Humanism and Behaviorism

In 1956, an extraordinary symposium was held in which Carl Rogers (the humanist psychologist) and B. F. Skinner (the great behaviourist) passionately debated one another. Their conversation is recorded in a wonderful book called Carl Rogers-Dialogues: Conversations with Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, B.F. Skinner, Gregory Bateson, Michael Polanyi, Rollo May, and others. Howard Kirschenbaum and Valerie Land Henderson (Eds.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

The debate itself offers a brilliantly concentrated summary of Skinner and Roger’s points of view, and certainly by the end it is clear that what they are arguing about is what precisely it means to be a human being.

Carl Rogers (and humanist psychology) emphasises inner life: the reality of inner experience, will, choice, freedom, feelings, growth, will, courage and self-actualisation. In contrast, B. F. Skinner (and behavioural psychology) emphasises outer life: external, observable behaviour, modes of reinforcement, and the problems of shaping and control.

Over the course of the debate, Skinner argued that ‘personality’ and the inner life are fictions which we use to account for a reality which is principally external. He thought that we mistake the ideas of our ‘selves’, our own ‘will’ and ‘innerness’ as the first cause of our actions, whereas he would argue that the ’cause’ is in fact a history of external reinforcement from the past, in which our actions have been met with certain consequences, and thus been shaped. We mistake such shaping as our sui generis selves.

Rogers was (literally) revolted by this view of human life (and even uses this word to express his disgust). His world is instead filled with individuals with richly detailed inner lives who make a decision to do this and not that; individuals with meaningful qualities who are able to will the direction of their existence and who are striving to grow. And feelings matter enormously here- recognising them, understanding them, and accepting them is one of the goals of humanist therapy. So Roger’s world is a very recognisable (even literary) world in which individuals make decisions using their own inner resources of character and personality, and ideally direct the course of their own lives, precisely from this inner compass, which is posed as the ’cause’ of this activity.

But for Skinner, what we have is a world of actions and reactions, behaviours and reinforcements (or punishments); a world of external activity which then has consequences, and which then creates the possible shapes and paths through which human existence can then flow- for him, the cause of human existence is the shaping fact of consequences on behavior, not the fiction of will or character. Agency is not internally possessed for Skinner- it is a fiction we pose after the fact of being reinforced in one direction or another. The driving force then of a society is not human will or uniqueness, but a regime of reinforcements and punishments.

For Rogers in this debate, Skinner’s world (and psychology) is an anathema. It is a world without freedom, he says, or meaning. People are reduced to automatons, the very opposite of the richly internal individuals of his own psychology. But to argue this I think is to mistake the radical nature of Skinner’s proposition. Skinner’s individual shaped by regimes of reinforcement would indeed appear as an automaton if one begins with the notion that people instead possess a self-generating inner will. But this is not where Skinner starts.

He actually argues that all organisms- all life- are actually externally shaped, and that freedom of a certain kind can arise from this (and from certain fortuitous schedules of reinforcement such as he describes in his utopian novel Walden Two). The notion of being an automaton on this model cannot make sense, because for Skinner there is no sense in the notion of a human being who is not shaped- indeed, for Skinner, a human being who is not shaped is not human.

So in this respect, I think that Rogers and Skinner ultimately argued at cross-purposes, because they in fact posed entirely different models of what a human being is, and then argued from there.

While I think I’d rather have Rogers as my therapist (he would be more affirming of the necessary fictions), I think it was Skinner who offered a truly radical view of human psychology.

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  1. I would say that the therapist (or, say, my child’s therapist), that understood both Skinner and Rogers would be a lifechanger. I am loving this blog; who knew the meaning of life would be found in psychology. How did that pass me by?

  2. I feel the same! When I did my first degree, psychoanalysis was the topic everyone was interested in (particularly in philosophy and literature) and I can remember thinking that Angl0-American psychology could never be as interesting, or significant, or complex. And I did begin psychology years ago, but was (ironically) entirely put off by statistics and behaviourism in particular. Now I wish I had ten life-times in which to study it!

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