Radical behaviorism is the philosophy that underlies the approach to psychology known as the experimental analysis of behavior, and is a model developed by B. F. Skinner. The term 'radical behaviorism' has also been associated with Skinner's theories of human behavior and his political ideas.

Controversial issues

Radical Behaviorism has always been controversial, for a number of reasons. The proponents of radical behaviorism will argue that the theory is widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Some of the issues will be elaborated upon in the following.

The basics - operant psychology

John B. Watson before Skinner, and Ivan Pavlov before Watson, studied behavior from a stimulus-response perspective. From this perspective, behavior is elicited by unconditioned stimuli. Behavior was manipulated by pairing stimuli shown to elicit certain responses with neutral stimuli. Eventually, presentation of the previously neutral stimulus would elicit the response. This is called instrumental conditioning or classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning. Skinner felt this approach too limited, since much interesting behavior cannot be subject to instrumental conditioning, and invented operant psychology as an extension to behaviorism.

In operant conditioning, behavior is seen as something that is actively emitted by the organism. Operant conditioning is a procedure where a stimulus is presented or withdrawn when a behavior occurs.

  1. If the strength or the frequency of the behavior is increased upon presentation of the stimulus, the stimulus is labeled a positive reinforcer.
  2. If the strength or the frequency of the behavior is reduced upon presentation of the stimulus, the stimulus is labeled a positive punisher.
  3. If the strength or the frequency of the behavior is increased upon withdrawal of the stimulus, the stimulus is labeled a positive punisher.
  4. If the strength or the frequency of the behavior is reduced upon withdrawal of the stimulus, the stimulus is labeled a negative punisher.

Instrumental conditioning says something about the future of the stimulus: That in the future, the neutral stimulus may become a conditioned stimulus.

Operant conditioning tells something about the future of the organism: That in the future, the reinforced behavior will be likely to occur more often.

Many textbooks wrongly label Skinner or Radical Behaviorism as S-R (Stimulus-Response, or instrumental, or Pavlovian) psychology, and argue that this limits the approach.

Many textbooks argue that radical behaviorism maintains the position that animals (including humans) are passive receivers of conditioning, failing to take into account that

  1. Operant behavior is emitted, not elicited: Animals act on the enviornment and the environment acts back on them
  2. The consequence of a behavior can itself be a stimulus. One needs not present anything for shaping to take place.

Explaining behavior and the importance of the environment

John B. Watson, Skinner's immediate predecessor, argued against the use of references to mental states, and held that psychology should study behavior and behavior only, holding private events as impossible to study scientifically. Skinner expanded on this idea, but for somewhat different reasons.

In Watson's days (and in Skinner's early days), it was held that Psychology was at a disadvantage as a science because behavioral explanations should take physiology into account. Very little was known about physiology at the time. Skinner argued that behavioral explanations of psychological phenomena are just as true as physiological explanations. In arguing this, he took a non-reductionistic approach to psychology. Skinner, however, redefined behavior to include everything that an organism does, including thinking, feeling and speaking and argued that these phenomena were valid subject matters of psychology. The term Radical Behaviorism refers to just this: That everything an organism does is a behavior.

However, Skinner ruled out thinking and feeling as valid explanations of behavior. The reasoning is this. Thinking and feeling are not epiphenomena nor have any other special status, and are just more behavior to explain. Explaing behavior by refering to thought or feelings are pseudo-explanations because they merely point to more behavior to be explained. Skinner proposed environmental factors as proper causes of behavior because

  1. Environmental factors are at a different logical level than behavior
  2. One can manipulate behavior by manipulating the environment

This holds only for explaining the class of behaviors known as operant behaviors. This class of behavior Skinner held as the most interesting study matter.

Many textbooks, in noting the emphasis Skinner places on the environment, argue that Skinner held that the organism is a blank slate or a tabula rasa. Nothing could be further from the truth. Skinner wrote extensively on the limits and possibilities nature places on conditioning. Conditioning is implemented in the body as a physiological process and is subject to the current state, learning history, and history of the species.

