Thursday, January 10, 2008

Does behaviorism work?

Behaviorism was one of the now-discredited psychological theories of the last century, championed by B.F. Skinner, according to which mental states do not matter because behavior can be programmed directly. Mario Beauregard and I talk a bit about this in The Spiritual Brain.

Actually, the mere mention of the placebo effect should be enough to sink behaviorism as a theory. Basically, for many illnesses, mental states play a huge role in how well treatments work (placebo effect) - or DON'T work (nocebo effect).

Of course, W. H. Auden took a down-to-earth approach to how the theory was used in practice. He said,
Of course, Behaviourism "works". So does torture. Give me a no-nonsense, down-to-earth behaviourist, a few drugs, & simple electrical appliances, & in six months I will have him reciting the Athanasian Creed in public.

Behaviorist treatments for obsessive compulsive disorder have, for example, included forcing compulsive handwashers to touch toilets in public washrooms, after which they were forbidden the wash their hands. As a result, many refused to seek treatment. And if that's a new standard in enlightenment, we might as well move back to the Dark Ages.

Hat tip Toronto journalist David Warren for the Auden quote. Here are some other fun quotes about psychological and educational bad ideas.

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