FAQ: What is a Behaviorist?
A behaviorist is someone who subscribes to the concepts of behaviorism, also known as behavioral psychology. Behaviorism is a theory of learning that assumes all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment through conditioning. Hence, all behavior is simply a response to environmental stimuli. Behaviorism is only concerned with observable stimulus-response behaviors that can be studied in a systematic and observable manner. While revolutionary at the time, from today’s perspective, it is pretty evident that this view was very limited and, in many aspects, has proven to be incorrect.
Behaviorists are generally people with a college degree in behaviorism. Those tend to work in research. However, many dog trainers call themselves behaviorists these days to advertise their focus on working on behavioral challenges in dogs. That doesn’t indicate they have any advanced degree in behaviorism or any particular skill set. They just repurposed an official college degree into something other. Many of these so-called behaviorist dog trainers are stuck in a 1950s mentality of thinking that has been upended by subsequent advances in understanding. That doesn’t diminish the importance of behaviorism and its models. They are very important. But it means there is much more to understanding behavior and resolving behavioral challenges than this early field of scientific understanding.
A special breed of behaviorist that has emerged in the last ten years is the veterinary behaviorist. Veterinary behaviorists attend veterinary school and are the psychiatry arm of veterinary medicine. They usually prescribe drugs instead of training. This creates a new monthly revenue stream. There are different levels of education for veterinary behaviorists. At the highest tier, they do have to attend a specialized school and complete intense studies. However, the problem is that it is primarily theoretical. Their daily interactions with dogs are very limited compared to dog trainers. As a result, it is very difficult for them to understand, let alone explain, what is and isn’t a behavioral problem. When you lack the knowledge of how to interact with a dog, classifying behaviors as problematic is a highly questionable practice.
This is especially concerning as a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (May–June 2021, Volume 43, Pages 46-53) found that these medications essentially don’t work. The study stated, “…surprisingly, we failed to find any significant associations between treatment response and the administration of specific medications…”.
A Brief History
The journey of the scientific understanding of behavior started to take off in the 1860s with the studies of Ivan Pavlov (known for classical conditioning) and John B. Watson (known for The Little Albert experiment). Watson laid the foundation for behaviorism (1900–1950), which was further advanced by Edward Thorndike (known for The Puzzle Box and the Laws of Learning) and, most famously, B. F. Skinner, who formulated operant conditioning as we know it today.
As a counterbalance, humanistic psychology (1930–1970) developed. It was a rebellion against what some psychologists saw as the limitations of the behaviorist approach. As a result, humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasizes looking at the whole being and the uniqueness of each individual.
Next came the cognitive revolution (1950–1970). It was an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s as an interdisciplinary study of the mind and its processes. It later became known collectively as cognitive science. A key goal of early cognitive psychology (1970–present) was to apply the scientific method to studying human cognition.
In parallel, ethology (1930–present) looked at behavior differently. Ethology focuses on behavior under natural conditions (instead of the lab) and views behavior as an evolutionarily adaptive trait, not simple stimulus-response conditioning.
Today: Evolutionary Psychology, Neuroscience, and Genetics
Evolutionary psychology (1980–present) is the current field of study and where our most advanced understanding comes from to date. Evolutionary psychology synthesizes developments in various fields, including ethology, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology. At the base of evolutionary psychology is Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. This is further aided by our advances in understanding genetics.
Evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and genetics shape our current understanding of behavior. Over the last 70 years, the advances have upended many behaviorism doctrines and refocused our efforts on seeking more profound understanding and not superficial observations alone. Focusing on observable behavior was a fine start when we had no other options. However, today we have functional MRI scanners and no longer have to treat the brain as a black box. Behaviorists focus primarily on observable behavior only and, as such, have a narrow view of most behavioral challenges.
Related Article: Dog Behaviorist or Dog Trainer?
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