Social Psychology Studies Adjustment Behavior

Luther Lee Bernard
Washington University


The behavioristic viewpoint in social psychology is simply that of the application of a naturalistic or scientific technique to the study of the processes of the adjustment of individuals to their environment in a social situation. The behaviorist must therefore study the technique of the integration of social-adjustment behavior patterns under the conditioning controls of environmental stimuli, and he must also analyze and classify the environment which provides these stimuli. (Results of this analysis of behavior patterns and of cultural patterns or environments indicated in the paper.) Criticisms of the behaviorists working in sociology and social psychology have come from those who prefer a traditional to a naturalistic and experimental validation of knowledge, from those who do not prefer traditional validation of knowledge as a procedure but who resent the upset of tradition and custom by experimental analysis, and by other minor groups as indicated.

It is not in any sense the purpose of this paper to be controversial. It merely seeks humbly to present the point of view in social psychology now commonly called "behaviorism," especially by those who have, or imagine they have, some quarrel with this orientation. Most of us who think or write from the viewpoint do not even trouble ourselves about the term; but since it is not inaptly chosen, we do not resent the appellation of "behaviorists" when it is applied to us. My sole excuse-and I believe it is a good one-for presenting this explanatory paper is that most of our critics (and especially those who are most active in their strictures) do not really under-

( 2) -stand what behaviorism is and, in their criticism of the behaviorists, frequently and literally "know not what they say." If in this paper I seem to speak dogmatically for the behaviorists collectively, my hearers will no doubt understand that I do so because the pronouns "he," "we," and "they" are more conventional on such an occasion than the reiteration of the word "I." Anyone is, of course, free to take as many exceptions to my interpretation as he pleases.

Behaviorism is not a school, a clique, or a faith, but a point of view and a method. It assumes that the chief business of man is to secure and maintain a functionally effective integration of his personality, on the one hand, and to secure and maintain an adequate and successful adjustment of his personality or organism to his environment, on the other hand. With this behavioristic assumption as a point of departure, the behaviorist sets about studying the technique of these two processes. He finds that the integration of his personality depends primarily upon the success of his adjustment to his environment, and also that the success of this adjustment is in no small degree dependent upon an effective integration of his personality. Since man appears on the scene at birth as an organism already integrated on a biological level, but with an adjustment to his new environment yet in the main to be established, the behaviorist begins with the study of the technique of this postnatal adjustment process.

In the first place, the behaviorist is in no sense afflicted with the reluctance displayed by some social psychologists in admitting the existence of an environment. He sees evidence of it everywhere and has recently begun to study it and classify it in order the better to study the adjustment of the organism to it. He recognizes that the environment of the organism taken as a whole is external to that organism, but that, when portions of the organism function locally or non-centrally, they may respond to environment either within or without the organism. He also recognizes that the behavior of the organism, considered either as a whole or in part, is in the nature of responses to stimuli so-called and to internal biochemical and biophysical organizations which may or may not be technically called "stimuli." These total or partial organic responses he calls "behavior patterns." The behavioristic social psychologist is, of course,

( 3) interested in all such individual responses of the organism, but especially in those that form part of or condition collective responses or are themselves conditioned by the behavior of others serving as stimuli. But in any case, it is always his business to study these behavior responses as basic to the adjustment of the organism in a social situation. His concern with the response of the organism to food, pain, temperature, sex, danger, or any other simple primary or complex derivative types of stimuli is always relative to social functioning.

