Presidential Column

What Happened to Behaviorism

Roddy Roediger

The year 2004 marks the centenary of B. F. Skinner’s birth. I doubt that most members of the American Psychological Society (and even a smaller proportion of all psychologists) will pay much attention. After all, hasn’t behaviorism passed from the scene? Don’t we live in the age of the cognitive revolution, which still roars along and dominates most subfields within psychology? Doesn’t the field of animal learning psychology, the spawning ground of behaviorism, belong to the 1950s, the same era as black and white television, three TV channels, and antennas on the house? Many readers in APS would probably answer yes to all three questions. If this is the right answer – and as you’ll see, I don’t necessarily think it is – then we can ask what happened.

Let’s go back a hundred years when psychology was a new field. The first labs date from 1879 or thereabouts (let’s not revisit this controversy), and in 1904, Skinner’s birth year, the field was struggling to emerge as a science. However, the methods were varied, and the papers in journals were often long on observation and speculation. Careful experimentation was in short supply if not absent altogether. Some papers bordered on murky nonsense. In St. Louis, from where I write, there was a famous World’s Fair in 1904 and an assemblage of many of the greatest scholars of the day, including psychologists, gathered with the aim of providing a state-of-the-art set of lectures on their fields and, of course, to show the field off to its best advantage. Examination of their talks, reports of which were preserved for posterity, permits a capsule summary of the state of the art 100 years ago. I’ll examine these contributions in an upcoming column.

In 1913, nine years after Skinner was born, John B. Watson published his famous paper “Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist” in Psychological Review. It was brief but powerful. Watson said that psychology should rid itself of introspective studies of mental events that were not directly observable – imagery, memory, consciousness, et al. – and study behavior. Watson endorsed the statement of Walter Pillsbury that “psychology is the science of behavior” and went on to say that “I believe we can write a psychology, define it as Pillsbury [did], and never go back on our definition: never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery and the like” (1913, p.116). Heady stuff! To study only behavior! Older psychologists probably judged Watson as somewhat off his rocker, but younger psychologists flocked to him, and his position continued to attract strong adherents over the years. If psychology was to be the science of behavior, then its goals would be (as Skinner said years later) the prediction and control of behavior. Behavior control! How exciting!

Behaviorism was intended to make psychology a natural science. During the years when behaviorist ideas were being developed, they were in harmony with the philosophical position of logical positivism being championed in physics and elsewhere. Concepts should be defined by the operations used to measure them, to keep science tightly grounded to observable data and to remove flights of speculative fancy.

The decades that followed revealed behaviorism in ascendancy, and the animal learning laboratory was the hotbed of study, the white rat and the pigeon the organisms of choice (with an assumption that all organisms and all behaviors obey similar laws).

Edgar Chace Tolman championed the methodology of behaviorism and contributed important work. Some of his concepts (latent learning, cognitive maps) still appear today, even in the cognitive literature. Pavlov’s books were translated in the 1920s, and Clark Hull began publishing his important series of Psychological Review papers in the late 20s and early 30s. Hull’s most famous student, Kenneth Spence, also began his important work in the 1930s. Edwin Guthrie published his ideas on the role of contiguity in learning and the notion of one-trial learning. In 1938, B. F. Skinner published The Behavior of Organisms and launched his operant approach, which became the most famous behaviorist position and today, among many, seems to represent behaviorism. One of my favorite courses as an undergraduate was The Psychology of Learning, taught by my undergraduate mentor, David G. Elmes, using a book by James Deese and Stuart Hulse of John Hopkins University with that title.

Now, returning to behaviorism, let’s consider the cartoon view of the history of psychology that many cognitive psychologists (which is to say, most of the field these days) seem to believe. In this caricature, the History of Psychology is something like the History of Western Civilization and goes as follows: Early psychologists like William James had great ideas and speculations, and psychologists studied, as best they could, cognitive phenomena like imagery. (James et al. correspond to the ancient Athenians – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, perhaps). However, later, due to Watson, Skinner and their ilk, the Dark Ages descended – the religious orthodoxy of Behaviorism blanketed the land and smothered creative thought about cognitive phenomena and other topics. Finally, the Renaissance occurred beginning in the 1950s when the experimental work of George Miller, Donald Broadbent, Wendell Garner and others, as well as the writings of Noam Chomsky, led psychology from the dark ages and into the light of the cognitive revolution. The movement picked up steam in the 1960s and Ulric Neisser’s great book, Cognitive Psychology, both named the new field and ably summarized its content in 1967. Behaviorism was still lively during the 1960s and early 1970s, so this story goes, but as viewed today this was only as a rear guard intellectual movement that was in its last gasp of popularity. By the 1990s the domination of cognitive approaches across almost all areas of psychology (even animal learning!) was nearly complete. Look at the ads in the APS Observer as one measure – how often does one see cognitive or cognitive neuroscience in an ad relative to behaviorist or animal learning?

