Whatever Happened to Behaviorism Are We Just a Tabula Rasa

The duality between empiricism and rationalism has a long history in philosophy and psychology. Empiricism is most often identified with the English philosophers John Locke and David Hume. Locke emphasized the role of direct experience in knowledge, believing that knowledge must be built up from collections of sensations. Locke's position became known as associationism. Here, learning is seen as occurring through a small collection of processes that associate one sensation with another. Empiricism found a counterpoint in the rationalism of continental philosophers, notably the Dutch philosopher Spinoza, the French philosopher Descartes, and the German philosopher Leibniz. In contrast, the empiricists held that innate ideas could not exist. Locke, for example, maintained that the mind was a tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which experience writes. Eventually, however, the elements of learning were recast in the language of stimulus and response. The foundations of behaviorism are perhaps more associated with J. B. Watson than with any other psychologist, though Watson was preceded by other important figures in the history of learning theory, notably Thorndike and Pavlov. Although a variety of learning theories eventually developed, behaviorism as a formal dogma is most associated with the views of B. F. Skinner.

According to Skinner's strict behaviorism, it is unnecessary to posit the existence of unobservable emotional states or cognitive expectancies to account for behavior and its pathologies. Hypothetical inner states are discarded and explanations are formulated solely in terms of external sources of stimulation and reinforcement. Thus, all disorders become the simple product of environmentally based reinforcing experiences. These shape the behavioral repertoire of the individual, and differences between adaptive and maladaptive behaviors can be traced entirely to differences in the reinforcement patterns to which individuals are exposed. Inner states, such as traits or schemata, are considered throwbacks to primitive animism. Instead, the understanding of a behavior can be complete only when the contextual factors in which the event is embedded are illuminated. The logic is relatively simple: If there are no innate ideas, sensation or stimuli are by definition all that exist. Because sensation originates in the environment, the environment must ultimately control all behavior, however complex. The mind becomes an empty vessel, or tabula rasa, that contains only what the environment puts there. All behavior is said to be under stimulus control. For this reason, the relationship between personality and behaviorism has been mainly antagonistic, and understandably so, because behavioral psychology exclusively focuses on observable surface behavior rather than on inferred entities, such as personality traits, cognitive schemata, instinctual drives, or interpersonal dispositions, all essential units in the study of personality.

By the mid-1980s, a number of crucial reinterpretations of traditional assessment had been made that allowed clinically applied behavioral approaches to become successively broader and more moderate. Most notably, the diagnoses of Axis I, regarded in psychiatry

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