A Science of Behavior: Perspective, History, and Assumptions

A Science of Behavior: Perspective, History, and Assumptions

Chapter 1

A Science of Behavior: Perspective, History, and Assumptions


Chapter 1 introduces the concept of behavior analysis—a natural science approach to the study of behavior and the contingencies that shape it. Learning concerns behavior acquired, maintained, and changed as a result of lifetime events, as well as alterations in the brain that accompany behavior change and participate in the regulation of behavior (neural plasticity). Behavior analysts interpret and modify behavior based on principles established by theexperimental analysis of behavior and applied behavior analysis. Experimental and applied analystsfocus on behavior—what the organism does—that occurs both outside and inside the organism. Behavior andits associated neural processes are caused by conditions acting at three levels of selection: natural selection for adaptive features including mechanisms of learning (and underlying genes), selection of behavior by lifetime eventsinvolving respondent and operant conditioning, and selection of cultural practices by the cost/benefits resulting for the group. Modern behavior analysis has grown from Pavlov’s original studies of respondent conditioning, Thorndike’s experiments on the law of effect, Watson’s S–R behaviorism, and Skinner’s integration of respondent and operant conditioning as the study of contingencies of reinforcement. Today, behavior analysis is a thriving biological science that examines basic and applied questions, incorporates the study of the brain or behavioral neuroscience, and includes the analysis of observable behaviors as well as private events often described as thinking and feeling.

Study Questions:

  1. How is learning defined by behavior analysts?
  2. What are the three primary objectives of behavior analysis?
  3. How does learning occur in respondent conditioning?
  4. How does learning occur in operant conditioning?
  5. What three levels of selection did Skinner propose as responsible for how people behave?
  6. What is the difference between immediate and remote causation?
  7. How is neuroplasticity related to learning?
  8. What does it mean to say that “the capacity for learning is inherited”?
  9. How do changes in histone acetylation and DNA methylation change genetic expression?
  10. Explain how operant consequences can be responsible for the change from “babbling” tospoken language.
  11. What wasSkinner’s position on feelings, thoughts, and intentions as explanations of behavior?
  12. According to Baer, Wolf, and Risley (1968), what is the major difference between basic and applied analyses of behavior?
  13. What was Pavlov intending to study and what did he accidentally observe when he discovered respondent conditioning?
  14. What was Watson’s major argument in his 1913 paper “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It”?
  15. How did Watson train Little Albert? What was he trying to demonstrate with this work?
  16. What is the modern restatement of Thorndike’s law of effect?
  17. Identify three major contributions of Skinner’s (1938) The Behavior of Organisms.
  18. How do behavior analysts view events that occur inside the organism?
  19. Why is it both correct and incorrect to say that behavior analysts ignore feelings?
  20. How does the behavior (move strength score) of tournament and expert chess players change as they deliberate final moves on easy and hard chess problems?

Study Questions (Answers):

  1. Learning is the acquisition, maintenance, and change in behavior as a result of lifetime events.
  2. The three primary objectives of behavior analysis are: (1) discover the principles and laws that govern behavior, (2) extend these principles across species, and (3) develop an applied technology of behavior change based on these laws and principles.
  3. Learning occurs in respondent conditioning through the correlation of non-functional stimuli or events with an unconditioned stimulus.
  4. In operant conditioning, learning involves the operant behavior of the organism and the changes in the environment (consequences) that behavior produces.
  5. Skinner’s three levels of selection: natural selection, selection of operant behavior, and cultural selection.
  6. In the study of behavior, an immediate causal explanation might refer a chain of events involving the physiology, biochemistry, and genetics of the organism.Remote causation refers to distant events in the past, such as the evolution of learning mechanisms by natural selection, or selection of operant behavior by a prior history of reinforcement.
  7. Neuroplasticity involvesalterations in the brain that accompany behavior change and participate in the regulation of behavior. These neural changes describe learning at the level of the brain, and result froman organism’s behavioral interactions with the world.
  8. Behavioral flexibility and neuroplasticity can only occur so long as the genetics of the organism encode for adaptive behavior. The genes provide the ability, but the interaction of behavior with the environment is needed to activate and regulate the systems.
  9. Histone acetylation and DNA methylation alterthe availability of genes for transcription by mRNA. Histone acetylation decreases the affinity between histone core and DNA, increasing the gene expression. DNA methylation increases the affinity, decreasing gene expression.
  10. A baby’s original babbles contain a variety of basic speech sounds and parents respond to some vocalizations, but not to others. The response of the parents selects sounds that are similar to those from the native language in the home. This process eventually produces speaking consistent with the language practices of the verbal community or culture.
  11. Internal, private activities such as thoughts, feelings, and intentions are not causes of behavior, but are references to additional behavior that needs to be explained.
  12. Basic research examines variables controlling any arbitrary behavior, but applied research is constrained to target variables that effectively change socially important behavior of interest to particular sectors (e.g., family, school, or community) of society.
  13. Pavlov was investigating the role of salivation in the digestion of food when he observed that dogs began to salivate before the food was placed in the dog’s mouth. He realized that this association between the events preceding food and salivation showed that the dogs anticipated the delivery of food and represented a newkind of learning.
  14. Watson argued that psychology should be the scientific study of observable behavior and should avoid both mind–body dualism and philosophical speculation.
  15. Watson brought Little Albert into a room and allowed him to play with a white rat. When Albert reached for the rat, Watson would make a loud and unexpected noise that scared Albert. This conditioned Albert to fear the rat. Watson believed this was a demonstration that phobias can be learned behavior.
  16. The modernlaw of effectis restated as the principle of reinforcement, which states that all operant responses may be followed by consequences that increase or decrease the probability of response in the same situation.
  17. Three major ideas presented in Skinner’s (1938) book are (1) that behavior can be studied for its own sake, (2) that there are two types of learning: respondent and operant conditioning, and (3) learning is focused on the observable correlations between objective events and behavior.
  18. Private, internal events are a part of the organism’s environmentas are public sources of physical stimulation involving light, sound, and touch. Private eventsrefer to unobservablebehavior such as thinking and feeling, which require explanation, and to internal stimuli (painful contractions) that contribute to the regulation ofbehavior.
  19. Behavior analysts can be said to ignore feelings because they do not accept them as causes of behavior. At the same time, behavior analysts are very interested in feelings as behaviors that need to be explained by evaluating the environmental events that cause them.
  20. On easychess problems, both experts and tournament players show improved moves with further deliberation, but tournament players show more improvement. For hardproblems, experts showed improvements with more deliberation or thinking, but tournament players did not. Use of the “think aloud” method shows how the private behavior of thinking is influenced by consequences, involving improved moves for position on the board.