The behaviorist classifies response or behavior patterns as "random movements," "reflexes," "instincts," "habits," and "tropisms." The first two of these are primarily local responses; the third and fourth may be either local or general, but tend to be general; and the fifth is necessarily a response of the organism entire. The behaviorist seeks to study the functioning of these behavior patterns in the adjustment process without preconceptions or prejudice. He finds that the human organism has few patterns at birth that can serve him directly in making effective adjustments to his social environment, but all the patterns (the habits as yet being relatively negligible) make valuable indirect contributions to the social adjustment processes. His reflexes and instincts are integrated only on an organic, and not on a social, level, and are therefore adequate only to the organic needs of protection against dangerous physical impacts, of simple reorientation of parts of the organism, of simple vocalizations that attract the attention of others, breathing air, swallowing food, digestion, circulation, excretion, and assimilation. These are functions that must be served before the organism can acquire habits of adjustment to take care of them. But since habit based on tradition operating in and through the person of the mother and other attendants provides the infant with a protector and a conditioner of social responses, the cultural forms of behavior required in a social situation can await the process of habit integration. This integration of habit or social response patterns, the behaviorist finds, takes place by means of what is known as the "conditioning of responses"; and the acquired responses are built up from all five of the types of behavior patterns mentioned above. The behaviorist is aware of no other sources from which acquired behavior patterns

( 4) may arise. The greater complexity and adequacy of the acquired behavior patterns for an ever changing and growing cultural adjustment situation arise from the multiple recombinations and new integrations that occur through the conditioning and reconditioning of responses.

But the behaviorist interested in social psychology cannot pause with an analysis of the process of conditioning individual behavior patterns in social situations. He is also interested in the building-up of culture patterns, that is, of social or collective uniformities in behavior. These cultural patterns or uniformities are, of course, built up from individual behavior patterns which are conditioned into a number of people under the control of stimuli or environmental conditions which are common to all of these individuals. Uniformity or similarity of environment will produce relative uniformity of response in similarly integrated organisms or personalities. [2] The behaviorist social psychologist must therefore give a great deal of attention to the analysis of the environment in order that he may understand the process of the conditioning of culture patterns. He accordingly divides the environment or environments of man into the natural and the cultural or social environments. The natural environments are those as yet unmodified by man and to which man had originally to make an adjustment relatively unaided by cultural technique. The cultural environments are not only the products of man's adjustment to his environment but were originally derived from the transformation of parts of the natural environments, both external and internal, to aid man's bare hands, teeth, toes, and brain in wringing sustenance, protection, and the perpetuation of his kind from nature. This process of transforming nature into culture and culture into other culture through the reconditioning of human responses and the building-up of behavior and culture patterns is the process of invention. By means of it man has created his tools and machines; domesticated plants and animals; trained man and beast to take part in a social economy; created language and communication; fostered tradition, literature, philosophy, and science; and

( 5) has generated institutions to perpetuate culture and to control and condition the behavior of man with reference to nature and his fellows. These same cultural creations of man, which arose originally out of nature itself through the spontaneous and necessary conditioning of responses in the incidence of the adjustment process, also constitute man's cultural environments, which now are more immediate and perhaps more voluminous than his natural environments and which therefore have much more weight in reconditioning his responses for social adjustment.[3]

Most of you who have heard this brief outline recital of the behaviorists' viewpoint are doubtless wondering in what respect behaviorism as applied to social psychology differs from ordinary social psychology as a science. My reply would be, of course, that it does not differ at all from the science of social psychology. The only behaviorism I know is spelled with a small b and is not a school, but is the common-sense observational and experimental technique and viewpoint in the study of the behavior of organisms engaged in the process of adjusting to their environments (natural or cultural) under the guidance of social conditionings or controls. It is merely the method of Locke, Hume, Huxley, and Comte applied to social psychology and sociology. If this is all there is to behaviorism--the scientific study of adjustment behavior and of its controlling conditions-why should some of our fellow-sociologists, to say nothing of other varieties of the human species, raise such a hue and cry about the dangers of behaviorism? I believe I can answer this question, in so far as space is at my disposal.

