An observer peers through a gap in the wall to watch a line of passing cats. Because he always sees the whiskers first and the tails last, and there are never tails without whiskers, the observer concludes that whiskers cause tails. He fails to realize that what he is able to consistently observe is simply an illusion created by his perspective on the phenomena. - Alan Watts in his discussion of Zen buddhism.

Behaviorism is based on the stimulus-response theory that a stimulus will cause a response either by pairing a response with a reflective trigger (e.g., salivating to a bell that was paired with food); or rewarding a response in the presence of a stimulus (e.g., pressing a bar that releases a pellet of food).

What bridges the S-R gap? - Donald Hebb

However, people think and we have beliefs. So our reactions are based upon what we are thinking and believing in at the time of the stimulus. For example, smoke might send us running out of the building if we believe it is a fire, running into the building if we have been trained to fight fires, or remaining calm and in the building if we believe that someone has simply burnt some toast.

Behaviorism is based upon the premiss that if we change the environment (stimulus), a learner will follow (response) along like simple puppets. Skinner once described goals and purposes as being similar to a missile's homing device (1974) in that it uses information (feedback) from the target to guide it and this feedback is NOT reinforcement. Thus, since the feedback is not reinforcement, the missile's behavior can have no real purpose. The behavioral "illusion" that he was trying to show was that the missile's behavior is caused strictly by the environment. He used an extremely illogical approach in his reasoning on subject.

We have to go back to Claude Bernard's work (1927) in which he showed that a necessary ingredient for life is the ability to achieve a degree of independence (autonomy) from the external environment. Thus, the normal cause-effect relationships found in non-living systems no longer hold true for life.

What we perceive does not control us. It is our reference levels that originate within us that control our perceptions. Unlike non-living control systems, such as homing devices, cruise control systems, and thermostats that are controlled by the environment, a living system is controlled from within itself. Also, see PCT.


Bernard, C. (1927). An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine. New York: Macmillan. (originally published in 1865).

Skinner, B.F. (1974) About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.


Big Dog, Little Dog
Copyright 2004 by Donald Clark
Created January 5, 2003