Posted by: Michael Atkisson | October 12, 2010

Behaviorism vs. Cognitivism

Behaviorism and Cognitivism are two movements in psychology that have significant implications for viewing learning and education. Behaviorism is the study of behavior for the purpose of identifying its determinants. Behaviorism employs mechanism as a fundamental metaphor, which assumes that behavior is governed by a finite set of physical laws. Cognitivism was a reaction to Behaviorism. It is the study of mental processes through the scientific method and abstractions from behavior. Cognitivism employs mechanism and information processing as the principle metaphors for interpreting findings.

The two movements differ particularly in their views on behavior. Behaviorism, whose research subjects were mostly animals, views behavior as an irreducible consequence of environmental stimuli, where as Cognitivism, whose research subjects are often humans, sees behavior as a point from which to abstract the mental processes behind the behavior.

Cognitivism and Behaviorism are also similar in significant ways. They both use mechanism as a fundamental assumption. Cognitivism goes beyond behaviorism in that it extends the mechanical assumptions to the mind, not just behavior. But nonetheless both movements view human action, mental or otherwise, as determined by physical laws.

The two movements also hold in common a contradiction; they use subjective metaphors as the base for objective science.  Behaviorism uses the stimulus and response metaphor to interpret exhibited behavior in the world and sets its inquiry according to the affordances of the metaphor. Similarly, Cognitivism uses information processing as a way to explain how humans perceive, remember, and understand the world around them. Because cognitive science bases its inquiry within the information processing metaphor, the conclusions about mental processes are only as objective to the level that metaphor is subjective.

Though the two movements are different, cognitive does not escape all of behaviorism’s criticism. Cognitive science, however, overcomes Behaviorism’s main faults, particularly that reflexes and reinforcements cannot account for all human behavior and that animal behavior is not the best predictor of human behavior.

Cognitivism also attempts to go beyond behaviorism by attempting to explain how humans reason, make decisions, why they make errors, how they remember and mis-remember, in other words, things that are very much part of the human experience but cannot be explained by behavior alone. Nevertheless, with its roots in mechanism, cognitivism is still subject to the reductionism that leaves no room for meaningful human action. Cognitive science may have made advances over a strict stimulus/response view of the world, but a metaphor of inputs and outputs to explain how humans think a feel does not reconcile within mechanics and physical laws how humans are self-actuating. A machine, by default has no inherent meaning or sentience, but in humans, something is doing the filtering, the creating, and the development of meaning. A science that has at its core a metaphor that assumes there is no action until acted upon cannot fully explain human behavior, mental processes, or human meaning.

About these ads

Responses

  1. I don’t understand what you mean when you say “they use subjective metaphors as the base for objective science. Behaviorism uses the stimulus and response metaphor to interpret exhibited behavior in the world and sets its inquiry according to the affordances of the metaphor. ”

    can you explain how this is a metaphor, and what it is a metaphor for?

    • Sure,

      Thanks for your question. A lot of times in my writing I use “abstraction” and “metaphor” interchangeably in my writing. In this case, the behaviorists created abstractions called “stimulus” and “response” and applied them to the behavior that they observed (observed animal behavior and then also assumed that these were laws that human behavior also followed). Stimuli and responses do not actually exist, they are metaphors or abstractions that humans have subjectively applied in an attempt to make sense of the observed (only the observed world for behaviorists) world. These abstractions or metaphors are subjective because it requires human judgment in the decision in how or when to apply them to observed behavior. Stimulus and response are metaphors in the sense that they are caricatures. As metaphors, they exaggerate or underscore certain properties of the observed behavior and obfuscate others (rather than objectively define them). They are also metaphors in the sense that they are meaning-laden terms that index to a broader theory about the nature and meaning of behavior. The terms stimulus and response indicate that the researcher (or user of the term) assumes a reductionist and nihilistic philosophy of science that behavior and meaning can be reduced to fundamental components and that behavior is just a necessary output of a process that started with an external force. In other words, humans are no more than complex machines that respond to external forces and have no inherent meaning or agency of their own.

