Howard Rachlin’s Teleological Behaviorism

Given the popularity of behavioralism, especially half a century ago, it is not surprising that there are a large number of variations of this paradigm. Thus, we find classical models, such as BF Skinner’s radical behaviorism and Kantor’s interconductism, as well as more recent contributions, between which insists on Hayes’ functional contextualism.

In this article, we will describe the main aspects of Howard Rachlin’s teleological behaviorism.This emphasizes the importance of human will and our ability to control behavior. We will also present the most significant critiques that have been made of this theoretical perspective.

Howard Rachlin biography

Howard Rachlin is an American psychologist born in 1935. At the age of 30, in 1965, he obtained a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University. Since then he has dedicated his life to researching, teaching, and writing articles and books, including “Behavior and Mind” and “The Science of Self-Control”.

Rachlin is considered to be one of the determining authors of the emergence of behavioral economics; some of his research has looked at phenomena such as pathological gambling or the prisoner’s dilemma. He is also known for his purposive behavior, which this article focuses on.

During his professional career, this author has mainly studied decision-making and choice behaviors. According to him, his main goal as a researcher is to understand the psychological and economic factors that explain phenomena such as self-control, social cooperation, altruism and addictions.

Rachlin is currently Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. His current research focuses on the analysis of patterns of choice over time and their effects on interpersonal cooperation and individual self-control.

Principles of teleological behaviorism

Teleological behaviorism follows the fundamentals of classical behavioral orientation. Rachlin argues that the object of study in psychology should be observable behavior and adheres to theses which conceive of mental contents (thoughts, emotions, etc.) as forms of behavior rather than as causal factors.

The central aspect that characterizes this discipline is its focus on voluntary or intentional behavior.. This principle leads Rachlin to stress the relevance of issues such as the free will of human beings, our capacity for self-control, or collaboration between different individuals.

In this sense, Rachlin’s theory can be linked to the contributions of authors such as Edward Tolman, the propositions are known as “intentional behaviorism”, or Albert Bandura, who stated that people can control our own behavior. through self-regulatory processes (which include self-observation or self-reinforcement).

Willful conduct, self-control and free will

With the popularization of Skinner’s radical behaviorism, which attempts to predict behavior exclusively through the manipulation of environmental stimuli, the old question of free will becomes central to scientific psychology. According to Rachlin, determining whether a behavior is voluntary or not is fundamental from a social point of view.

This author claims that the actions that most people consider voluntary are also motivated by environmental factors, but this is less obvious than with other types of behavior. At this point, the concept of self-control is introduced, which Rachlin defined as the individual’s ability to resist temptations by thinking long term.

For Rachlin, for people with good self-control, the goal of behavior is not always to satisfy a present need, but can also be to seek reinforcement or avoid long-term punishment. This interest in delayed consequences and in the vision of the future is another of the most characteristic aspects of teleological behaviorism.

The ability to control oneself is understood as a skill that can be trained; Rachlin states that whether a person develops well or not depends on the consistency of their efforts to guide their behavior on the basis of long-term gratification, not immediate gratification. This can apply to problems such as addictions.

Criticisms of Rachlin’s theory

Rachlin’s teleological behaviorism maintains that free will is a social construct whose definition depends exclusively on context. This approach has been criticized for its relativistic nature.

Mmany behaviorists believe Rachlin’s contributions stray from the path the discipline should follow. One aspect that has been particularly criticized has been the emphasis on self-control, which some equate to the phenomenon of self-help psychology, insulted for seeing research as a clear economic benefit.

Bibliographical references:

  • Rachlin, H. (2000). The science of self-control. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Rachlin, H. (2007). Free will from the point of view of teleological behaviorism. Behavioral Sciences and Law, 25 (2): 235-250.
  • Rachlin, H. (2013). On teleological behaviorism. The Behavior Analyst, 36 (2): 209-222.

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