Bahaviorism critique based on an email chat with a friend.

A friend brought to my attention an article about how behavioral psychology can be used to manipulate people, citing it as an example of how science can be used for harm. In essence here was my response:

Behaviorism bothers me in a lot of ways. I appreciate its simple elegant genius but I am thrilled that the world of psychology has moved beyond it as a mono-perspective. It is one of my favorite perspectives to critique not because it is wrong – it’s not wrong, it’s just that it is incomplete and can be reductionist in application.  I love to critique it because the brain as a reward system is a really disappointing model.

It also turns out it can be a poor model for healing and a great model for (as the article suggests) brainwashing, addiction, and manipulation. Electrodes in the hypothalamus of rats in the seventies showed that as soon as the stimulus was removed “learnings” didn’t survive well.

One of the insights from this may be that the behavioral model for learning and development is too primitive and limited. It relies on ancient reward systems and doesn’t really address what makes us most human. It treats us like lizards with faster processors. We are so much more and our needs are more complex and meaningful.

Behaviorism is a valid tool but it is too often used by advertising firms, and not for healing – but rather for hurting and for extruding in what arguably constitutes a violation of the Hippocratic oath. The decision about that latter idea may rest on the question of to what extent psychology is to be understood as essentially a healing discipline analogous to medicine, or rather an economic device. Of course doctors have to make money and even, medical equipment manufacturers who are not doctors but who are also not- NOT relevant to the healing disciplines, so there is as in most things, room for a grey area and a discussion. But this is not the same thing as a license for relativism. A relevant quotation that keeps coming up and sticking in my mind these days and which helps to clarify follows:
Plato asks the question in The Republic:
“Is the physician, … a healer of the sick or a maker of money? And remember that I am now speaking of the true physician.

Those Greeks were great with the big questions weren’t they?


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