Posted by: Michael Atkisson | October 10, 2010

Mechanism as a Central Principle of Behaviorism

One of the primary assumptions of behaviorism is mechanism, a metaphor that characterizes behavior as no more than a mechanical response to stimuli in the environment. Mechanism has its roots in Descartes’ mind/body dualism. The body, animals, and the outside world operate under the mechanics of physical laws. By the 1900’s mechanism moved to the forefront of social science inquiry because many researchers and theorists of the day believed it to be more objective than the ultra subjective introspectionism practiced by many psychologists.

Again, mechanism purports that behavior is governed by physical laws, and that it is the necessary response to the environmental stimuli that caused it. Pavlov used mechanism in classical conditioning to justify his conclusions on creating new reflexive behavior in animals. Thorndike used mechanism as the basis for his Law of Effect, which posited that consequences to actions determined future action. Though Skinner felt that behavior was more than reflex, his operant conditioning model put forward that the use of reinforcements explained the variation observed in behavior. Mechanism was the common thread in the conclusions of these behaviorists, that behavior is necessarily determined by physical laws.

The behaviorist view that behavior, particularly human behavior, is a mechanical sequence cannot account for complex behaviors such as those observed in the creative and design processes. How can mechanics be behind the allegorical whit of Don Quixote, or the master strokes that produced the Mona Lisa? Surely the human design and construction of Gaudi’s cathedral and parks in Barcelona cannot exist for the same reasons that frost crystals appear to paint glass. Mechanics, or the view that humans are only acted upon, cannot account for the creation of magnificent artifacts of culture and beauty.

Furthermore, mechanism reduces behavior to a meaningless set of actions. A strict behaviorist may ask, “What meaning is in gravity?” and then posit that such is human behavior.  But a mechanical world cannot account for behavior that exhibits the exercise of agency in novel situations, the decision-making that occurs in situations beyond the comprehension of a single human being, the determined empathy that Tibetan monks feel for their Chinese captors, or the camaraderie that soldiers build on the battlefield. Human action is meaningful, even though mechanism cannot account for it.

Skinner would counter the criticisms regarding higher-level thinking with the argument that higher-level thinking cannot be observed. Only behavior is observed, everything else is an abstraction to the black box, which is unknowable. Only what is observed can be known. And regarding meaningful action, he would say that behavior is governed by physical laws, which provide no window into ontology. What more meaning is there in a feather on the wind than the shiver to the cold?

The arguments of those who accept mechanism will always talk past those who do not accept it, because belief in a metaphor is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Consequently, no evidence can persuade one way or the other. I choose to not believe in mechanism, nor that any stimulus has forced upon me to reach that conclusion.


  1. In reading your exposé on mechanism, I think you might be interested in reading Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape. He is a neuroscientist who believes that morality is based on human flourishing and thoroughly enmeshed with science and rationality. He believes science can answer questions about morality and values (that lead to our behavior).

  2. Hi Starleen,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I looked it up on Amazon ( Looks interesting, but I am a bit weary of the subtitle, “How science can determine human values.” Not having read the book, I can’t say what he means by “determine” but, coming from neuroscience it seems that he would follow the deterministic account of ontology, that in the end we are no more than the sum of bio-mechanical parts that function together, but hold no inherit meaning. Hopefully that is not his assumption. I’ll check it out.

  3. You are incorrect about Skinner’s views on higher processes. There have also been behavioural accounts of things like creativity. You are making assertions without justification. Who has proved that we cannot account for the things that you list? This seems like a “god of the gaps” types argument.

    Also, Behaviour Analysis uses contextualism rather than mechanism. Here is a paper on the subject:

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