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5 Feb 08 – Watson/McDougall – The False Dichotomy of Nature/Nurture.

5 February 2008

On this day in 1924, a debate entitled, “Battle of Behaviorism,” sponsored by the Psychological Club of Washington, D.C., was held in the D.A.R. Memorial Constituion Hall.  The debate was between John Watson and William McDougall.  McDougall was declared victorious, with his hereditary perspective holding sway over Watson’s environmental perspective on behaviorism.

This debate was one of many representations of the “nature versus nurture controversy.”  Essentially, the arguments are pitted as conceptualizations of whether it is biological factors that determines behavior (e.g., genetics, neuroanatomy, neurochemicals) or environmental factors (e.g., family constitution, peer groups, nutrition, socioeconomic status, educational resources).  Today, it is commonly accepted that an interaction of factors – biological and environmental – are involved in the presentation of behaviors (though, there is an increasing trend toward considering neuroscientific explanations as sufficient for understanding such presentations). 

Still, this acceptance warrants some attention because it amounts to acceptance by philosophical fiat.  That is, it appears to be completely understandable that such acceptance should be arrived at, considering that both biological interpretations and environmental interpretations possess an identical philosophical grounding: naturalism.  According to the philosophy of naturalism, all behaviors are the result of past determinants – either biological or environmental.  With recognition that naturalism is the grounding framework for both arguments, this debate can be seen to be a false dichotomy – they do not represent two competing perspectives but instead represent the same perspective developed from slightly different vantages.

Essentially, the argument on both sides is for linear, efficient and material causation for behavior.  When combined, it merely increases the number of efficient and material causal variables.  Still, they remain determinants; neither perspective escapes the fundamental perspective that individual behavior is the result of forces that are outside of the individual’s control.

What, then, would be a genuine alternative?  Agency!  That is, the perspective that individuals have possibility, an “otherwise,” that they can act on.  They can choose their behavior, with constraints of context and ability taken into consideration.  In other words, by agency I do not mean indeterminism or chaos.  There is a limit to one’s ability to act for the sake of goals, motivations, and purposes.  Yet, the acting for the sake of and the variable possibility inherent to choices made allow that neither biological nor environmental determinants are sufficient for explaining all behavior. 

This, then, would frame a truly meaningful debate: Determinism versus Agency. 

Unfortunately, very often agency is merely subjugated to the position of “unscientific,” again, by philosophical fiat.  That is, the philosophy of naturalism, which underlies modern conceptions of science, especially in psychology, rules out before investigation and discussion (in a very UNscientific manner) the legitimacy of agency.  Hence, such a debate devolves before it is engaged in, with the position of agency dismissed as non-sensical. 

Furthermore, as implied above, all too often agency is dismissed in a false polemical manner, with those believing in determinism painting anything other than determinism as “indeterminism” and therefore, unscientific, because there is no ability to predict from chaos (which results from indeterminism).  In essence, a straw man is set up, which is easily set to flames.

However, agency does provide for a tremendous amount of predictability.  In fact, the few studies that have endeavored to investigate it have indicated that an understanding of one’s goals, purposes, and motivations are highly predictive of future behaviors.  Consider someone who, as a high school junior, has an established goal (that they have affectively affirmed) to be a cardiovascular surgeon – we can predict pretty readily that this individual will not skip school, will study hard, and will be involved in endeavors that increase his or her likelihood of achieving that goal. 

The point of all of this, however, is even more simple: we have created a false dichotomy in psychology that was easily solvable and the solution to which provided us with a false sense of satisfaction in our ability to reconcile differences in perspective.  What remains, however, is a significant countermovement in psychology that understands the false dichotomy and is now involved in presenting agentic perspectives as legitimate and in need of recognition by the mainstream. 

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.


February 5, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

9 Jan 08 – Watson, Behaviorism, and Theoretical Incoherence

9 January 2008

On this day in 1878, John Broadus Watson, the “father of behaviorism” was born.  It is interesting that one of his predecessors – Ivan Pavlov (who was an endocrinologist) – and one of his successors – B.F. Skinner (who adapted Watson’s classical conditioning to what has come to be called operant conditioning) – were both listed as among the top 10 most influential psychologists (in a list of eminent psychologists published in a 2002 edition of Review of General Psychology) but Watson was not.  In fact, Watson was ranked 17, based on the determining metrics of professional psychology survey response frequency, introductory psychology textbook citation frequency, and journal citation frequency. 

That being said, Watson was certainly quite influential in the history of psychology.  His 1913 paper entitled, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” though somewhat derivative of his mentor’s at the University of Chicago (Angell’s) brand of functionalism, formally established behaviorism as an approach to psychology.  In fact, this paper has come to be known as, “The Behaviorist Manifesto.”  

Watson’s position was fairly straightforward and simple:

1.  Like his mentor Angell, he argued against the use of consciousness, making a theoretical shift in emphasis from the introspective study of consciousness to the extraspective (or observational) study of behavior.  In other words, he made a selection of what constructs he would use to account for the data from his experiments – behavioral data that he could observe (not “mentalistic” data that he would have to garner from individual description).

2.  Again, like his mentor Angell, he argued that his reason for dropping consciousness was that the data compelled him to do it.  In other words, he said that all one can really “see” when conducting experiments is what the subject of the experiment was doing in response to certain observed environmental stimuli.  Including consciousness as a variable in this lacked parsimony (simply put, “simplicity”) in the experiment.  As such, it was unnecessary to do it.  The data is behavior; not consciousness. 