      The implications of using terms like stimulus and response unchecked in sciences is the lack of recognition that they are actually subjective abstractions that come tied to a base of philosophical assumptions, not from an objective set of laws. Without recognition of the subjectivity and philosophical base in use of the term in language, and use of the construct as a basis for collection and interpretation of data, the conclusions will not be able to systematically account for the error as a result of the subjectivity. Arguments that do nor recognizes subjectivity and explain their use and intention are over reaching and fundamentally flawed. I’m not saying subjective views are bad, but it poor science if they are unaccounted for, for example in how the behaviorists proclaimed objectivity on the pedestal of their “philosophy”.

      The broader implication for science is that science is rarely objective. Because methodology and the practice of science involve judgment by the scientists, the philosophical assumptions of the scientists will always be in play in how they collect, interpret, and make conclusions about the data that they observe. Science does not have a hold on objectivity because much of the reasoning involved and interpretation there of is based on abstraction and metaphor.

      Please let me know if this answers your question.

      Thanks,

      Michael

  2. [...] learning analytics align itself with the fading juggernauts of behaviorism and cognitive science (Gardner, 1987; Williams, 1987)? The eclectic round up of theories of constructivism (Hay & S. [...]

  3. You are utterly clueless. I hope you are not a therapist. Disgraceful.

    • Joe, Is there anything in particular that you would like to cite regarding your conjecture? Or are you just looking to insult and injure?

    • If you can point out a criticizable part of this text which did not make sense by all means, it was quite helpful piece of information and I very much thank the writer.

  4. Michael, this is an excellent explanation. well done. I will be referencing this in my thesis. I particulary like the unspoken elephant in the room regarding the missing piece to human behaviour (be it spiritual or far further from our ability to make sense of even still!). I would be interested in your thoughts on this in due course.

    Joe???? seriously – regale us with your wisdom…

  5. nice one

  6. [...] Michael. 2010. Behaviorism vs. Cognitivism. Available online on http://woknowing.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/behaviorism-vs-cognitivisim/. Retrieved on October 11 [...]

  7. [...] Kevin Werbach mentioned two major traditions in psychology: behaviorism and cognitivism. Behaviorism is about looking at behaviours, looking at what people do. Cognitivism is about mental [...]

  8. what do you think is a better explanation for how humans behave?

  9. @ Joe
    Why don’t you argue instead of throwing insults. We are ready to hear all.

  10. “A machine, by default has no inherent meaning or sentience, but in humans, something is doing the filtering, the creating, and the development of meaning. A science that has at its core a metaphor that assumes there is no action until acted upon cannot fully explain human behavior, mental processes, or human meaning.”

    This is question-begging from the perspective of cognitive science and philosophy of AI. You seem to be suggesting some form of dualism, some meaning-creating agent apart from the machinery of the brain. Can your prove that cognitivism/machinery are insufficient to account for semantics (meaning)?

    If humans are just machines (made of smaller machines, i.e., cells) then cognitivism would be sufficient, no?

  11. “Stimuli and responses do not actually exist, they are metaphors or abstractions that humans have subjectively applied in an attempt to make sense of the observed (only the observed world for behaviorists) world. ”

    A stimulus is an energy change that affects an organism through its receptor cells. A response is an action of an organism’s effector. It’s a stretch to call these metaphors. It’s similar to calling the brain a metaphor.

    The criticism that behaviourism does not account for all human behaviour is pretty silly. It’s a bit like criticising physics for its inability to predict exactly when it will rain correctly all of the time. Behaviourism – through research related to stimulus equivalence, generalisation, relational frame theory and the like – shows how complex and novel behaviours can emerge.

    .As for animal research, the principles identified in these situations have been replicated in humans and used successfully in the treatment of drug problems, problems associated with autism, speech difficulties, chronic pain etc.

  12. […] Atkisson, M. (2010, October 12). Ways of knowing: Examining perception, practice, learning, and design [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://woknowing.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/behaviorism-vs-cognitivisim/ […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: