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The New Behaviorism

by John Staddon

John Staddon and the new behaviorists argue that free will and similar ideas are irrelevant to moral responsibility. The new behaviorists are consequentialists. If holding an individual responsible for her actions prevents five murders, she should be held responsible, even if she is the sum of forces she has no control over. Neither predictability nor determinism opposes responsibility. They demand it. You hold an individual at fault when you have some idea what he or others will do. Punishment is consequentially pointless if you have no idea what individuals will do next. Punishing a thief would have little more than retributive value because punishment would not have any affect on the behavior of the thief or anyone else. It would not deter future crimes because the thief would be no more likely to commit a crime than anyone else. And it would not influence others to be more or less likely to commit a crime.


Unlike old behaviorists mainly interested in rewards, the new behaviorists seem open to almost anything that produces results--reward, reasoning, punishment, propaganda.


The new behaviorism does not oppose mental life and the study of mental life, but they believe that analyzing the mental processes of humans is extremely, extremely difficult. Better to focus on behavior. We struggle at knowing our minds. We do not remember well, and we remember false events. Scientists do not fully understand the miniscule nervous systems of slugs, let alone humans.


The new behaviorism supports the use of animal models despite their limitations. Like the old behaviorists, Staddon urges us to constantly note environmental causes. Where the old behaviorists blame everything on non-individual environments, the new behaviorists see assigning individual blame as an integral part of the environment. If you teach an individual that she can control herself, no matter how strong and violent her impulses, and she controls herself, she is part of the environment that other individuals live in, which influences self-direction.


Punishment helps, claims Staddon, when quicker and more effective than other methods. It is better than rewards at stopping unwanted actions.


Critics argue that bad behavior often returns when punishment stops. Staddon asserts bad behavior often returns when using other methods also. "Avoidance schedule" punishment reduces the probability of bad behavior. (I remember reading somewhere, however, that many good results credited to punishment and bad results attributed to reward result from regression to the mean. Good and bad behaviors are both followed by more ordinary behaviors.)


Others argue that punishment causes counterattacks. Almost anything you do, however, can cause attacks. Hitler, Stalin, and others will concoct any reason to blame you or attack you, no matter your actions and no matter how ludicrous their reasons.


Even rewards provoke attacks. Spoiled children, callous celebrities, and gluttonous dictators lashing out are all examples of "counterattack." Counterattacks depend more on the characteristics and histories of individuals than perceived slights.


Punishment fails, writes Staddon, when delayed, too soft, too harsh, or too improbable.


Staddon points out that psychologists are not the only behaviorists. Some brilliant minds in media dominated societies are adept at one thing: Trickery.


Staddon claims that believing in freedom is a form of freedom, but he errors by defining free will as feeling free. Free will is the ability to create thoughts and actions partly uncaused by the physical universe.


Believing that deterministic forces are everything is itself a powerful force with destructive potential. Staddon argues it makes little difference for moral responsibility whether humans are completely deterministic or something else. If holding individuals responsible is a part of a deterministic universe, it is a part that leads to much better consequences than assuming that people cannot act otherwise. Fatalism or a tragic sense of life causes terrible consequences, no matter whether determinism is unsupported or well-supported.



Staddon makes the superb point that a good theory often offers better practical applications than practical efforts using half-baked theories and technologies. In the 19th century, those who worked out electromagnetic theories helped create our electrical society while those who tackled the practical matter of developing super steam engines hit dead ends or at least cul-de-sacs. This book provides a history and overview, not many specific actions. Part of the material mentioned here appeared in Staddon's excellent Atlantic Monthly article, back when the Atlantic had better articles. Worth reading.

book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 23, 2009


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