Essay Questions (Student):

  1. What is meant by selection by consequences? At what three levels does Skinner believe that behavior is selected? How does each of these work?

ANS: Selection by consequences is a type of causal explanation that occurs at three levels: natural selection, operant selection, and cultural selection. In all three cases, it is the consequences arranged by the environment that select for (or against) the frequency of genetic, behavioral, and cultural forms. Natural selection involvesincreases over generations of genes coding for features/behavior related to survival and reproduction.At the level of operant selection, behaviors that produce reinforcement in a given setting become more frequent throughout one’s lifetime. Finally, at the level of culture, behavior patterns (practices, traditions, or rituals) that benefit groups of human beings increaseandendure beyond the lifetime of individual members (cultural selection). In all three cases, it is the consequences arranged by the environment that select for (or against) the frequency of genetic, behavioral, and cultural forms.

  1. What is epigenetics? Explain the two primary epigenetic mechanisms identified in the text and describe how each works.

ANS: Epigenetics is a branch of biology concerned with heritable, functional changes to the genome that do not involve alterations of the gene itself. The two mechanisms are: (1) DNA methylation (adding mythyl groups to DNA), which increases the affinity between DNA and histone “spools,” thus limiting accessibility to the genetic code and silencing the gene transcription machinery; and (2) histone modification (acetylation, adding acetyl groups to histone tails), which decreases the affinity between histone and DNA, allowing for mRNA transcription and subsequent translation into proteins.

Essay Questions (Instructor):

1.Explain neuroplasticity and epigenetics and explain how these are important to understanding how the environment affects behavior.

ANS: Neuroplasticity describes the changes that occur in neural networks as we interact with the world. Epigenetics is the changes in gene expression, which result from behavioral interactions with our world. Both of these mechanisms are ways that our biology—either brain systems or genetic expression—are altered by our experience. These two mechanisms are critical to understanding the environment–behavior relationship because they show us that learning is a physical process by which the neurophysiology of the organism is actually adapted to the world by its environment–behavior interactions.

2.Explain how behavior analysts view thinking, feeling, and intentions. How does this differ from how psychologists view these concepts? How has this view changed over the history of behavior analysis?

ANS: Thinking, feeling, and intentions can be either behaviors, like any other behavior, or they can be environmental events that influence behavior. Most psychologists view these internal concepts as causes of behavior. Thinking, feeling, and intentions make behaviors happen. Behavior analysts do not believe this. Watson, argued that these concepts do not even exist. His views of behaviorism are that what happens inside the organism is not open to scientific investigation. Skinner changed this view. He saw thinking, feeling, and intentions as just other types of behavior to be explored scientifically.


  • Sigrid Glenn—Levels of selection
  • Neuroplasticity
  • NOVA Science—Epigenetics
  • Ivan Pavlov—Classical conditioning
  • John B. Watson—Little Albert experiments
  • B.F. Skinner—Operant conditioning and free will
  • B.F. Skinner—On education
  • B.F. Skinner—It is possible to change the ways people treat each other
  • B.F. Skinner—Behaviorism is a humanistic psychology
  • Murray Sidman—The scientist/practitioner in behavior analysis

Study Tips:

  • A key to understanding behavior analysis is to separate behavior from environment. Behavior is what the organism does, while the environment consists of functional events in the world thatsurround behavior. For private events, the environment consists of hormones, neurotransmitters, DNA, and other chemicals responses that are part of the organism’sbiological system.
  • As you study this chapter, pay particular attention to the terms respondent and operant; these terms are used to describe both types of behavior and types of learning.
  • Throughout this text, you can organize your understanding of behavior around Skinner’s three levels of selection: natural selection, selection of operant behavior, and cultural selection.
  • Epigenetics—a branch of biology concerned with heritable, functional changes to the genome that do not involve alterations of the gene itself—is a theme throughout the text as it highlights the interplay between experience and the genetic expression.
  • Rather than viewing thinking and feeling as causes of behavior, behavior analysts view thinking and feelings as behaviors that are influenced by the environment, same as any other behavior.

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