The Curse of Behaviourism

The Curse of Behaviourism

imageOne of the greatest curses inflicted on the industry of safety is the toxicity of behaviourism.

Behaviourism is that 1940s ideology that constructed the human being as machine, as the sum of inputs and outputs. Nothing could be further from reality. Behaviourism constructs a false world that views humans as objects and naively thinks that motivation and goals setting are about positive and negative reinforcement. None of this is true yet safety flocks to this ideology because it offers a simplistic construct to understand the world. The outcome is frustration and bewilderment at human decision making because the unbeknown to the behaviourist, the construct doesn’t fit. When all the punishment has been metered out and still nothing changes, the behaviourist has only one more option, more punishment.

The reality is that human beings are not about inputs and outputs. The language of ‘resonance’ and ‘reverberation’ is much better language to use when thinking about social enactment.

The evidence shows that humans resonate with each other in even such simple things as being affected by another’s grief, crying, pain and distress. Receptors in out brain and chemicals in our heart and gut mirror those of the person we are affected by. Humans are ecological beings that are affected by the environment, environment design, music, sound, weather and social settings. The evidence for the interconnection of embodied humans to the world is overwhelming. Try reading some of these for example:

Damasio – The Feeling of What happens; Descartes Error

Varela – The Embodied Mind

Claxton – Intelligence in the Flesh, The Wayward Mind

Ginot – The Neuropsychology of the Unconscious

Robinson – Out of Our Minds

Norrtranders – The User Illusion

Sloman – The Knowledge illusion

Wilson – Strangers to Ourselves

Ramachandran – A Brief Tour of the Unconscious

Vittorio Gallese (  ) discovered that we all have ‘mirror neurons’ and that our internal organs are set off by neurochemical reactions that generate sympathy, empathy and identification. This was most demonstrated recently with the picture of young Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach ( ). The outpouring of empathy across the world demonstrates how ‘social resonance’ works.

Our bodies are in a continual state of resonance and reverberation with all that is around us and these are not ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’. The computer metaphor applied to human being is the delusion of the behaviourist curse. Sorry to disappoint Safety but humans are organic not mechanic.

All effective communication depends on ‘body coupling’, that is, the ability to read and connect with others. We unconsciously learn to ‘read’ others emotions, body language and expressions and our body resonates with our perceptions, without brain direction. Life is much more like a social dance than a computer.

Unfortunately, Safety remains infused with the behaviourist assumptions of Heinrich and BBS. Safety is still stuck in the 1940s! Just look at the content of safety qualifications and curriculum and tell me it’s not true.

Safety loves the mechanist construct because it can be counted but not because it counts. Safety loves lower-order goals because they can be measured not because they have meaning. A focus on lower-order measurable goals retards Safety from higher-order goals of: trust, respect, connection, relationship, trust, care, helping and learning. This is the curse of behaviourism.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

21 Replies to “The Curse of Behaviourism”

  1. The BBS proponents (ie those selling programs) point to the huge drop in incident rates. But is measuring success by incident rate wise or reliable? When you invest heavily in a program then of course you must see less incidents REPORTED – or else!

    A good safety program should probably actually initially result in increased reporting. Every time I’ve looked at behavioural programs I’ve seen very obvious signs of the Hawthorne Effect and a change in culture for the worse – but we don’t or can’t measure that!

  2. I think a big issue here in worldview is about how behaviourism ‘sees’ the world. If one thinks holistically then one gets an holistic ‘view’ of safety and so acknowledged the whole person, way beyond incident rates. I’d much rather have a knock and a cut than psychological, social or economic injury.
    What the behaviourist curse does is create a myopic view that just views the world physically. If we cared more about whole people the injury rate would go through the roof!

  3. BBS with its black box psychology approach has its sinister foundations in the works of Watson and Skinner and its attempts at scientism merely undermines morality. It is no better than phrenology and merely ontological sanguma…..”No cause justifies the deaths of innocent people” – Albert Camus

  4. Bernard, it’s interesting that in non western cultures people assume a far more holistic sense of ‘being’. Whilst we in the west claim superiority in so many ways we have lost touch with our being and sense of mind. As long as Ppe is on, no cuts and bruises and the checklist is done then all is ok!

  5. Interesting take and not particularly helpful or informative.
    Yes, there were lots of not so good things about Skinners ideas, but, he, like any good scientist, also changed his opinion on the simple input/output mechanical nature of humans.
    Modern behavioural science takes into consideration all manner of human aspects but some of the fundamentals remain.
    Human behaviour happens in the local environment.
    Those with least control over the design of the environment will tend to display an output of what the environment is supporting.
    Basic BBS observation programmes are not really science based. They are simple observational techniques that get some change whilst the performer is being observed.
    Creating safe behaviours by creating safe environments involves many variables, right tools, right amount of time, right materials, right peer and supervision support and of course competency. But at the end of the day, the behaviour that occurs was perfectly designed to happen.

