A Natural Science of Behaviour (2/19)

Article 2 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, A. Charles Catania; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 133-139.

Catania argues strongly for “Treating language as verbal behavior [because that] brings it within the purview of a unified account of human action.” (p. 133) and “My argument here is that psychological science cannot survive other than as a science of behavior; further, if it is a science of behavior it must be intimately tied to the biological sciences.” (p. 134). One of the reasons believed to be why we are reluctant to see language as a behaviour is that “We are all so immersed in language that we find it difficult to treat it as a variety of behavior, and yet the functions of verbal behavior are crucial to our understanding of human behavior.” (p.137), and I fully agree. It is often argued that psychology cannot be studied like other sciences because we have a “subjective” view of our subject matter, I just don’t believe that to be the case. What I do accept however is that since we are humans and are accustomed to being humans, it is easy to oversee assumptions we make about ourselves due to this very subjective perspective. I therefore agree in full that a large reason for many different criticisms against language as a behaviour, stems from an unwillingness to realise that we are creatures of habit, and as such can oversee the “simple” assumptions that shape the way we see ourselves.

A central argument in why we should view language as a behaviour is that it enables us to draw parallels to biology; “The verbal behavior that survives within the members of a group is part of that group’s culture, but the sharing of cultural elements need not be correlated with genetic relatedness; one need not be closely related to Darwin or to Skinner to repeat their words. Viewing verbal behavior as selected has the advantage of involving units with measurable dimensions comparable to units selected at the other levels.” (p. 137). This is to me a strong reason to use such a perspective. It puts a framework around verbal behaviour that is parallel to the mechanics of evolution -Catania makes a convincing empirical case for the successes of this perspective.

Lastly, I am unsure if I misunderstand or not, but at times there is a very strong push on behaviour as a central focus. Coming from an ecological background, it seems to me to make less sense to focus on one part of a process spanning environment, body and brain. At other places in the article however, it seems as though the author would agree to this. I believe that this perspective is brilliant to use if you want to study behaviour over phylogenetic, ontogenetic and cultural perspectives as reinforced/extinct/etc. The specific questions answered by this perspective seems to be defined by the timeframe you are seeking to adress, very interesting indeed!

In light of the previous article in the series (and my previous blogpost), are they compatible with each other? The focus in Anderson’s article is on a specific process, one that is a part of many different psychological divisions. My conclusion was that it is less of a unifier but universally applicable. I fear that Catania’s perspective seems to join it, because, although behaviour is a central concept regardless of which perspective is taken, it will most probably always be claimed as a part of a larger process. With that said, Catania’s perspective on behaviour aligns it very nicely with biology, something it has in common with ecological psychology and embodied cognition, very useful.

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