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Explain the history of the cognitive revolution.

Explain the history of the cognitive revolution.

It has been said that the cognitive revolution caused the replacement, decline, or even death of behaviorism, including behavior analysis (e.g., Baars, 1986; Friedenberg & Silverman, 2006; Gardner, 1985; Mandler, 2002; Sperry, 1993). Leahey (2000), for his part, talks about “the strange death of radical behaviorism” (p. 528), saying that its alleged end is a false belief. Roediger (2004) asks what happened to behaviorism and, after considering possible reasons for its decline, concludes that it is alive and well, especially in the Skinnerian tradition. Some go further and demonstrate that there was no revolution in the philosophical sense (e.g., Leahey, 1992; O’Donohue, Ferguson, & Naugle, 2003). Beyond mere speculation, there were also attempts to investigate the problem through empirical means. While some showed that behaviorism is still growing (Friman, Allen, Kerwin, & Larzelere, 1993; Wyatt, Hawkins, & Davis, 1986), others pointed out that it has been declining since the rise of cognitivism (Robins, Gosling, & Craik, 1999; Tracy, Robins, & Gosling, 2004).

As a result, the same history is told in very different ways. History, however, is a product of the selective interpretation of an historian. The facts never speak for themselves. As Carr (1987) said, “the facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context” (p. 11). In this case, the cognitive revolution is also a story about two schools whose paths cross. Each side stresses different facts. Both have their interests at stake, given that interpretations are conflicting or disputable.

Even so, some versions of history become usual or crystallized. That seems to be the case of the cognitive revolution, the story of a radical paradigm shift in which behaviorism was displaced in favor of cognitivism. Given the drama of its narrative, it probably sounds convincing to unwary ears. In becoming usual, however, the cognitivist story also made it difficult to equally consider other perspectives about the past. Its romance and simplicity may conceal significant implications to the image of behaviorism, at the same time that its popularity may have obscured behaviorist versions of the same facts. [. . .]

From this confrontation, it is expected that rhetorical strategies in storytelling become evident. It is not a question of who is right or wrong, neither of which approach is better or worse, but rather of what each side tells and how they tell the same history. [. . .]

The Nature and Target of the Cognitivist Movement

There is no consensus about the nature of the cognitivist movement. It is usually understood as a scientific revolution . . . implying that psychology had undergone a paradigm shift (e.g., Baars, 1986; Palermo, 1971; see also Kuhn, 1970). Some, however, argue that it was rather a counterrevolution, because it was a response to an earlier “behaviorist revolution” (e.g., Friedenberg & Silverman, 2006; Miller, 2003). There is also controversy over the adequacy of the term “revolution,” given that there were no cataclysmic events, leaders, or radicalisms (Mandler, 2002, 2007). Despite the disagreement, “revolution” still seems to be the most common label, having widespread use in literature (see, e.g., Baars, 1986; Bruner, 1990; Gardner, 1985; Sperry, 1993).

In any case, the cognitivist movement is usually depicted in terms of its conflictive relationship with behaviorism, including the Skinnerian tradition. Mandler (2002) even defines a revolution with such a relation, stating that

the well-documented cognitive “revolution” was, to a large extent, an evolving return to attitudes and trends that were present before the advent of behaviorism and that were alive and well outside of the United States, where behaviorism had not developed any coherent support. (p. 339)

The revolution was thus the birth of a new mentalistic approach, which developed in parallel to an antimentalistic tradition, that is, behaviorism itself. It was, in a sense, natural that some reciprocal opposition to behaviorism appeared. Bruner (1990), however, says that “it was not a revolution against behaviorism with the aim of transforming behaviorism into a better way of pursuing psychology by adding a little mentalism to it” (p. 2), but he soon concludes, “I think it should be clear to you by now that we were not out to ‘reform’ behaviorism, but to replace it” [emphasis added] (p. 3). Certainly, someone who wants to replace behaviorism does not support it—or, at least, has a better proposal. [. . .]

Reactions From the Behaviorist Side

[. . .] On the behaviorist side, behavior analysis was still flourishing when the events of the so-called cognitive revolution took place. Because the cognitivist historiography is critical of behaviorism, it was unlikely that behavior analysts would not react. And they did. The reactions here presented were written not only by behavior analysts but also by other scholars interested in the quarrel. In some sense, they would favor this alternative story.

For behavior analysts, cognition is behavior and, as such, a legitimate subject matter to their science (see, e.g., Palmer, 2003). Cognitivism, for its part, was soon qualified as a new form of mentalism, being thus opposed to the behavior-analytic standpoint. Reactions to cognitivism seem to have increased from the 1970s onward, simultaneously to the growing awareness of a cognitive revolution and to charges of behaviorism’s decline. It would begin a tense and ambiguous relationship between behavior analysis and the study of cognition.