    1. By “safe environments” do you mean low risk? I can easily imagine very high risk environments being “safe” with no external contrived interventions or programs or supervision – simply by allowing a group of humans to use their innate ability to discern and manage the risk – we’ve been doing that well for a very, very a long time. I would feel less comfortable in an environment where safety was just a tightly controlled illusion.

  6. Bob, it’s a blog not a research paper.

    Safe behaviours are not created by safe environments. The safest of environments can easily result in harm and is no guarantee for safety. This is the delusion of behaviourism. The only recourse is to punish the human, which of. course is the curse of BBS.

  7. Unfortunately Dave the way behaviourism defines environment is quite warped and mechanistic. The environment is viewed as an input or ‘factor’.

    What is needed is a far more holistic definition of environment and of risk.

  8. “The behaviour that occurs was perfectly designed to happen.”
    This completely lost me – nothing about behaviour is ‘perfectly designed.’

  9. The only change resulting from behavioural safety observations is increasing distrust, blame, fear and concealment.

    How on earth were Beethoven’s late quartets a conditioned response to his prevailing circumstances?

  10. Of course. Behaviourism is the bedrock for Safety. The sacred cow in the church of blame and negative reinforcement, the demonstration that safety is a science, the denial of a non-material and non-measureable reality and the challenge to critical thinking outside the box of curriculum that Safety has been indoctrinated in. Of course, the more emotional Safety gets about things material, the more its emotion denies the behaviourism it is addicted to.

  11. Bernard, of course built on the nonsense of positivism it assumes the observer is objective and that humans can be observed as objects. We see this in every model of incident investigation on the market.

  12. BBS, it is just another facet of the Industrial Age model of management that views organisations as machines and the people within as component parts. The view that the undesirable side effects of dehumanizing workers to achieve ever greater efficiency can be overcome by the offer of rewards or threat of punishment ignores the basic fact that before they enter the institutions that are run on these principles, namely school and then work, people have aspiration and a joy in learning. Progressively they are deprived of these so as to exert control by first the teacher and then the boss both of whom complete the same role of getting the understanding across that the individual must perform for some one else’s appreciation and not their own. To support the economy they are subjected to the vicious reinforcement by all means possible that whatever they have now is not enough so they are turned into isolated consumers. It is a corollary that if you can motivate someone else to perform work you can do so to be safe in that work, supported as it is by the notion that the unsafe part in an organisation designed to run and be controlled as a machine is the error prone human.

    The prevailing style of management has destroyed our people and threatens to destroy our world as well whilst delivering limited rewards to the many and unbounded wealth to the few, it is not effective as it does not do the right things but it is efficient.

    You can not hope to change the form of safety management within a system if at the same time you do not achieve a change or indeed transformation in the form or style of management that controls the system. The efficiency of the prevailing style as noted above in providing more than enough to those who seek it whilst just enough to those who are employed means unless a change in ethics occurs not much else will unless survival is threatened.

  13. Thanks Charles and you are spot on. It is no surprise that Safety clings to the Industrial Age management style despite the fact that it simply doesn’t work. There are of course models that are transdisciplinary that are very effective in helping people tackle risk. Transdisciplinary strategies are much more helpful in assisting organisations to humanise safety because they are based on an anthropology that is holistic and respectful of human being. You recognised rightly too that ethics plays a crucial part in this. What a shame that safety training is so closed in focus too based on such outdated ideologies.

  14. Dear Rob,

    Most of the safety dunderheads don’t understand the difference between multidisciplinary and transdisciplinarity and remain cocooned in a narrow world of adversarial legislation, objectivism and binary thinking. Industrial manslaughter legislation will merely add fuel to the carousel of culpability and generate more blame and fear…….

    More laws, less justice – Cicero.

  15. Behaviourism is so mechanistic that it is counter-intuitive but there are situations where it DOES work. Studying it at university I hated it. And Arthur Koestler called it (as opposed to anthropomorphology) ‘ratomorphology’. On the other hand my friend put her philandering bloke on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. Aka ‘blowing hot and cold’. Worked! Works with animal training too. Apply a little pressure for a response; remove when the response is elicited = negative reinforcement (taking away the pressure). Works.

  16. Yes, when I worked in prisons I saw CBT also work but about 50% results. My point is that there are plenty of other methodologies in the world but safety is attracted to none of them. The narrow spectrum of safety knowledge is alarming.

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