Problems with Behaviorism

People sometimes ask me if I’m a behaviorist. I’m not.

Behaviorism usually refers to approaches of Pavlov (classical conditioning of stimulus/response) and Skinner (behavior modification by reinforcing behavior AFTER an act occurs).

Behavior modification is popular in schools, especially with special education specialists. Unfortunately, MANY RESEARCH STUDIES HAVE SHOWN THE APPROACH TO BE INEFFECTIVE. However, its staying power is attested to by an increasing number of states mandating that schools use “positive behavior support” that is based on a behavior modification model.

The essence of behavior modification is to REWARD DESIRED BEHAVIOR AND IGNORE UNDESIRED BEHAVIOR. The fact that inappropriate behavior is ignored can send the message that nothing is wrong with the behavior, and so there may be little incentive to stop doing it. Therefore, a major problem with the approach is that when undesired behavior is not addressed such behavior can become “reinforced.”

Since all behavior modification RELIES ON AN EXTERNAL STIMULUS—something or someone external or outside the person—in a certain sense, this can be related to level C in that the motivation is external.

The RAISE RESPONSIBILITY SYSTEM encourages INTERNAL motivation (level D). External motivation (level C) is acceptable, but it is not the highest or most effective approach to changing behavior.

People who rely on behavior modification believe that rewarding behavior influences the person to change. But in reality, only the MOTIVATION CHANGES. This can be witnessed in young people who ask, “What will I get if I do it?” The motivation lasts only as long as the reward lasts; when the reward is gone, so is the motivation.

External sources prompt us to act, but the behavior itself is not automatic; nor does one’s BEHAVIOR ever come from outside the person. Behavior is a person’s own choice. The actions may be habitual and/or nonconscious, but the behavior ALWAYS comes from that person. Therefore, it would be misleading if I classified myself as a behaviorist in the traditional sense of the word. I could classify myself as an INternalist—a word that perhaps I have just coined.