The methods of behaviorism are scientific, that is, wholly objective. The behaviorist confines himself to factual data and what may be logically and unequivocally inferred from facts. In order to weigh and determine the validity of his facts, he, as a scientist as distinguished from the metaphysician and the theologian, must adopt a naturalistic procedure of investigation. He is led by his knowledge of the antecedent sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, and psy-

( 6) -chology to conclude that the initial source of all his data must be observation (the observation of someone with an organism and personality comparable to his own) through the senses. He has studied the technique of the processes of integrating sensory perceptions, and from this experimental study he has gone on to the elaboration of strictly conditioned logical inferences, which may be largely experimentally tested or controlled. He has worked out, or is working out, the objective technique of both overt and internal or thought behavior responses. He finds, therefore, that knowledge or data arise through a purely naturalistic process of the conditioning of behavior processes originating in the adjustment behavior of individuals and perceived through the sensory and the internal behavior elaborating processes. He has never found any other source of knowledge or of the data of science. He is aware of course-because he can perceive that fact through the channels mentioned above that the convinced and otherwise apologists of all of the great historical mystical religions can cite numerous instances, which they profess to regard as authentic, of revelations by supernatural beings of truths that cannot be verified by naturalistic processes of sensory observation and logical internal behavior elaboration. But he also knows that the proof of such non-naturalistic dispensations of truth or fact rests entirely upon tradition (all supporting documentary evidence also resting upon tradition), and, furthermore, that traditional evidence is always fallible. And thus the proof of the truth of a tradition must rest ultimately upon the same naturalistic behavior processes as the behaviorist uses. Is the behaviorist justified, therefore, in rejecting the testimony of bare tradition to the effect that someone received such supernaturally given knowledge through his senses, when the supposed truth contradicts current observation and experiment, and the revelation cannot be verified by its repetition? The behaviorist-the scientist-thinks that he is not compelled to accept such evidence under such circumstances. Even one of the great historical churches placed a ban upon, or discontinued, personal revelations in the second century A.D., because revealed truth was becoming so contradictory as to produce heresy. But there are some of the sociological fraternity who would prefer the evidence of tradition to behavioristic experiment and who frequently entertain

(7) no brotherly or charitable feelings toward the behaviorist when he insists on a criterion of truth which raises doubts as to the validity of the traditional criterion.

A larger number of sociologists find the behaviorist emotionally incompatible, not because they reject his criterion of fact in favor of that of tradition, but merely because his method of investigation so frequently looses facts which upset the old traditions and customs to which they have conditioned their emotions and affections, although they rationalize their objections into some sort of far-fetched display of philosophic principles. These men really belong to the behaviorist camp when they speak objectively as scientists instead of subjectively as advocates, but apparently they do not know it. One of their ostensible quarrels with behaviorism is that it makes no place for ideals and for projective or creative thinking. This certainly is not the case. I should place the behaviorists in the van of the idealists and projective thinkers. It is among them that one finds the strongest advocates of a new scientifically determined and controlled social order. Those who most detest social change are not behaviorists but "fundamentalist" sociologists. The behaviorists do, however, insist on making a distinction between a sentimental attachment to an old order of beliefs and rituals-whether political, religious, economic, or otherwise-and allegiance to a scientific theory of improved social control. Toward the latter they are almost invariably sympathetic. Those who regard the behaviorists as without moral convictions, and therefore dangerous, mistake the objectivity of their theory of knowledge and scientific technique for the personalities of the men. I have not observed any deficiency in moral convictions on the part of behaviorists, although a good behaviorist should be a poor dogmatist and weak in prejudices. If he accepts the conclusions from facts wherever they may lead, that is because he believes in following facts instead of leading them.

To the foregoing type of opponents of behaviorism we might, if time were available, add a few others who also have an emotional rather than an intellectual bias toward this viewpoint, either because they do not understand it and are repelled by what they imagine is its gross materialism or lack of moral conviction, or perhaps because they began their sociological careers in some other camp and unfor-

( 8) -tunately committed themselves to print and must now continue the struggle to preserve their own illusion of-I do not say "reputation for"-infallibility.

