Dana Do’s: Skinner’s Radical Idea About Private Events and Behaviorism

How on Earth are private events consistent with behaviorism? Here’s what happened: Skinner had this radical idea that there are elements of mentalism that should be considered in the analysis of behavior. It’s not that he wanted to do psycho therapy (or talk about penis envy). But he believed that there were environmental variables that are intrinsic to a person, not observable or measurable by someone else outside of that organism. This likely shook the methodological behaviorists to the core, and probably how we got the name “radical behaviorism”, because that was, well, radical.

Essentially, this new, radical school of thought meant accepting private variables can control behavior. Consider this– there are behaviors that are private. For example, a private headache evokes the public behavior of taking an aspirin, or placing your hand to your head. When I see a picture of a bunny rabbit, a public stimulus, it makes me think of my dad, a private response. This could also make me smile (a public response), or feel happy (a private response).

Skinner was suggesting that these private variables, or private events, matter. We can’t get a complete picture of a person’s behavior without including these elements in our analysis of their behavior. Skinner still believed that this behavior needed to be measurable and observable. As we know, private events can only be measured by self-reports. But for all of those healthy skeptics: yes, self-reports are measures, if it can be counted. It is measurement, even if you’re the only one who observed it.

Skinner, you’re so radical.

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