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ControlReview - Control
A History of Behavioral Psychology
by John A. Mills
New York University Press, 1998
Review by Natalie Simpson
Feb 29th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 9)

When I completed my introductory studies in psychology last year, there was one thing that I knew - that everybody knew - about behaviorism. It was easy. It followed a scientific approach; the principles and experiments were simple; and best of all, its strengths and weaknesses were clear cut, which made it easy to criticize. Cognitive psychology was harder because it was more complex than original behaviorism, but at the introductory level it was still fairly straightforward - much easier to deal with than psychoanalysis, which had complex terminology and myriad variations, and humanistic psychology, which stressed the uniqueness of individuals rather than searching for rules to follow.

Having read Control, I now know better - behaviorism is not as easy as I thought! The main claim of the book is that behaviorism has taken a dominant place in psychology, and as a result, psychologists have assumed that the behaviorist view is the best, and even the only correct position to take. However, behaviorists have such a narrow view of human motivation that it cripples their thought processes. Not only do psychologists fail to question behaviorist assumptions, but they are so thoroughly indoctrinated with behaviorism that they do not even realize they are thinking behavioristically. A secondary claim is that behaviorism does not consist of one single theory, but is made up of a huge range of theories that are so diverse that it can be argued that they have nothing in common.

The dominance of behaviorist and cognitive approaches in psychology is surely beyond doubt. Behaviorism has been thought of as being objective and independent of the values of any particular culture, but this assumption has been undermined in recent research. Mills writes, "Behaviorism derived its unity from social and institutional sources; its intellectual and conceptual cohesion was correspondingly slight." Far from being a neutral and logical construction, it grew from seeds planted by the ideological movements of the time, especially Progressivism.

I was curious about behaviorism's expected fate and what its successor will be. Will psychologists continue to use behaviorism, but rely on it less? Would a more eclectic approach be likely? Or is there simply no answer? I found nothing in the way of speculation on this subject, which I suppose is fair enough, since the book is primarily intended as a critical history of behaviorism. I could not disagree with the book's concluding sentence, nor fail to appreciate its eloquence and passion, but I did find it somewhat dispiriting: "But now the sun of modernism, which nourished behaviorism and its seed, operationism, has sunk beneath the horizon. Bereft of its support, the psychological technologies of yesteryear are pale, limp, and etiolated." (p193).

It seems that today's courses in psychology are critical of everything, including claims, evidence, perspectives and the use of the scientific approach to examine something as complex as the human mind. Although the thought processes of behaviorist psychologists earlier this century are meticulously examined, the book provides less evidence that behaviorism is accepted today without criticism or examination of its assumptions, and it would have been interesting to see some more information and evidence about how other psychologists in more recent times see the role of behaviorism.

I was only partly convinced that behaviorists are truly diverse in their approaches. My knowledge of philosophy is perhaps too elementary to appreciate the significance of the difference between a radical behaviorist (one who believes that the mental and physical are identical and that mental events can be fully explicated in a physicalist language) and a logical behaviorist (one who believes that all mental language can be translated, without loss of meaning, into physicalist language). I understand that behaviorists varied in their priorities and goals; for example, Hull's goal was to quantify everything so that his formulae could be tested in laboratory conditions, but I still need to be convinced that these differences are significant compared with what behaviorists have in common.

The book does not state its intended readership, but it appears to be pitched at a graduate or final year undergraduate level. A detailed knowledge of behaviorism and an appreciation of philosophy is needed to get the most from this book. Although the style is accessible and not dry, the material is complex and detailed, and I think that shorter chapters or sub-headings would have helped to prevent the reader from losing the thread. While reading the introduction, which describes the seven defining features of behaviorism, I was reminded of the joke where two dons are walking in the quad, and one is overheard saying to the other, "...and ninthly...". Nevertheless, the amount of material in the book, the detailed notes and the thoughtfulness of the arguments are the greatest strengths of the book, and I particularly appreciated the dissection of the logical flaws in the reasoning behind behavior modification. I believe that the academic psychologist will find Control to be a rich and useful resource.
 

Natalie Simpson is a mathematics graduate of Oxford University, England, and holds a diploma in hypnotherapy. She developed an interest in psychology, psychotherapy and hypnosis after experiencing hypnotherapy herself. Her specific concerns include the assessment of the effectiveness and risks of psychotherapy, and the difficulties of obtaining informed consent of clients.

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