So, back to my original question, what happened to behaviorism? Here are some possible answers. I’ll let people wiser than I grade them and decide if the answer should be some combination of these alternatives, or none of the above.

One possibility is that the decline of behaviorism represents an intellectual revolution, and young scientists (like youth in all times) like the heady fervor of a revolution. So, with behaviorism having been in ascendancy in psychology, especially (and mainly) American psychology, for so long, the time for a new intellectual revolution was ripe. The analyses of the early cognitive psychologists (Broadbent, Miller, Garner, et al.) were rigorous, provocative, and opened new intellectual vistas. Many problems that were somewhat outside the purview of behavioristic analyses – perceiving, attending, remembering, imagining, thinking – were approached in a radically new way. In this telling, nothing really “happened” to behaviorism; it was not really shown to be “wrong” in any real sense. Rather, the cognitive approach simply generated adherents at the expense of the established order, opened new techniques and methods of study, and created excitement that attracted graduate students away from animal laboratories. (Some types of cognitive analyses that seemed so great in the 1960s seem to be growing long in the tooth now. For example, metaphorical models and box and arrow diagrams, so popular at one time, seem quaint compared to cognitive neuroscience approaches to mapping brain networks underlying cognitive performance). In brief, cognitive analyses swept the day as being more exciting and interesting in opening new arenas of study.

A second possible reason is that behavioristic analyses were becoming too microscopic in the 1970s. As in most fields as they develop, researchers began studying more and more about less and less. Rather than focus on the central, critical problems, behavioristic researchers begin looking at ever more refined (that is to say, picayune) problems, with experimental analyses increasing in complexity all out of proportion to the gains in knowledge that they enabled. (It is remarkable how many of the fundamentally great discoveries in most fields are often direct, simple, straightforward, so that after the fact others can wonder, “why didn’t I think of that?”). The number of parameters and epicycles in the Hull-Spence approach ballooned. Examine Ferster and Skinner’s ponderous Schedules of Reinforcement (1959) relative to the more direct writing of Skinner in The Behavior of Organisms (1938). In this version of history, there was something wrong with behaviorism in the 1970s and 1980s – it became too focused on specific problems and lost the big picture.

Another way in which behaviorism lost is that many psychologists (especially cognitive psychologists) do not focus on the learning history of the organism. As John Wixted wrote to me in commenting on this column, “researchers have forgotten to explain why we behave as we do. Much of what we do is a function of the prior consequences of our actions. And we learn from those consequences. Cognitive models are often a surrogate of that learning history (they refer to a magic computer in the head without considering what is responsible for its computational abilities …). So, to the extent that cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience don’t care about the learning history of their subjects (and, for the most part, they don’t), behaviorism lost.”

A third answer is that there is, thank you, nothing wrong with behaviorism today. The premise of the analysis at the beginning of this column is simply wrong. Behaviorism is alive and well and nothing “has happened” to it. The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior is still a lively outlet (and edited now by my colleague, Len Green), as is the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Both journals are published by the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, which has been going strong since 1957. The primary meeting of behaviorists is the Association for Behavior Analysis, or ABA, which has over 4,200 members in 2003, and at the 2002 meeting there were 3,200 registrants. Counting affiliate organizations around the world, there are some 12,000 members (Jack Marr, personal communication). ABA has grown tremendously over the years and still attracts around 250 new members a year just in the U.S. The Society for the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior meets before and during ABA, with its own mathematically sophisticated membership. Much of the work reported at these meetings is based on research with humans (and not just pigeons and rats, as in the stereotype).

Why the enthusiasm? Because behavioristic analyses work! We know how to alleviate or eliminate phobias through extinction-based therapies; we know the power of a token economy in regulating behavior on a mental ward; we can reduce problematic behaviors and increase the probability of desired behaviors by judiciously providing and withholding reinforcements. Even for problems that cognitively oriented psychologists study, behavioristic therapies are the treatments of choice. For an autistic child, Lovaas’s behavioristic techniques provide the greatest (indeed, so far the only) hope. (Theory of mind debates about autism are fine, but not if you want therapies and treatment – go to behaviorism). Similarly, for stuttering and aphasia, as interesting as their analysis by psycholinguists may be, the treatments come largely from the behaviorists’ labs. In the field of neurobiology of learning, the central paradigm is classical conditioning and the main theoretical model is the Rescorla-Wagner model. And behavioristic analyses exist in self-management programs, in industry (Organizational Behavior Management), in sports, in parenting guides, and of course in animal training programs for pets and for zoos. Anywhere that prediction and control of overt behavior is critical, one finds behavioristic analyses at work. In sum, this answer maintains that, although most psychologists don’t know it, behaviorism still is alive and thriving, albeit perhaps not as much in the mainstream of the field as it once was.

