Rise and Fall of Behaviorism

Behaviorists legacy

Focus: study of simple learning in animals (thought was the key process to understand in psychology is learning. Learning in humans is complex, learning in lesser animals might make observing learning process easier, it should scale up, what animals do humans will do as well)

Classical and operant conditioning

Experimental rigor and control established

Downside of Behaviorism

The study of cognitive processes almost ceased to exist (in America, anyways). Europeans were much more tied to the philosophical roots.

Decline of Behaviorism

Behaviorism had trouble explaining certain things (every approach has problems explaining certain things, however the things behaviorism can’t explain are important to people):

(1) man-machine interface

research during WWII on ergonomics (designing machines to be used efficiently by humans), during research they found that expectations and beliefs were shown to influence behavior (expectations and beliefs were in the black box or mind)

Example: Radar operator during WWII. You begin seeing blips on screen. Radar is not specific. Could be birds or something else. Operators at Pearl Harbor saw waves and waves of blips coming to Pearl Harbor and assumed they were American planes. Who else could they be but American planes. They expected them to be Americans.

After WWII american psychologists began arguing for the study of cognition.

(2) Debate over language

1950’s in American psychology – many psychologists felt language was final frontier. Language is only in humans. Skinner claimed that children learn language, through conditioning, as responses to particular stimuli. Nothing special about language. It’s extremely complex and animals don’t have it but at it’s core, it is the same as all other learning. It is shaped by environment (when parents think the kid says dada or mama). Published book in the mid 50’s. Sounds very reasonable. It doesn’t explain everything when kids are learning languages.

Skinner’s book was critiqued by a linguist by the name of Noam Chomsky. He claimed children possess innate faculties that assist them in learning language. This claim is quite controversial. The problem here is the evidence is hard to get at. But Chomsky said that when looking at language acquisition it is hard to explain with Skinner’s theory. Example would be irregular plurals. Not all words require you just add s. Kids learn the word foot early on in life. When they try to acquire plural, you get interesting results. Initially they learn correct plural. Later in life they begin saying foots. They key is that kids are not getting “Foots” from adults. It’s not a stimulus input. They are coming up with it all on their own. This is an over generalization on the part of the kids.

(3) New ways of thinking about knowledge

mid 1950’s digital computers were able to represent and process information. Information processing– information is processed through a sequence of stages, and each stage is performing a specified kind of processing. It was developed by computer scientists. It’s not just computers and their programs using information processing. People do as well. Suggests there is a deep correspondence between how a computer processes information and how the human mind work. It was a new analogue to look at human info processing.

The computer metaphor: we now have a way of thinking of cognition without using the black box. Computers can be programmed to “think”, but it doesn’t  involve black box magic. Suggests that it can be represented in others ways than black box. So artificial intelligence can be thought of as an analogy to human cognition.  Pushed far along, the metaphor breaks down quickly.

Minds and Computers

Both are general purpose devices. Pretty rare. Most devices people make are good at one particular thing. Computers can be programmed to serve different purposes. That’s the same way that the human mind works.

Both (may) operate through symbol manipulation.

“Mind” can be thought of as the software running inside the hardware “the brain”.

Computer metaphor was over sold and does not hold up. Behaviorism couldn’t deal with all these challenges.

Related articles

  • Consequences and Skinner (andrewhoff.com)
  • Challenge to Introspection (andrewhoff.com)
  • Classical Conditioning and Behaviorism (andrewhoff.com)
  • Psychology Notes Part 2 (andrewhoff.com)
  • History of Cognition (andrewhoff.com)

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