Many textbooks seem to confuse Skinner's rejection of physiology with Watson's rejection of private events. It is true to some extent that Skinner's psychology considers humans a black box, since Skinner maintains that behavior can be explained without taking into account what goes on in the organism. However, the black box is not private events, but physiology. Skinner considers physiology as useful, interesting, valid, etc., but not necessary.

Acceptance of mental life and introspection

Radical Behaviorism differs from other forms of Behaviorism in that it treats everything we do as behavior, including private events such as thinking and feeling. Unlike John B. Watson's behaviorism, private events (often called cognitions) are not dismissed as "epiphenomenon," but are seen as potentially subject to the same principles of learning and modification as have been discovered to exist for overt behavior. Although private events are not necessarily publicly observable behaviors, Radical Behaviorism accepts that we are each observers of our own private behavior, such as with introspection.

Many textbooks, in emphasizing that Skinner held behavior to be the proper subject matter of Psychology, fail to clarify Skinner's position and implicitly or even explicitly posit that Skinner ruled out the study of private events as unscientific.

Political Views

Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control - a behavioral technology - could solve human problems which were not solved by earlier approaches or were actively aggravated by advances in physical technology such as the atomic bomb.

Skinner was sometimes unfairly accused of being a totalitarian by his critics, and it is not difficult to see why. In addition to his aspirations to state design, Skinner was a determinist, believing that all of our behavior is profoundly determined and influenced by the environment.

Skinner saw the problems of political control not as a battle of control versus freedom, but as choices of what kinds of control were used for what purposes. Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment and fear and supported the use of reinforcement. Freedom, or the sense of freedom, was the resistance to punishment and threat. In this sense Skinner was a great advocate of freedom.

However Skinner didn't want to equate political freedom, which was desirable, to philosophical freedom, which he indicated did not exist. Furthermore, the advocates of political freedom avidly attacked and resisted the opponents of phiosophical freedom. Noam Chomsky's attacks on Skinner are clearly in this tradition. One of Skinner's stated goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself,

Skinner's book Walden Two presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical work. However, as a utopian Skinner answers a problem that exists in many utopian novels "What is the Good Life?" Skinner answers that it is a life of friendship, art, leisure, health, games and a minimum of work and unpleasantness. Additionally behavioral technology offers alternatives to coercion, that good science applied right will help society, and that we would all be better off if we cooperated with each other peacefully. Skinner's novel has been described by Skinner as "my New Atlantis" referring to Bacon's utopia.

Intellectual opponents, such as Chomsky, have in their zealous attempt to show Skinner wrong, have equated what they wanted to be wrong (Skinner's philosophic determinism with whatever position they found most horrible (political oppression, concentration camps) whether it had any relevance or not. The ends justifies the means in this style of intellectual mud-slinging and Skinner has been equated to political and social positions he never espoused and even explicitly objected to. The positive and humane aspects of Skinner's political views are often, perhaps deliberately, overlooked.

The level of intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy can be seen ironically in the oft cited, but apparently little read or understood "Review of Verbal Behavior" by Noam Chomsky. In it Chomsky attacks the triumvirate of operant theory - stimulus, response, reinforcement - as being applicable only to the laboratory and not "real life". In "real life" it becomes definitionally meaningless he says. He accuses Skinner of dressing up his theory with the appearance of science using the technically precise language of the laboratory to give his non-technical views on language prestige. This rather causes one to wonder how B.F.Skinner who innovated the very precise and technical language described in The Behavior of Organisms in 1938 (and sited by Chomsky) could then apparently not notice, or assume others would not notice, he was abusing the very clear technical language he himself championed not only in 1938 but throughout his life? But this is just one of many curious statements made by Chomsky in his critique not only of Radical Behaviorism, but of Empiricism itself, that allow him to include references to drive theory that Skinner rejected (and Chomsky concedes as much) but then when Chomsky demolishes drive theory we are to conclude that this also demolishes Skinner's position on Verbal Behavior. It is telling, and perhaps necessary, to take such a high-level approach in attacking Skinner's basic work or its inability to be generalized in undermining Skinner's theory of Verbal Behavior. Because if you take the basic laboratory work and analysis as proven, and even so-called cognitive scientists will do this, it becomes very hard to challenge Skinner's theory of Verbal Behavior since they so clearly parallel his basic laboratory work.