Another framing to the previous answer (owing to Endel Tulving) is that there are several valid sciences of psychology. He wrote to me in an e-mail comment on an earlier draft of this column that: “It is quite clear in 2004 that the term ‘psychology’ now designates at least two rather different sciences, one of behavior and the other of the mind. They both deal with living creatures, like a number of other behavioral sciences, but their overlap is slim, probably no greater than psychology or sociology used to be when the world was young. No one will ever put the two psychologies together again, because their subject matter is different, interests are different, and their understanding of the kind of science they deal with is different. Most telling is the fact that the two species have moved to occupy different territories, they do not talk to each other (any more), and the members do not interbreed. This is exactly as it should be.”

Perhaps the most radical answer to the question I posed is that behaviorism is less discussed and debated today because it actually won the intellectual battle. In a very real sense, all psychologists today (at least those doing empirical research) are behaviorists. Even the most cognitively oriented experimentalists study behavior of some sort. They might study effects of variables of pushing buttons on computers, or filling out checklists, or making confidence ratings, or patterns of bloodflow, or recalling words by writing them on sheets of paper, but they almost always study objectively verifiable behavior. (And even subjective experiences, such as confidence ratings, can be replicated across people and across conditions). This step of studying objectively verifiable behavior represents a huge change from the work of many psychologists in 1904. Today the fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience are highly behavioral (if one includes neural measures of behavior). True, there is nothing necessarily inherently interesting about pushing buttons on computers, but on the other hand, the basic laws of behavior in the animal lab were worked out on rats pushing levers and navigating runways, or pigeons pecking keys – not exactly riveting behaviors in their own right. In all these cases, the scientist’s hope is to discover fundamentally interesting principles from simple, elegant experimental analyses. The cognitive researcher goes further and seeks converging evidence from behavioral observations on internal workings of the mind/brain systems. But as experimentalists, both cognitive and behavioral researchers study behavior. Behaviorism won.

I could go on with reasons or speculations, I suppose, but let’s leave it at five. And let me explain why I left out a popular explanation that I have read in history textbooks. Didn’t Noam Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior devastate behavioristic analysis and show that it was bankrupt as pertains to language? I have read the debate a couple of times and, although interesting, it always seemed to me that the protagonists were arguing at cross purposes, from fundamentally different paradigms. Chomsky was and is a rationalist; he had no uses for experimental analyses or data of any sort that pertained to language, and even experimental psycholinguistics was and is of little interest to him. My guess is that Chomsky’s review deserves to be credited as a minor cause of the cognitive revolution. To most psychologists, empiricists at heart, it was the great new experiments that researchers were conducting on cognitive topics that created the cognitive revolution and not Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book (rather effectively refuted in a commentary by Kenneth MacCorquodale, by the way).

I am a cognitive psychologist, true, but I have sympathy for several answers. Behaviorism is alive and most of us are behaviorists. That may be truer of me than many. My theorizing is often rather functional in nature. Some reviewers complain that I don’t have “real theories” or that I am redescribing the data; some have argued that my ideas are too descriptive to be testable; yet others, undercutting the previous point, have busily tested them and found them empirically wrong (hmm … both sets of critics can’t be right, methinks). It is true that I feel comfortable sticking closer to the data and engaging in fewer flights of theoretical fancy than many of my cognitive colleagues, having been partly raised in the functional intellectual tradition of John McGeoch, Arthur Melton, and Robert Crowder.

A few years back, Robert Solso edited a volume entitled Mind and Brain Sciences in the 21st Century (MIT Press) for which I wrote a chapter in which I made fearless predictions on the future of cognitive psychology. My eleventh and last prediction was that a strong form of behaviorism would make a comeback in mainstream psychology. That does mean I believe the movement went “away” in some sense, even if I think that the behaviorist revolution was largely successful and the central tenets have been incorporated into psychology. After all, even the most ardent behaviorist would agree that the great debates that swirled among and between behaviorists in the 1950s do not arise in the mainstream literature today. As John Wixted pointed out in the quote above, cognitive psychologists tend to ignore learning history in their theories. If we at least begin incorporating learning history back into our considerations, then behaviorism will be making a comeback. Still, at the same time, it is clear that many aspects of behaviorism never went anywhere at all. Rather, many psychologists simply ignored the good work researchers in the behaviorist tradition have been doing.

