?

Psychologists engaged in such research differ in their responses to this question-but as methodological behaviorists they are generally all agreed on one issue, namely, that whether or not mental processes such as "free will" and "reflection" exist in man, animals, or both, the most fruitful and "scientific" way to study behavior is to proceed as if such processes did not exist. That is, the laboratory researcher should assume, for the purposes of his research that the organism whose behavior he is studying is totally at the mercy of the environmental manipulations imposed on it, and that, furthermore, one can come up with an adequate psychological description of him by concentrating only what one can see and measure the organism doing externally, with no need to infer any "mental events" going on inside its head. This way, one can set about establishing "S-R" (stimulus-response) laws-laws about which environmental stimuli systematically and reliably produce which behavioral responses. Research psychologists may or may not transfer these assumptions to themselves as behaving organisms. Indeed, most probably do not, but rather credit themselves with both free will and other creative mental processes which they routinely use. Nevertheless, they continue to research the behavior of other people and of animals according to the assumptions of methodological behaviorism because they are convinced that this is the approach which will yield the most useful results, both for psychological theory and clinical practice.

Applied Behaviorism

We have just sketchily outlined the behaviorist laboratory research approaches of respondent and operant conditioning. How are such research orientations then applied to practical human behavior problems such as you and I might conceivably encounter?

On the applied level, the behavior modifier (or behavior therapist) transfers Pavlovian assumptions and techniques of respondent conditioning to human beings particularly in the treatment of maladaptive phobias. A person who has a pathological fear of dogs, for instance, is presumed to have picked up the reflex, emotional reactions which (to the behaviorist) are the essence of fear (increased heart-rate, sweating, pupillary dilation, butterflies in the stomach) in the same way Pavlov's dog picked up his habit of salivating to the sound of a hell. The sight of a furry dog to a child is usually neutral, if not positive-but if traumatically paired with the pain of a bite (which reflexly elicits crying), the sight of a dog may become a conditioned elicitor of the fear response, which never extinguishes because the child never allows himself to get close enough to a (log again to discover that not all dogs bite, and, indeed, that sonic are quite pleasant to be with.

To reverse this state of affairs, the behavior therapist uses processes known as "systematic desensitization" and "counter conditioning": the phobic client is first taught (sometimes with the help of drugs) to relax deeply and peacefully in the therapist's office. Once this has been accomplished, "dog-images" are very gradually introduced, beginning with small, innocuous, far-away dog-photos and eventually working up to slides and movies in living color, and then to actual, unchained dogs right in the office. At no point does the therapist move on in the "stimulus hierarchy" of dogs before the client is able to maintain a state of complete relaxation in the presence of a less-threatening dog-image. What the therapist is doing is teaching the client to learn a new response (relaxation) to an old stimulus (the sight of dogs), and it is assumed that the acquisition of both the original fear and the new relaxation has been as automatic and lawful a response to engineered environmental conditions as what went on in Pavlov's laboratory. The behavior modifier is merely the specialist who has acquired a detailed knowledge of these "laws of behavior" and is fairly reliably able to analyze and change behavior as a result of their application.

Many behaviorists are fond of pointing out that the success rate of such treatment procedures of neurotic phobias is an impressive 90%, in contrast to the older methods of psychodynamic therapy, whose rate of remission (an embarrassing study in the 1959's records) is no higher than that of untreated neurotics who get well spontaneously.6 Furthermore, it can all be done with essentially no reference to the patient's personal history, subjective feelings, or internal mental processes such as thinking and choosing: whether these things exist or not, many behaviorists claim that a science of behavior (normal and abnormal) is possible-and desirable purely on the basis of externally-observed behavioral responses to presently-manipulated environmental stimuli.
Practical applications of research in operant conditioning began to attract much attention in the 1960's, when an entire mental hospital ward of apparently hopelessly-regressed patients was turned, as it were, into a gigantic Skinner box situation. Rather than being humored in their bizzare behavior, patients were gently but firmly required to begin approximating socially acceptable activities. For a severely disturbed patient, this might mean something as basic as learning to use the toilet in return for meals. For a less-regressed patient, it might mean spending time reading the newspaper in return for a much desired cigarette or candy bar. In both cases, the behavior required is simple and undemanding at first, but gradually more and more is required for the same amount of reinforcement, analogous to the pigeon's being reinforced only once every ten pecks, or only randomly. In this way, the socially desired behavior, which begins by needing continuous reinforcement to keep it going, eventually becomes such a well-ingrained habit that it needs only occasional reinforcement. (This is undoubtedly the kind of programme in which young Billy, the autistic child described earlier, ended up).
Likewise, the principle of secondary reinforcement was borrowed from the Skinner laboratory: patients who might first of all work only for actual food or other goodies soon learned to work for plastic poker chips, which could then he turned in for a variety of primary reinforcers ranging from cigarettes to yard privileges. Again, the results seemed amazing: patients for whom traditional talk-and-insight therapies had long since been abandoned, many of whom had spent years in a zombie-like state on the back wards, were learning how to talk again, how to socialize, and even hold down jobs simply through judicious manipulation of the present environment, with no appeal made to personal insight, choice, or will-power, and no reference to past personal history.