The behaviorist has also learned that not all behavior is conscious, and that not even all internal or neural dispositions are focal in consciousness. For this reason he is frequently quite suspicious of the results of introspection and insists on checking introspection by means of an objective observation of his own overt behavior through his senses and controlled methods of observation of himself and others. In fact, he has come to the conclusion that the only way in which he can introspect is through an observation of his own behavior through the senses, whether through the exteroceptive or through the proprioceptive and visceral senses. He has learned also that the incompleteness of his apprehension of his own internal or attitudinal behavior frequently leads him to censor his perceptions and to rationalize his analyses of facts and his own and others' motives. Strange to say, this improved naturalistic understanding of himself and of others has not always made the behavioristic sociologist and social psychologist any more acceptable to a class of sociologists who would make the internal evidence-whether of conscience or of the aesthetic judgment-final in all questions of truth. Others are not slow to see in this criticism of introspective evidence a menace to the theological dogma of revealed knowledge and to the metaphysical belief in intuitive knowledge derived from an external fund of natural law. Their regard for the behaviorist is measured accordingly.

There are those, not always distinct from the classes of critics of the behaviorists already mentioned, who build up a straw-man behaviorist and hang on him a generous collection of their own antipathies and then proceed to demolish their daily dozen of behaviorist errors. Most self-conferred medals have been bestowed, I believe, for routing the supposed behavioristic dogma that there is no mind. Without pretending to have fathomed the mind of the perpetrator of that bit of witticism, I should venture the guess that-in addition to taking a pot shot at the methods of some of his critics-he meant to say that mind does not exist in the traditional sense of a spirit or highly tenuous material substance or aura permeating or surround-

( 9) -ing the brain or body of an individual, but that the term "mind" has lost the foregoing connotation and is now merely an abstract or conceptual designation for rational or expected behavior. Who among us, behaviorist or anti-behaviorist, is not ready to cast this same stone? The author of the witticism would personally prefer to use the term "behavior" to cover internal or implicit behavior (i.e., mind) as well as overt response. For my own part, I find the term "mind" quite convenient, partly because practically everybody with scientific pretensions has already come to understand that it means the logic of behavior and not a concrete thing, as it once did in an age of belief in good and evil spirits that infested the human body and when even abstractions were understood only when personified or objectivated into physical reality. Personally, I find the phrase "neuro-psychic" response or behavior a convenient substitute for "mind" when I wish to distinguish it from overt or "neuro-muscular" response or behavior. I do not like the term "implicit behavior," because it smacks too much of a hidden metaphysical entity and therefore of the old dogma of natural law. I believe that "attitudinal behavior" is a better substitute, because it indicates preparation for overt response and also indicates internal tension or behavior which is synonymous with mind.

In conclusion, I should suggest that behaviorism in social psychology should be described and judged in terms of what it does rather than in terms of what its critics think or feel about it. This procedure would conform to one of the most fundamental tenets of behaviorism and would, also, I believe, lead to a much clearer and more sympathetic understanding of the subject. I repeat, the behavioristic social psychologists study adjustment behavior in social situations. The papers which I have chosen to follow this analysis will, I trust, illustrate both the viewpoint and the method of behaviorism and demonstrate that it is in no sense a mere sociological school or faction.


  1. This and the four papers that follow immediately after constitute the program of the Division on Social Psychology of the American Sociological Society and were read at the annual meetings in Washington, D.C., December, 1931.
  2. Social uniformities of behavior which occur contemporaneously are called "conventions," "folkways," "mores," "beliefs," "public opinion," etc. Those which occur in succession are denominated "custom," "tradition," etc.
  3. For a discussion of these points see "A Classification of Environments," American Journal of Sociology, XXXI (1925), 318-32; Bernard, An Introduction to Social Psychology (1926), chap. vi; "Culture and Environment," Social Forces, VIII (1930), 327-34; IX (1930), 39-48; and "Neuro-Psychic Technique," Psychological Review, XXX (1923), 407-37.

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