Let me suggest a way you can celebrate Skinner’s centennial and learn the elegance and power of behavioristic analyses. Treat yourself and read Skinner’s 50-year old book, Science and Human Behavior, which is still in print. The book was meant as an introduction to behaviorism and is powerfully and elegantly written. The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior has published five retrospective articles in the November, 2003 issue entitled “The Golden Anniversary of Skinner’s Science and Human Behavior.” Read the book and celebrate the power of behavioristic analyses yourself, even if (or especially if) you are one of those cognitive psychologists who believe that behaviorism is irrelevant, passé and/or dead. It isn’t.

Author’s Note: Len Green, Jack Marr, Jim Neely, Endel Tulving, Ben Williams, and John Wixted provided comments that greatly aided my conceptualization of these issues. I appreciate permission to quote from messages I received from Drs. Tulving and Wixted.



It is refreshing to see this perspective. I had thought that behaviorism had seen its heyday and it’s in decline, but it’s true, ABA is often in the news. Insurance companies are beginning to cover ABA treatment of autism, so it’s definitely a part of the public debate.

I like how Mr. Roedigger says that behaviorism has defeated cognitivism because experimental cognitivism observes behavior in order to make assumptions about internal processes. I would add that most of the diagnoses in the DSM Manual of Psychiatry depend on behavioral descriptions of mental illnesses.

I write a blog on the ethics of applied behavior modification from the perspective of a consumer of mental health services. It is non-commercial. I have happily added a link to this article on the blog. To visit my blog, google “Reward and Consent” or go to

Thank you for an enlightening article.

Dave in New Jersey

I have since learned through interaction with the behaviorists that behaviorism is cruel. Even Skinner, who warned the world against punishment, only meant to protect “normal” people here. He favoroed all manner of torture of whom he called “abnormal deviants” as the power editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.” I reject any praise I once held for behaviorists.

Just researching behaviourism once more. I wonder where you get the critique you offered here? Behaviour modification need not be cruel in as far as teaching skills that would be of benefit to the recipients.

It’s hard to claim that cognitive psychology is fundamentally different and distinct from behaviorism when the basic… philosophical underpinnings and assumptions aren’t really that different, or at least, not drastically so, particularly in the sense of what constitutes good science.

By contrast, look at the clowns that still take psychoanalysis seriously; you’ll find a rather weak scientific orientation. Probably written in French, to boot.

Do you have problems against french people? there isn’t really links between french and clowns…

Hi Dr. Roediger. I met you years ago. Thanks for this. Too late to change a typo? “Edgar Chace Tolman”

Hi Dr Roediger: I’ve been trying to get an adjunct to exposure therapy noticed. What I discovered is that when persons engage in strenuous exercise their bodies release endorhpins which cause analgesia, sedation, sometimes euphoria
and reduced fear. This has been researched out by persons interested in what causes runner’s high. So if persons were to do endorphin releasing activities before engaging in exposure therapy, which causes increased anxiety, then perhaps their reduced anxiety would allow better results. It’s been said many times that the worst fearful people get no relief at all. Perhaps this adjunct will produce better results. You can view my research manuscript at: DOI:10.4236/
psych.2012.38093. Cheers: Newell Heywood

I just came across this piece, and I must say I found it a little funny that, in an analysis of ‘whatever happened to behaviourism’ you neglected to mention Chomsky’s review once.

A fourth option – that behaviourism was shown to be a fundametally and irretrievably flawed model for theorising the human mind – is thus missing from your account. This may or may not be coincidental to your very positive review of the virtues of behaviourism today…

Also, please refer back to the article. He did mention Chomsky’s review and, as anyone who has actually read the debate and rebuttal will attest to, Chomsky was way off. There is nothing that Chomsky has ever theorized about language that has translated into actionable knowledge. On the other hand, THE way to teach kids who do not naturally acquire the ability to speak is based on Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and the robust body of empirical work that has come from it.