Radical behaviorism inherits from behaviorism the position that the science of behavior is natural science, a belief that animal behavior can be studied profitably and compared with human behavior, a strong emphasis on the environment as cause of behavior, a denial that ghostly causation is a relevant factor in behavior, and a penchant for operationalizing. Its principal differences are an emphasis on operant conditioning, use of idiosyncratic terminology, a tendency to apply notions of reinforcement etc. to philosophy and daily life to a thoroughgoing, even obsessive, degree, and, particularly, a distinctly positive position on private experience.

Importantly, radical behaviorism embraces the genetic and biological endowment and ultimately evolved nature of the organism, while simply asserting that behavior is a distinct field of study with its own value. From this two neglected points issue: radical behaviorism is thoroughly compatible with biological and evolutionary approaches to psychology - in fact, as a proper part of biology - and radical behaviorism does not involve the claim that organisms are 'tabula rasa,' homogenous mush or black boxes with no genetic or physiological endowment.

Skinner's psychological work focused on operant conditioning, with emphasis on the schedule of reinforcement as independent variable, and the rate of responding as dependent variable. Operant techniques are a venerable part of the toolbox of the psychobiologist, and many neurobiological theories - particularly regarding drug addiction - have made extensive use of reinforcement. Operant methodology and terminology has been used in much research on animal perception and concept formation - with the same topics, such as stimulus generalization, bearing importantly on operant conditioning. Skinner's emphasis on outcomes and response rates naturally lends itself topics typically left to economics, as in behavioral economics. The field of operant conditioning can also be seen to interact with work on decision making, and had influence on AI and cognitive science.


There are radical behaviorist schools of animal training, management, clinical practice (Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA) and education. Skinner's political views have left their mark in small ways as principles adopted by a small handful of utopian communities such as Los Horcones, and in ongoing challenges to the hegemony of aversive techniques in control of human and animal behavior.

Radical behaviorism has generated numerous descendants. Examples of these include molar approaches associated with Richard Herrnstein and William Baum, Rachlin's teleological behaviorism, William Timberlake's behavior systems approach, and John Staddon's theoretical behaviorism.

Skinner's theories on Verbal Behavior have seen widespread application in the use of effective therapies in creating and shaping effective behavior in Autistic children and adults. This is an interesting empirical development in light of Chomsky's repeated assertion in his infamous "Review" that not only was Skinner "play-acting" at science but his position was not only unproven, but impossible to prove. Chomsky was then, and still is, wrong.

Arguably, one very important part of Skinner's legacy has been omitted. That is cognitive science. Cognitive science was so particularly shaped by his disapproval that he could, with only a little perversity, be described one of its most influential forefathers. Insofar as cognitive "science" is simply the Frankenstein like rebirth of mentalistic humunculus-laden theories of inner determination they represent little more than the perpetuation of the very theories that Watson and Skinner attempted to displace (obviously with only little success). It does seem though that cognitive "science" has been shaped by Skinner in a negative sense. At least one cognitive-science based book on learning and memory has laid out a roadmap of psychology casting all pre-1950s psychology as being simply "classical psychology" while portraying itself as the leading edge of so-called Modern Psychology. Since cognitive "science" is little more than pre-Behaviorist mentalism dressed up in the latest fad computer-metaphor or neurobiological or genetic patois it can be little said to be Modern unless Behaviorism would then be "post Modern" to its Modernity. The strategy of the cognitive (or perhaps "anti-behaviorist"?) schools is to concede as little as possible where Skinner is concerned and to extend every opposing theory of any area that has an opposing theory to Skinner, to embrace many of the opposing Behaviorist theorists who didn't eschew mental constructs and to knit together a whole mismash of inconsistent theories and approaches all welded together by their common slogan of "Mind!" and their hostility to Radical Behaviorism's atheoretical approach.