Psychology Spectrum Disorder (PSD)

In a famous article entitled “Are Theories of Learning Necessary,” published in 1950, Skinner examined the broad spectrum, that is, psychology, and presented it to the Midwestern Psychological Association. He proposed that approaches at either end of the psychology spectrum were, from his vantage, somewhat disordered. They remain so today. At one end were theories that relied on mentalistic devices to account for human behavior. The most notable example at the time was psychoanalysis, but he also mentioned cognitive theory more generally. The latter was a target at which he continued to aim throughout his long professional life, toward the end characterizing cognitive psychology as “the creationism of modern psychology.” Harsh words indeed, with which one can agree or not. Skinner found such explanations of behavior far off the mark, reducing it down to the end product of mental machinations.

Graphic of people in a lineAt the other end of the spectrum were theories that sought to reduce behavior to physiology. If behavior can be reduced to physiology, why not simply cut to the chase and just study physiology? It is the same idea that drives drug companies to search and search and search for so-called “behavioral pills” that will wipe out human psychological/behavioral suffering, and all that goes along with it. Skinner argued that the physiological approach to behavior is very quixotic, evoking an image of a somewhat deranged guy chasing after windmills that are never what they seemed to be at first encounter. Much of cognitive neuroscience adopts this approach of finding areas of the brain that correspond to, and therefore are solely responsible for behavioral change. There have been some exciting findings involving things like monkey’s “willing” artificial limbs to action. Still, there also have been outrageous claims, such as attributing autism spectrum disorders to life-saving immunizations. Behavior is not physiology, and physiology is not behavior.

Psychology Spectrum Disorder (PSD) affects all who ignore important sources on the broad spectrum that defines psychology that contributes to behavior, whether it is the environment, physiology, or variables conventionally described as cognitive or mentalistic. Those who point to physiology or to mental life to account for behavior clearly suffer from PSD. Both give lip service to the environment, but both subjugate its role to the overwhelming influence of the mind or the brain as the ultimate arbiter of behavior.

Yer durn Tootin' picDo behavior analysts also suffer from PSD? As they used to say on 1950s TV westerns, “Yer Durn Tootin!” 

We all know radical behaviorists who are as blind as those we criticize. So, what’s the solution?

It is possible to be a dyed-in-the-wool behavior analyst without PSD by simply opening one’s eyes to other perspectives and separating the wheat from the chaff. Physiology has much to offer both theoretically and empirically in understanding environmental contingencies. So does cognitive psychology (and here my PSD raises slightly its ugly head), if you can separate the useful observations from the (often superfluous) theoretical overlay. Everything from problem-solving to social interactions to sensory psychology has its origins in cognitive psychology. All of those topics are ones that concern us as behavior analysts. We need not buy the advocated theories to appreciate the richness of the problems addressed by modern cognitive science. The processes and problems described by cognitive psychologists can be recast in more “environmentally friendly” ways without discarding the important insights of such an approach. This is especially so when the problems of cognition are considered in the context of that vast unexplored territory; we call verbal behavior.Graphic of people with puzzles coming out of their heads

PSD is not a good thing for any of us involved in this vast enterprise called
modern psychology. Rather than casting stones at them versus us, let’s spend our time getting our own house in order by recognizing the value of different perspectives while not distorting our behavioral world view to accommodate the useful insights these other points of view offer us.

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