Remember behaviorism? B.F. Skinner’s best-selling book for popular audiences, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” published in 1971 had everyone talking about behavioral analysis as a tool to change human society and solve global problems. Inevitably, the public moved on to “the Next Big Thing” and behavioral analysis returned to university classrooms.
Dr. Stephen Ledoux has spent his career doing behavioral analysis, now known as behaviorology. Upon this retirement from the State University of New York at Canton, Ledoux and his wife relocated to Los Alamos. When asked by a colleague to produce a version of his text book that was appropriate for freshman students, Ledoux realized that he could satisfy the need for a general-audience book at the same time. “What Causes Human Behavior—Stars, Selves, or Contingencies?” was released in 2017 by BehaveTech Publishing in Ottawa, Canada.
Ledoux will talk about his book, and about behaviorology and its potential to help create a sustainable society at an Authors Speak event at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 28 at Mesa Public Library.
Never a good fit in psychology departments, behaviorology takes a natural science, evidence-based approach to studying human behavior, Ledoux said. It rejects approaching human behavior “magically,” by means of things that can’t be measured or tested, such as the mind, the self or the soul.
“Behaviorology helps people understand human behavior through the variables discovered by experimental research,” Ledoux said.
Ledoux spends the first part of the book on methodology, terminology and experimental technique. Through every day examples, Ledoux shows how antecedents lead to behavior, followed by a “postcedent.” The rules of behavior determined by reward and punishment may appear simple in a rat or a pigeon, but human behavior is of course much more complex. Conditioning and response to stimuli still function for humans as does behavior modeling, but when one gets outside the lab and into a human environment, the analysis of variables becomes more difficult. Changing the independent variables can change behavior without involving coercion, Ledoux said.
Techniques from behaviorology have had wide success in treating autism, Ledoux said. It also has had a big impact on education, parenting, medicine, management, and even diplomacy. Ledoux thinks his field has much more to offer.
“Science once compromised with the Church to divide human experience to inside and outside. We can’t afford that compromise now,” he said. “Things like global warning have put time constraints on us.”
The second half of the book provides some initial scientific answers to some long–standing human questions about values, rights, ethics, morals, language, consciousness, personhood, life, death, and reality. It also tackles the question of how to engineer the changes that will be required in human behavior if the species is to survive.
From self-help books to political manifestos, understanding and shaping human behavior remains as hot a topic as it was in the 1960s and 70s. Studying it has to be a first step and behaviorology offers a scientific model for doing so. The field, as outlined in Ledoux’s primer, is definitely worth examining.