Behaviorism emerged as an attempt to make psychology more scientific by changing the object of its study. Instead of studying unobservable consciousness, behaviorists suggested that psychology should focus on investigating observable behavior, thus taking a natural science approach. However, behaviorism is not a monolithic entity since there are different schools of behaviorism, the most prominent of which are methodological behaviorism proposed by Watson and radical behaviorism developed by Skinner.
Watson’s methodological behaviorism posits that psychology should study only behaviors that can be directly observed or measured (Powell et al., 2016). Methodological behaviorism adopts a mechanistic view of learning, referred to as a stimulus-response theory (Powell et al., 2016). According to this theory, animals and people learn by establishing connections between environmental events (stimuli) and behaviors (responses). While Watson ignored unobservable behaviors, such as thinking, Skinner never did so. Instead, he referred to these behaviors as private events and argued that psychology should explain them (Lundy et al., 2017; Powell et al., 2016). However, he rejected using these private events for explaining behavior. Furthermore, like Watson, Skinner emphasized the impact of the environment on behavior. However, his radical behaviorism views behavior not as a response to a recent stimulus but as an organism’s response to its accumulated learning history (Powell et al., 2016). Thus, the two schools of behaviorism stress the role of the environment in behavior but differ in how they define this role and how they view private events.
Methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism differently account for private events or mentalism. Methodological behaviorism ignores thoughts and feelings because they cannot be directly observed (Powell et al., 2016). Private events can be studied only based on personal narratives, which can be a subjective and biased source of information. In contrast, radical behaviorism does not ignore private events. In radical behaviorism, private events are also called covert behaviors and are distinguished from overt behaviors (Lundy et al., 2017). Radical behaviorism admits that covert behaviors deserve as much scientific attention as overt behaviors, but they should not be used for the explanation of observable behaviors (Powell et al., 2016). For example, a radical behaviorist cannot explain a student’s engagement in studying by his desire to get a good mark. Instead, a behaviorist should explain both behaviors, i.e., studying and the desire to get a high mark.
Methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism differ in how they apply to humans and animals. Methodological behaviorism takes a realistic approach to organisms, which divides the world into the objective and the subjective (Baum, 2017). Since the subjective world cannot be observed, methodological behaviorists place behavior in the objective world and study only those behaviors that can be seen (Baum, 2017). Radical behaviorism, on the contrary, adopts a pragmatic approach, which does not distinguish between subjective and objective worlds (Baum, 2017). Instead, it tries to explain the behavior that occurs in one world and uses an organism’s past experiences for this purpose (Baum, 2017). In addition, methodological behaviorism describes the behavior of organisms in mechanic terms, while radical behaviorism aims for clarity and prefers more descriptive terms.
Although both philosophies emphasize the influence of the environment on behavior, they focus on different environmental factors. According to methodological behaviorism, behavior emerges as a response to a specific environmental event or stimulus (Powell et al., 2016). Organisms learn various behaviors by forming connections between stimuli and responses, and more complex behavior involves a longer chain of connections (Powell et al., 2016). In contrast, radical behaviorism distinguishes between a stimulus-response connection and learned responses (Powell et al., 2016). According to radical behaviorism, organisms can elicit consequences by responses that they learned throughout their lives.
To sum up, methodological behaviorism and radical behaviorism are similar in that they emphasize the role of the environment in behavior. However, methodological behaviorism disregards private events, is based on realism, and views behavior as a response to an external stimulus. In contrast, radical behaviorism allows for studying private events, is based on pragmatism, and views behavior as the attempt to elicit specific consequences based on experience.
Baum, W. M. (2017). Understanding behaviorism: Behavior, culture, and evolution (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Lundy, P., Moore, J., & Bishop, K. (2017). Radical behaviorism. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences (pp. 1-4). Springer.
Powell, R. A., Honey, P. L., & Symbaluk, D. G. (2016). Introduction to learning and behavior (5th ed.). Cengage Learning.