From experimental work in laboratories and selected institutions, behavior modification programs based on such operant conditioning have now spread to classrooms, kitchens, rehabilitation wards, prisons, churches, reform schools, nursing homes, day-care centers, factories, movie theatres, national parks, community mental health centers, stores-and just about any environment one might care to name. The programs, riding high on their apparent initial successes, are heavily funded by governments at all levels, and staffed by efficiently trained experts in "behaviorese" who often appear confident that, with enough time and latitude, whole cities (perhaps even the world?) could be turned into one gigantic Skinner Box. By the planned use of positive reinforcement, disadvantaged children have learned to read, delinquent boys have begun engaging in productive work, parents have eliminated children's untidiness, factory workers have increased productivity, public facilities have brought littering under control. These are only a few of the areas in which behavior modifiers have found ready consumers for their product, and there is no indication that the buying trend is about to stop.7

Let it he pointed out, however, that just as the methodological behaviorist may or may not intrinsically hei eve in the mechanistic, mental process-less model of man after which he patterns his laboratory experiments, so the behavior modifier working in the applied setting does not have to regard human beings as total robots in order to practice his trade. Indeed, most behavior modifiers, being primarily oriented towards using whatever method works for a given client, usually have no qualms about adapting techniques from psychological traditions other than behaviorism where the prohhem at hand appears to demand them.8 Furthermore, many behavior modifiers may not even concern themselves much about the image of man that is presupposed by ontological behaviorism. While such a vagueness of connection between belief and practice may seem strange to most Christians (who presumably labor to make their whole lives consonant with their biblical view of reality), it is by no means an uncommon phenomenon among contemporary North American psychologists, must of whom have been trained to believe that there is no intrinsic connection between one's metaphysical world-view and the way one practices science. At any rate, it does not appear to be usual for most contemporary practitioners of behavior modification to adhere very strictly to the mechanistic, historic mental process-less view of mao set forth by ontological behaviorism.9

B. F. Skinner

However, ill a world where traditional belief-systems have largely been abandoned, leaving contemporary man in ii spiritual vacuum which cries out to he filled, a

The combined effect of Skinner's behaviorist treatise and the early success of applied behavior modification has been to unloose a burst of Utopian enthusiasm on the part of some, and a storm of criticism on the part of others.

single articulate and authoritative spokesman for a particular worldview will often have a disproportionately great impact on the thinking and the policy-decisions of his day. Such a person is B. F. Skinner, the chief protagonist for ontological behaviorism and the pioneer of operant conditioning, who has devoted much of his extra-laboratory work life to articulating and defending a strictly behavioristic view of man. In the '40's, he wrote the novel Walden 10,his portrait view of the behaviorist Utopia in which everyone was naturally and effortlessly good simply because the environment had been successfully designed to reward them for nothing but good behavior. In the early '70's, his Beyond Freedom and Dignity11 stated in even more unequivocal terms what the essence of man must be, given the findings of Skinnerian-type research: If, as Skinner concludes from behaviorist (and especially operant conditioning) research, roan can he shown to be totally controlled (apart from a few inborn reflexes) by the reinforcing events of his environment, then human freedom is a myth; indeed, we mistakenly assume that a person has done something "freely" when we have merely failed to discern what environmental pressure "made" him do what he did. Likewise, the "dignity" of man is also mythical: we praise a person for his accomplishments, but again simply because we have not isolated the environmental circumstances or reinforcers to which the real credit is due. To Skinner, it is the lamentable tenacity of these myths of human freedom and dignity which keeps the totally-planned, Walden II-type society from becoming a reality. If only we would look to the environment, (rather than to illusory notions of human freedom and accountability) and set it up in such a way that desirable behavior would always he reinforced, and undesirable behavior never reinforced, then we would be well on our way to heaven on earth.

The combined effect of Skinner's behaviorist treatise and the early success of applied behavior modification has been to unloose a burst of Utopian enthusiasm on the part of some, and a storm of criticism on the part of others.12 Having dealt with the (undeniably solid) research foundations of respondent and operant conditioning and the (undeniably effective) applications of behavior modification to certain types of behavior problems is, we will he concerned ill the later portions of this paper to deal with some of the criticisms leveled against the whole enterprise. Some of these criticisms are theoretical, others practical, others mural. We will deal not only with some of the more common criticisms submitted by the science and humanities communities at large, but also attempt to comment both on the behaviorist model and these criticisms of it from a Christian perspective.


1 For representative collections of articles on the growing use of behavior modification techniques, see Rubin, R.D., Fensterheim, H., Lazarus, A.A. and Franks, C.M. (Eds.) Advances in Behavior Therapy (New York; Academic Press, 1971) or Uliman, L. P. and Krasner, L. (Eds.) Case Studies in Behavior Modification (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965)
2See Meehi, P. What, Then, Is Man? (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958) Chapter 3, for an elaboration of this term.
3See Watson, J. B. 'Psychology as the behaviorist views It" Psychological Review, 1913, 20, 158-177.
4For a comprehensive review of the changing face of behaviorism, see Koch, S. 'Epilogue" in Psychology: A Study of a Science, Vol. III, pp. 729-788. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
6Evsenck, H. J. The effects of psychotherapy in H. J. Eysenck (Ed.) Handbook of Abnormal Psychology. New York: Basic Books, 1961.
7Goodall, K. Shapers at work. Psychology Today, 1912, 53ff.
8 See Five years of the Twin Oaks Community. New York: Wrn. B. Morrow, 1973 for examples of very unbehavioristic, humanistic psychology techniques used in a setting which purports to hold to strict ontological behaviorism!
91n the case of behaviorism and its adherents, this theory-practice schizophrenia may he a blessing in disguise, since a consistent adherence in practice to ontological behaviorism might long since have resulted in the Orwellian, 1984 type of society which many critics of behaviorism fear.
10Skinner, B. F. Walden II. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1948 (Note: page citations in this article are from the 1968 paperback edition)
11Skinner, B. F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971.
12See particularly Chomsky, N.: Psychology and Ideology, in For Reasons of State. New York: Random House, 1970; Koestler, A. The Ghost in the Machine. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1967; Wheeler, H. (Ed.) Beyond the Punitive Society. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1973.