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Behaviourism is a branch of psychology that completely deadened scientific research on animal minds until recently, claiming that minds are not valid subjects for scientific research.
Behaviourism is a method of doing psychology, the scientific research into minds and behaviour. Behaviourism flourished especially from the 1920's to the 1960's and made invaluable contributions to science, but its dogmatic tenets had a dramatic deadening effect on psychology generally. In particular it seriously retarded research on animal minds until quite recently.
Understanding animal minds scientifically will help put animal rights on firmer ground.
Researching animal minds is important for animal rights because until people fully understand what goes on in animal minds they will always doubt whether granting rights for animals is necessary.
So great was behaviourism's influence on science that it led scientists to reject researching the thoughts and feelings of animals as impractical for most of the 20th century. Furthermore, behaviourism so relied on laboratory based research with just a few species - essentially pigeons and rats - that psychology virtually completely neglected the mass of animal species living in the wild.
Animal minds are like masks, according to behaviourism, you cannot peer beyond them to the animal inside and it is unscientific to try. Animal masks from Guatemala. Photo: Chmouel Boudjnah.
Behaviourists saw the purpose of their field as predicting and controlling the behaviour of people. They held out the prospect that they could change society for the better, not by accepting and tolerating people's behaviour, but by changing it to suit social norms. The behaviourist method, held forth as the only orthodox scientific method, was to gather facts about what is observable and measurable and ignore the invisible, inaccessible and apparently unmeasurable entities like minds: consciousness, thoughts, emotions, personality, and so on. The study of minds had no place in serious science, they said. If a simple stimulus could elicit a response then that was sufficient to explain behaviour and you need not look any deeper.
Behaviourism originated in the US and its leading exponent was American psychologist John B Watson (1878 - 1958). Watson disparaged alternative approaches for understanding behaviour as unimportant. He dismissed the role of heredity for determining the potential of behaviour, disagreed with Freud's abstract views of the psyche, and maintained that exploring the mind by examining your own subjective thoughts and feelings, up to then in vogue, was worthless. Watson believed animals and humans are complex machines that learn to respond to new experiences and he believed that all behaviour is explicable in terms of learning.
Another foremost behaviourist was American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 - 1990). Skinner hit fame for likening animals and people to black boxes. Animals and people are like black boxes, he maintained, in that whatever happens inside them, like emotions and mental processes, is of no significance. Indeed, there is no point even looking inside a black box, he said, because you will not see anything.
The inside of a black box is black - unfathomable - like animal minds, says behaviourism.
Instead, in order to understand or manipulate an animal or human, you need to know what happens on the outside, that is the environmental stimuli a subject responds to, plus the subject's objective responses.
Behaviourists celebrate Skinner for developing the 'Skinner box', a small chamber for studying and moulding or 'shaping' the process of learning. The classic animals that psychologists study in Skinner boxes are rats and pigeons (the chamber is adaptable for other animals including primates and humans). An animal in the chamber has to choose the correct response to a stimulus by pushing a certain lever to get a reward, such as a pellet of food, and thus learns a new behaviour. The control of the chamber and all responses by a subject are automatically controlled and recorded, so the experimenter does not even need to be present to see what is happening. Consequently the study of animals in psychology up to at least the 1970's became narrow, remote and detached from real life.
||B F Skinner, about 1950.
A few independent-minded scientists rekindled the study of animal minds in the closing years of the 20th century. Only now is science beginning to explore in depth the mental life of animals. Yet even today the ghost of behaviourism lingers because many scientists still find it hard to accept that animal minds are a province for good scientific research.
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