Skinner addressed the cognitivist issue in many of his texts (e.g., Skinner, 1977, 1985, 1987, 1990). His criticism revolved around central features of the cognitivist program, such as the explanatory role of cognitive processes, the importance of rules in explaining behavior, the computer metaphor, and contributions from brain and computer sciences. At some times, the author also charged cognitivism of being an ineffective approach, saying, for instance, that “the appeal to cognitive states and processes is a diversion which could well be responsible for much of our failure to solve our problems” (Skinner, 1977, p. 10). Given the limited number of references in Skinner’s work, it is sometimes difficult to determine which version(s) of cognitivism he criticized. Indeed, the same case made against the cognitivist historiography could be made against Skinner. Cognitivism comprised very different developments and theoretical positions that eventually became interrelated (Greenwood, 1999). Still, Skinner’s work seems to suggest the illusion of a generic and unified cognitivism.

Nevertheless, reactions from other behavior analysts would be more specific. Many of them were responses to particular questions or charges against behaviorism, assuming a critical tone in general. Some took the shape of book reviews. In reviewing Mackenzie’s (1977) account on the decline of behaviorism, Zuriff (1979), for example, asserted that it was a paradox to review such a book in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, a healthy behaviorist journal. Morgan and Buskist (1990), for their part, charged Baars’s (1986) account on the cognitive revolution of misrepresenting behaviorism but noted that “there is much in the cognitive literature that, upon close inspection, cannot easily be differentiated from the experimental concerns of behavior analysis” (p. 199). In his review of Gardner’s (1985) book, Shimp (1989) also pointed out the misrepresentation of behavior analysis and of behaviorism in general, asserting that “behavior analysts may occasionally need to control an urge to fling the book down and dismiss it” (p. 163). Salzinger (1973) started a review of Neisser’s (1967) book with a more conciliatory tone, saying that “the research in cognitive psychology is certainly interesting, on the whole well executed, and very challenging. It is well within the scope of a behavioristic approach. It merely awaits more attention from behaviorists” (p. 369). Still, he also criticized the cognitivist approach, ending in the best Skinnerian fashion: “Are theories of cognition necessary?” (p. 377).

Among the reactions, there were also works that analyzed the cognitive revolution itself, dismissing it in the philosophical sense (e.g., Leahey, 1992; O’Donohue et al., 2003). In those cases, the cognitivist movement was found to be incompatible with key models of scientific revolution (e.g., Kuhn, 1970; Laudan, 1977). Other works dealt with related misconceptions about behaviorism. Amsel (1992), for example, noted that the behaviorism attacked by cognitivists is a caricature from Watsonian and Skinnerian behaviorisms. Some have tried to dismiss the alleged death or decline of behaviorism by empirical means. They showed that, in the period of the cognitive revolution, references to Skinner increased (Thyer, 1991) and that professional associations and publications devoted to behaviorism were both multiplying (Wyatt et al., 1986). It is noteworthy that cognitivists were not alone in misrepresenting behaviorism (see, e.g., Todd & Morris, 1983), but it is not rare to find behaviorist rebuttals to cognitivist allegations.

In their effort to react, behavior analysts have shown that cognitivism and its portrayal of behaviorism did not go unnoticed. The cognitivist issue became so significant that, during the late 1970s, there was an increase in the use of cognitive keywords in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, one of the main behavior-analytic outlets (Morris, Higgins, & Bickel, 1982). The importance of the theme also became evident with a special issue of that journal about cognition and behavior analysis in 1989. Their editors did not hesitate to say “Cognition and behavior analysis have a continuing, close, and perhaps difficult, relationship” (White, McCarthy, & Fantino, 1989, p. 197). [. . .]

Cognitivism as an Alternative, Not a Replacement

The story of the cognitive revolution seems successful in fostering the cognitivist movement and developing its historical identity. It left, however, several questions unsolved when it speaks of “behaviorism.” That term is ambiguous and its use disputable. It was a behaviorism that only the cognitivists knew. In the same vein, one might argue against the meaning of “cognitivism,” because it was not a unified tradition. Indeed, this review criticized a “cognitivist historiography,” but the notion of such historiography only became possible when those authors assumed a generic cognitivism as a common ground to construct their story. The very historiography that once celebrated a “cognitive revolution” also favors a distorted notion of the cognitivist tradition. It is based on the idea that cognitivism was, in some sense, a unified and revolutionary movement, capable of resisting and displacing behaviorism. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to imagine an alternative story, in which someone resorts to that same generic cognitivism to describe its rise and fall. As seen in Skinner’s work, that sort of story could well be told by a behaviorist—and, perhaps, it already exists (see, e.g., Overskeid, 2008).

Both behaviorism and cognitivism designate very heterogeneous sets of positions. In the quarrel between cognitivists and behavior analysts, it is clear that not all of them took part in the issue or subscribed to the perspectives here presented. Some have even argued in defense of the opposite side (e.g., Roediger, 2004). Behaviorism and cognitivism can be deceptive terms. In the history of psychology, they can help to understand large trends over periods of time. Nonetheless, they are abstractions. They are not real entities, capable of dominating a discipline that is not even unified. They may not reflect a single, conscious, or concerted effort of a scientific and professional group. They are intended to reflect general features, sometimes overlooking the diversity of interests, positions, and practices. The issue of the cognitive revolution illustrates the dangers of reifying such concepts, of taking an abstract construct as a concrete entity. [. . .]

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