So Many Kinds of Voices – Behaviorism

Its History

Pavlov! Your response to the name is probably as certain as was the response of his dogs. (Not pavlova! That is what makes some of our readers‘ gastric juices flow.) Virtually every reader recalls learning of Pavlov’s dogs and conditioned responses. He was able to train his dogs to respond to certain stimuli. After repeated exposure to the same stimulus, a dog would respond in a predictable manner. Ivan Pavlov found that if he put together a stimulus such as a buzzer which led to dogs being fed, he could make the dogs salivate in anticipation of food, just by using the buzzer.

After World War 1 and its sobering lesson about human nature, N. American psychology turned away from European thinking to a more behavioristic outlook. This was initially introduced by J. B. Watson and then championed by B. F. Skinner at Harvard. The thinking of both Skinner and, eventually, Watson was conditioned (no pun intended) by Ivan Pavlov’s work.

Its Theory

Essential to the extrapolating of the conclusions from Pavlov’s dogs to human beings is the issue which is at the heart of the problem: man is only “another” animal. He is only material, without soul or spirit. Human beings can be taught to respond in certain predictable patterns because of learned behavior. You can make a person respond in the way you choose by conditioning her to a particular stimulus.

You may not be aware of it, but what was suggested by Pavlov, supported by Skinner, and championed by Watson, is now appearing at the school nearest you, or at least at the nearest bookstore. Child-rearing techniques borrow heavily from this theory. Human relationships seminars have imbibed this principle as a keystone of their methods.

Its Fallacy

While human beings may respond predictably to certain situations, there is always an unpredictability associated with human behavior. That is because man is more than “another” animal. It is important to remember that what all behavior psychologists show in their work with animals is that they can make the particular animal behave in a particular way. You cannot even extrapolate experimental data from one species to another, much less assume that it can apply universally to human beings.

The great fallacy, of course, is that man is more than animal. The added dimension is that man has a will, the ability to choose. This is what elevates man. Made in the image of God, he is a free-will agent. At times his behavior is very predictable; but at times his behavior is totally unpredictable.

But if you think through the argument of the behaviorist, you find an additional fallacy at the core of his teaching. Carried to its logical conclusion, behaviorism would mean that everything is predetermined. We are acting at any given moment because we have been “conditioned” by previous life experiences to act that way. It places man in a box from which he cannot extricate himself. It removes all responsibility from us. While that may make some people comfortable, it is also sobering to realize it eliminates choice and change. Each human being becomes the victim of her conditioning. Even the theory of a B.F. Watson is predetermined and may not be accurate or of any value.

Its Tragedy

Deja vu Roman 1! Man has been reduced from the image of God to the image of a four footed beast. In its vain attempt to “elevate” man and free humanity from the shackles of religion and tradition, behaviorism has degraded us to the level of a non-thinking beast who salivates for his food and jumps when the button is pushed.

Although there may at times be a measure of predictability to human behavior, let us never forget that man does have a free will. None of us has the moral right to blame our behavior on others. The small child whose excuse is, “He made me do it,” is expressing the teaching of behaviorism. Let us as believers never stoop to such depths. We are responsible before God for our actions. To allow others to control our behavior, or to use their treatment of us as an excuse for our response, is wrong. James touches on this when he says, “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).