Ol’ Ben Walker “came across this piece”! Great! Too bad he didn’t read it. Roediger does mention Chomsky’s “review” (in quotes because Chomsky never read Skinner’s book) and, notably, mentions Ken MacCorquodale’s rebuttal. Personally, I like Roediger. I even like this piece though it has many flaws. I think that cognitive “science” never really went away. It was always hidden in ordinary language and the “trickle down” from philosophy to ordinary language. Skinner makes a persuasive argument that “mental terms” were once frank references to behavior. Even “experience” once meant “what has happened to a person” rather than some inner, subjective impact (did someone say “qualia”? or was that “red herring” I heard?). Skinner pegged it one time when he said that cognitive psychology was “old home week.” Being a radical behaviorist is hard. It requires that one acquire a new language. It allows no reified shortcuts in explanations. No fair inferring, say, “knowledge” from behavior and then using “knowledge” to explain the very behavior from which it was inferred. Same with “intention,” “expectation,” etc. etc. etc. Cognitive psychology is one big “soporific virtue.” Get it? Oh…and by the way, the “cognitive revolution” along with the “decade of the brain” did, in fact, decimate the basic science now called behavior analysis (Skinner called it the experimental analysis of behavior) – the only natural science of behavior to ever exist. Like I said, I am fond of Roediger, but cognitive psychologists are not behaviorists – and, I would argue, they are not natural scientists. The assumptions underlying cognitive psychology are, well, insipid. Psychology arose in Germany where “scientific method” was being applied to everything. Psychology, though, in distancing itself from philosophy, made a fetish of fact and theory, at the expense of penetrating philosophical analyses of its own philosophical assumptions! Psychologists have mistaken conceptual issues for issues of fact or theory. Ahh…but I grow long-winded…maybe we should talk about the reliance on null hypothesis significance resting as a way to obtain facts. Just kidding…I’m a kidder!

Dear Mr Sizemore,
Thank you for your response to the Roediger piece. I was, of course, familiar with Chomsky’s criticism of Skinner, but I never realized that he hadn’t actually read Verbal Behavior!! He was probably overwhelmed by it and gave up after the first page. The Great Noam Chomsky.

Just read your comments on Roediger’s What Happened to Behaviorism, and they were spot-on. It’s rare to read critiques/reviews of articles in non-behavior analytic publications by someone who actually understands Skinnerian behaviorism. Nice job.

Thank you for this paper. It is thoughtful and honest.

Good article. I have gone through behaviorism and cognitive psychology in my years of teaching foreign languages.
Skinner wins. JPdV

Where does it say Chomsky didn’t read the book he was reviewing?

If cognitions are what we do, behaviorism is not dead.

Behaviorism: A psychological movement, now extinct, that is built on the premise that you are what you do, and you do because of what you have done. Replaced by humanistic psychology (you are what you feel), cognitive science (you are what you think), Dr. Atkins (you are what you eat) and modern advertising (you are what we say).
from Dr. Mezmer’s Dictionary of Bad Psychology at

I’m a BCBA since 2003 working with kids on the spectrum. I began in the 1980’s with Lovaas’s ME BOOK. Does the application of behavioral principles help with autism? Definitely yes. Does it help with phobias, habit reversal, OCD, etc? Yes. “Help” means, either reducing unwanted behaviors, or increasing desired behaviors. In autism, it means, not “curing autism” but increasing functioning levels across modalities (including cognitive). And yes, ABA is growing. But, here’s where I leave you, ABA definitely changes behavior, but it does not change the person. I can get a kid to stop slamming the door, but I can’t get him to stop wanting to slam the door. He may want the “reinforcer” for not slamming but that’s not the same thing, is it? I can get someone to stop checking if the door is locked, but he’ll still feel that the door is not locked when he leaves. Application of behavioral principles do in deed and in fact, make dramatic changes in people’s lives for the better. But I do not agree that “mental states are behavior.” as Prof Jack Michael told me. Depression is a learned behavior? I don’t think so. Jealousy is a learned behavior? No. I have trichotillomania. I do not pull out my hair for over 30 years. Desire is still there, but I don’t. I didn’t stop because of extinction or DRO or any other behavioral technique. I stopped because I wanted to. Pulling it out is very reinforcing but I don’t. Do non-behaviorists ignore personal or learning history? I don’t think so. I also read, many times Chomsky’s attack on Skinner. My impression is that they are simply arguing about two different things.
PS. Skinner’s daughter doesn’t like to hear, “Behaviorists worked on rats.” She says “Behaviorists worked on relationships.” I agree but I still don’t think a pigeon’s behavior will change because his parents got divorced or because he’s acquired a new phobia. Kids will.
Behaviorist also call “free will,” a myth. We have no free will, we just have learning histories and evoked behavior by some stimulus in the environment. That’s what I told my wife when she caught me in the whorehouse, but for some reason, she didn’t buy it.

The cognitive behaviorists got it wrong. Instead of using cognitions to explain behavior, use behavior principles to explain cognitions since cognitions are what we do.

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