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beyond the box

September 4, 2009

[Time Higher Education] Most psychologists I know have badly behaved pets, and their children are even worse. This could be because most psychologists are not behaviourists. A renowned dog psychologist assessed my black labrador and announced that this was the first hopeless case he had come across – not the dog, of course, but me. Barbara Woodhouse used to recommend a choke chain, and the dog psychologist suggested I use an electric collar, which gave a small electric shock in response to bad behaviour. I didn’t have the heart for either method. I wouldn’t want to be choked or shocked for inappropriate behaviour, so why would I do that to my dog?

And that’s the problem with using behaviourism in self-help books: most people don’t have the stomach for inflicting punishment on others, never mind themselves. Of course, effective “behaviour modification” is something many parents would be eager to implement on their own children, although they might balk at administering mild electric shocks for “punishment by contingent stimulation”. That’s where the new “Supernanny” brigade comes in: they use a modified version of behaviourism, in which the child is told why he or she is being punished or rewarded. Personally, I found this never worked on my son during his tantrums – but then I’m a psychologist.

Nowadays, of course, ethical considerations mean that you can’t say boo to a goose without first obtaining the goose’s written consent, and conducting a risk assessment of the possible health and safety hazards. It’s a minefield of bureaucratic litigation avoidance that makes you nostalgic for the good old days of electric shocks, deception and humiliation, all in the name of science. Of course, that’s precisely why ethics rules came into force. Rutherford explains how behaviourists in the Skinner mould, working in prisons and hospitals, were among those responsible for bringing psychology into public disrepute in the 1960s and 1970s, paving the way for the system of ethical approval of research studies we enjoy today.

This does not mean that the behaviourist approach to human psychology is no longer ethically possible. Rather, different systems of reward and punishment are used in more imaginative ways. Among them is the avoidance of terms such as “reward” and “punishment”, and indeed “behaviourism” itself. Most of the students in my Autism Spectrum Disorder class have completed internships with autism charities or in schools for children with autism, and are adept at working one-to-one with children using the ABA paradigm to help them learn new skills. Few of them know that ABA stands for “applied behaviour analysis”, and fewer still have the slightest inkling that it is the contemporary descendant of Skinner’s behaviourism. (read review)

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