The lesson of King Sisyphus April 23, 2014

In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was apparently a pretty nasty fellow.  When Zeus had finally had enough, he arranged a punishment in which Sisyphus had to roll a massive boulder up a steep hill.  However, it would always roll away from him back down the hill, thereby requiring him to spend eternity engaged in this useless and endlessly frustrating task.

Are behavior analysts engaged in a Sisyphean task when they try to get ordinary folks to understand radical behaviorism?  It has felt like that to me as I’ve tried over the years.  I even got kicked out of bar around Christmas of 1971 in snowy Gardner Montana for trying a bit too hard.  In the early days, we often told each other “The truth will out” to keep our spirits up.  There is precious little evidence that any truths about radical behaviorism have escaped into the general population.

My experience suggests that there are some major impediments to people understanding our conceptual framework, and they are formidable challenges.  Appreciating the nature, power, and pervasiveness of operant learning is a prerequisite to grasping the key features of radical behaviorism.  Developing this appreciation requires a very particular history, the first part of which can be gotten out of a book.  You can learn a good bit about the processes of operant selection by simply reading about how they work.  A single college course can do the trick – at least if the instructor is truly expert in the material, selects a strong text, and demands good comprehension.  Yes, more is better, but a solid semester of study is a workable minimum.

It is not enough to understand operant principles at an intellectual level, however.  Being able to define terms and explain processes and procedures and effects falls short of the kind of understanding required to find the arguments of radical behaviorism persuasive.  You also need to appreciate just how powerful operant processes are in determining our behavior and how thoroughly they pervade the human experience.  You must understand enough to concede that operant learning is sufficient to explain almost everything about our behavior, which is quite a big concession.  You need to be able to imagine the details of learning histories that could give birth to virtually everything about human behavior.  (There are the important contributions of our biology, of course, but that is not the topic here.)  The objective of this part of the required history is to minimize temptations to search for causes of behavior in a mental world.

I’m not sure what experiences reliably achieve this objective.  For me, it was working with non-human species under laboratory conditions.  Not just any animal laboratory experience will do.  Running rats in mazes as an undergraduate failed to tell me much about behavior.  The most illuminating experience is working with a non-verbal species under highly controlled conditions and watching operant processes unfold in the slow motion interplay between your environmental manipulations and changes in the animal’s behavior.  At some point during the play in this Skinner box theater, your epiphany may arrive.  Only when you realize the awe-inspiring enormity of operant selection are you ready to learn about radical behaviorism.

I’m guessing that few reading these words have had the pleasure of this sort of intimate relationship with a rat or a pigeon, so there must be other ways of “getting it,” though perhaps some behavior analysts never do. Colleges and universities no longer maintain animal colonies for this kind of teaching experience, so for some years now students have received their training in behavior analysis without risking rat bites and allergic reactions.  It could be that working with autistic children or individuals with intellectual disabilities would suffice, but it’s certainly not the same thing.  Their environments lack the sterile control of an experimental chamber, and their verbal repertoire actually gets in the way by tempting verbal interactions instead of depending on simpler non-verbal contingencies.

My argument is that it may be a Sisyphean task to teach others about the glories of radical behaviorism unless they have come to understand and appreciate operant behavior both intellectually and in a more personal “OMG” sort of way.  Without this history, they will, like Sisyphus’s boulder, keep rolling back down the conceptual hill.  Lacking a deep appreciation of operant learning, they will find it difficult to grasp how these processes could possibly explain what they already understand in mentalistic terms. They will forever be seduced by the relative ease of mentalism and the comfort of vernacular dialect – the only one they know.  And, when we try to persuade those who lack this history, we will know Sisyphus’s endless frustration.

If we put aside, for the sake of argument, the prerequisite challenge of understanding how operant processes lead to the human repertoire, there remains the small matter of learning about radical behaviorism.  In spite of having written a book that attempts to guide readers down this path, I’m under no illusion about how far it can take them without someone serving as their mentor.  No text can express every point that each person will need to read or anticipate every question or provide the perfect example.  A book can only prompt discussion, not lead it.  Coming to understand even the most basic arguments requires someone to argue with.  Someone must serve as a teacher – asking difficult questions, probing for weaknesses, pushing and pulling at every step.  This is what college professors get paid for, but what about those who don’t have access to such erudition?  I just can’t imagine that the members of a reading group or a book club could serve this function for each other.

Given all these difficulties, why would we think this could work?  We can demand a good understanding of radical behaviorism from those who wish to call themselves behavior analysts because our field administers the operative contingencies.  Through the established processes managed by the Behavior Analysis Certification Board, for example, we can include the niceties of radical behaviorism in task standards and hold would-be certificants accountable, to a point.  But with friends, families, the guy working at Starbucks, and the great unwashed, how are we to create this preparatory history?  How can we possibly make them receptive to understanding – let alone agreeing with – a way of talking about behavior that is devoid of mentalism?

I don’t see the way – and Lord knows I’ve tried – but I can appreciate what the attempt might cost.  This way of looking at behavior is not merely unfamiliar, it is off putting.  Just trying to understand radical behaviorism can give you a headache, and that’s with people who are trying.  For others, it is more likely to be irritating and even a bit insulting.  It seems to take away the richness of the human experience as we know it and offer only a barren alternative in return. You might get a good friend to tolerate a bit of this if you’re buying the beer, but anyone else won’t last long – and you may get kicked out of the bar.

That said, I find it difficult to stop trying.  This philosophy of science has been so important to me I’m like the guy who just can’t stop talking about his new girlfriend.  It’s just so very cool.


The lesson of King Sisyphus


  1. Chad Favre

    It’s always been difficult to compose a question or comment that can hold a candle to your insights, Jim, but you certainly stir a hopeful pot of something here, and I appreciate the stimulus. I think if common citizens come to see the benefit of a science of behaviorism, which is a path already being forged by applying what was learned in laboratory settings to humans in socially significant ways, then that science will ever so gradually find it’s way into lists of electives at elite secondary schools, say. Perhaps, given the time and student interest, Skinnerian principles will take the place of the Piagets and Eriksons of my high school psychology elective. This is one way that the language of behaviorism can begin to shape the learning histories of those who will end up in professions outside of the realm of careers based in ABA and begin to influence other verbal communities and then….THE WORLD.

    I have to ask: Who are “the great unwashed”?


    • Jim Johnston

      According to the Great Internet, the phrase “the great unwashed”was first used by the Victorian novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton as a reference to the common folk. An even better term is “hoi polloi.” In my usage, it refers to those who don’t know anything about radical behaviorism, which is quite a lot of people.


Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

The lesson of King Sisyphus April 23, 2014