3.  Finally, based on the perspective that all we see is behavior, which is the result of environmental stimuli, then behavior is a function of the environment.  Behavior, then, is not a cause, but an effect.  It is controlled by external factors, not a controlling factor. 

The simple problem with this is that it is too simplistic in a variety of ways.  First, it is amounts to a logical positivist position on psychological phenomena.  Logical positivism was a philosophical position that proposed that all meaningful statements had to be verifiable statements (the verificationist position).  That is, in order for a statement to have meaning, it had to be open to observation and testing.  Unfortunately, as later critics noted, this statement itself fails on the very grounds that the positivists required of it: it is not observable and testable.

Likewise, Watson attempted to develop an a-theoretical conceptualization of psychology.  In fact, in his presentation, he states that the data compelled him to see only observable behavior as a viable variable.  However, the basis of this statement is, in fact, a theoretical position that, itself not observable.  As such, there is a problematic base for this belief.  It was, in fact, his theoretical stance (however implicit), not the data or methodological observations, that led him to limit his descriptions to behavior.

Unfortunately, though Watson is deemed by some to be the paragon of scientism in psychology, this is an incredibly unscientific position to hold as it rules out, before investigation, certain unobservable behaviors.  Psychology has made valiant efforts to address this flaw in Watson’s perspective.  Still more unfortunately, however, they have done so by attempting to make nonobservable phenomena conform to the requirement of observability through operationalization (or operationism or operationalism, which amount to creating a definition of the object of study so that it can be made observable – or, at least, numerizable) – even though the logical positivists, whom Watson emulated (however unknowingly) in his a-theoretical/theoretical perspective on observable behavior, had, themselves, rejected operationalization. 

However, as Bridgman, an eminent physicist and the individual recognized as having given credence to the concept of “operationism” said, “’I feel as if I have created a Frankenstein, which has certainly gotten away from me. I abhor the word operationalism or operationism which seems to imply a dogma, or at least a thesis of some kind. The thing I have envisaged is too simple to be dignified by so pretentious a name.”  By the 1950s, the form of operationism propounded by psychologists was kind distinct from what Bridgman envisioned – and he disliked it considerably. 

Operationism, as propounded by psychologists, was a variant brought to them by Feigl, a logical positivist.  As noted above, the logical positivists had rejected operationism in its early form.  They did so for quite legitimate reasons: both because of its private nature (they demanded that knowledge be public – their reasoning for observability for meaningful statements) and, stemming from operationism being a private concept, their realization that no scientific term could ever be defined finitely if there were infinitely many instances – relative to each individual measurement – by which that term could be defined.  Still, the early behaviorists and subsequent psychological researchers maintained this brand of operationalization in their methods.

The logical positivist critique of the early form of operationism, however, still holds true for the contemporary brand: it is a private, relativistic, perspective on the measurement of psychological phenomenon. Interestingly, in order to avoid a conceptualization of psychology that involved consciousness, denying it to their subjects in the research endeavor, they smuggled it in fantastically as part of the observer’s role.  That is, the operationalization of phenomenon required the experimenter (the observer) to consciously decide what defined a particular object of study.  This decision, however, is relativistic (and solipsistic) in the sense that it depends on the individual experimenter’s (or a consensus among multiple experimenters – which is still relative to that group and their thoughts on the subject) perspective on what defines the object of study.  For example, ask several different people, independently, to define, “love.”  There will likely be some commonalities in their definitions but probably most notable will be their variations in defining the term.  This is what the logical positivists criticized in the original formation but, in their bringing the concept to psychologists, is exactly what psychologists chose to use as the foundation of their attempt to capture and study non-observable phenomena (such as love).

The point of all of this is that, beginning with Watson (and probably even before him), psychology began down the road of considering, in logical positivistic fashion, only observables as important for knowledge.  Though the road has perhaps been paved (with a cognitive perspective), it remains fundamentally the same: observable manifestations are considered by the majority of investigators in the field of psychology to be all that is knowable.  They did this, perhaps, to lend credence to their own studies – observable phenomena are not as nebulous as non-observable phenomena and, as such, are readily captured and studied.  What they failed to realize is that the logical positivists, whom they were attempting to emulate, had already found the fatal flaw with this perspective.  Furthermore, they failed to realize that it is not their data that narrows their investigation but the theoretical perspective on the data, which, as the critics of logical positivism have adequately demonstrated, is itself flawed.

How, then, do we handle this?  Suggestions have certainly been made.  One, for example, is to let the object of study determine the means of study.  That is, if you are studying a non-observable phenomenon, use a method that does not require its reduction to terms, numbers, etc., so that you can quantify it in observational analysis fashion.  Qualitative methods derived from phenomenology, hermeneutics, social constructionism, etc., have been proposed in this vein.  Alternatively, the theories that are proposed can themselves be tested against each other in dissociative methodology fashion to see which one fits the data instead of fitting the data to the theoretical perspective.  Finally, a critical methodological pluralism that involves the use of various methodologies informed by overtly expressed theoretical positions to determine convergence or divergence in methodological findings can be used in a complementary fashion to develop more holistic knowledge of the phenomenon.

Fuel for thought, I guess…head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 9, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment