Friday, 17 January 2014

Expunging radical behaviourism from history

Simon Baron-Cohen argues that Radical Behaviourism ought to be retired as a scientific idea []. The nails in the behavioural coffin seem to be that the development of behaviour analysis stopped with Skinner in the 1950s (it is hard to see where the ideas of modern behaviour analysis feature in this retirement anti-eulogy), and a killer whale trained by behaviourists attacked people.

I have been the first to be critical of behaviour analysts for their sometimes poor and insensitive ways of communicating about the use of behavioural methods for the benefit of humankind [see and also]. In addition, like every other area of applied psychology and clinical or educational intervention, there are examples of poor and also unethical practice by behaviour analysts. Poor practice and unethical behaviour are not unique to behaviour analysis, but equally behaviour analysis is unfortunately not immune to these problems.

Rather than a direct critique of Baron-Cohen’s suggestion, I thought that I would imagine a world in 10 years time following UN action to expunge radical behaviourism from history and so to remove all intervention approaches developed from these historical ideas. Here are a few of the headlines:

Nuclear melt-down around the world
Unable to use evidence-based practices of behaviour-based safety, nuclear reactors have melted down around the world and every government has shut down power generation reactors. Although heavily automated, the nuclear industry has to rely on some human beings to make it work safely and effectively. The ability to analyse why safety staff fail to follow safety procedures, and to base training and supervision arrangements on these analyses, was outlawed this month in an effort to expunge radical behaviourism from history. Behaviour-based safety was built on core scientific concepts derived from the early work of Skinner and then more than 60 years of additional scientific development.

All-time high for rates of suicide
Untold misery has affected families around the globe as suicide rates hit an all-time high. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence was forced by a government bill in 2017 to remove Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (based on radical behaviourism, expunged from history in 2014) from its list of recommended interventions for suicidal people and those with Borderline Personality Disorder. The UK healthcare system has struggled to offer effective treatments and support, and this is reflected in a report on suicide rates published today by the Office for National Statistics.

Teachers no longer allowed to teach
Mass protests by teachers in every country of the world led to a total shut-down of education systems internationally. Teachers’ leaders were angry at the loss of almost all of their effective teaching strategies. One teacher remarked: “No-one told us that nearly all of our evidence-based education strategies were based on motivational principles and learning approaches derived from radical behaviourism. We thought Skinner and his followers were devils. How are we going to teach the world’s children now? This is the end of society as we know it.”

Shock move as children with autism no longer able to communicate
The Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) has been helping children with autism to communicate for more than two decades. PECS symbols have been made illegal during crack-downs on underground use of radical behavioural ideas. The Police have been confiscating the PECS materials and burning them in bonfires in towns and cities throughout the UK. Children with autism have offered little complaint, but then they have no way of expressing their views any more. Spray paint graffiti outside one special school read: “Who’s unethical now, and where’s our voice now?”.


  1. I think it is extremely irresponsible for someone in Simon Baron-Cohen's position as an 'autism expert' to come our with this seemingly unprovoked attack on behaviourism. Surely he is aware of the fact that ABA is the only effective and evidence based treatment for autism?!

    1. An irresponsible things are lie on that days aware on it!

  2. Nice take on this!

    Surely a fairly key question for SBC is why he wishes to retire a philosophy that explcitly informs some of the NICE guidelines (adults with ASD) which he CHAIRED only last year!!

    For example:

    "1.5.3 When deciding on the nature and content of a psychosocial intervention to address challenging behaviour, use a functional analysis. The functional analysis should facilitate the targeting of interventions that address the function(s) of problem behaviour(s) by:

    providing information, from a range of environments, on:
    factors that appear to trigger the behaviour
    the consequences of the behaviour (that is, the reinforcement received as a result of their behaviour[14])
    identifying trends in behaviour occurrence, factors that may be evoking that behaviour, and the needs that the person is attempting to meet by performing the behaviour."


  3. Gentle humour has its place Richard, but I wonder whether it might be lost on Professor Baron-Cohen.

    I don’t want to be academic for the sake of it, but I think someone needs to say that in a few short and ill-considered paragraphs, this article demonstrates several fundamental misunderstandings of the nature of radical behaviourism and its place in the development of scientific psychology. Among them are:

    • The confusion between S-R behaviourism (Watson’s Methodological Behaviourism) and Skinner’s Radical Behaviourism.

    • The notion that the central idea of Radical Behaviourism is that “all behaviour can be explained as the result of learned S-R associations” (SB-C’s italics), bearing in mind:
    o That Skinner was not an S-R behaviourist,
    o That the central distinction between methodological and radical behaviourism is the need to understand the nature of private events (in other words, “ how a person thinks and feels”),
    o That SB-C himself acknowledges tabula rasa argument to be a misrepresentation of Skinner’s position only a paragraph later in the article).

    • The complete failure to understand that a central element of Skinner’s research was based on distinction between the form and function of behaviour. In the Skinner box, “identical behaviour” (lever pressing) is often “produced via different routes” (e.g., contingencies: different schedules and histories of reinforcement). Understanding how behaviour develops as a person or animal acts on (not responds to) the environment is central to both behaviour analysis and applied clinical interventions.

    • The argument that meaningful scientific conclusions can be drawn from interpretation from what appears to be anecdote and uncontrolled observations of a single Orca. What would they say about that at NICE? (It’s a bit like: My granddad smoked 80 a day, and lived ‘til he was 90.)
    • The apparent failure to acknowledge that one scientist’s “surface level” is another’s scientific domain. Thus, chemistry is “surface level” for physics (so no more chemists then?); and economics or sociology are “surface level” for psychology (so no more economics or sociology?).

    Honestly, a B- would be generous. When I was teaching this stuff to undergraduates, and they got it seriously wrong, I found it was sometimes helpful to suggest a basic textbook. It wouldn’t take Professor Baron-Cohen very long to whizz through Frederick M. Toates’s (DPhil DSc.) book:

    Burrhus F. Skinner: The Shaping of Behaviour (Mind Shapers) [Paperback].

    Prof Toates is not—as far as I know—a radical behaviourist, but Professor of Biological Psychology in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science at the OU. His book is accessible, well-informed, and fair. Highly recommended.

    Bob Remington
    Research Professor of Psychology
    University of Southampton

    1. Many thanks Bob - really nicely done. Was that B- for me? Would take me back to your learning course when I was an undergraduate!

      To be serious, others have also taken on important academic responses to SBC including Simon Dymond - see

      Best wishes

  4. You were never really an undergraduate Richard; you were always a professor waiting to happen!

    Congratulations on this excellent series of blogs - it's a highly valuable source of information and informed judgment and, I know, it's very widely appreciated.

    Best - Bob