How little we understand our own behaviour

The Irish Times has published an article by psychologist Paul O’Donoghue in which he discusses the work of B.F. Skinner. O’Donoghue writes:

Skinner was often referred to as the father of behaviourism. In his attempts to understand, predict and control behaviour, he emphasised the role of environmental factors above internal factors such as feelings, states of mind, innate personality and so on, seeing these, in essence, as emergent consequences of our learning environment.

He did recognise the importance of physiology and genetics, but argued that in gaining psychologically relevant knowledge we should attend to the environment in which a person lives, their learned behavioural repertoire and the consequences that follow their actions. In other words, if you really want to understand me, pay attention to what I do, not what I say – or what you think I think.

Skinner challenged the fundamental idea of free will. He argued that a person is not an originating agent, but is best described as a locus point at which many genetic and environmental conditions come together in a joint effect. This is still a very challenging position, although the notion of free will has also been more recently questioned from a different perspective by many researchers in neuroscience.

For the full article, visit the Irish Times website.

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