Since the earliest days of formal psychological study, there have been multiple competing and co-developing ways of studying rational human behavior, cognition, and feelings. Two of these competing theories are mentalism and radical behaviorism. While adherents to these theories tend to compete, they are not mutually exclusive explanations for human decision-making and behavior.
Mentalism explains human thoughts, perceptions, and feelings by introspective analysis. Mentalists believe that ideas and feelings have true existence. Radical behaviorism is the pure reduction of human cognition and behavior to electrical signals and/or conditioning with punishments and rewards.
Mentalists believe in the whole being, with the mental component of ideas, thoughts, and feelings being as valid as physical actions. Radical behaviorists dismiss the idea that actions have any root in ideas that have any real substance beyond neurological impulses and reflexes based on behavioral training by external stimuli.
The Principles of Mentalism
The study of mentalism has often been equated to parlor tricks and illusion magic. This type of mentalism emphasizes the illusion of mind over matter. The idea that mental power can be used to influence physical surroundings. However, this is not the origin of mentalism and these ideas are not tenets of psychological mentalism.
Rather, mentalism in the study of psychology seeks to explain causes for human thoughts and behavior in a way that respects and explores our shared experiences of thoughts, dreams, feelings, and beliefs.
- Classical mentalism is introspective. It seeks to understand the mind using the mind rather than chemical explanations or experimental processes.
- Mentalism seeks to understand the nature of consciousness and the relation between individual consciousness and group consciousness.
- Mentalism aims to identify the realities of intangible group awareness aside from physical conditioning. This would be more in the realm of finding a first cause of consciousness that results in physical conditioning practices.
- Mentalism aims to understand both individual and shared perceptions. This particular study is often in direct contrast with behaviorism. Much of the support and progress of psychological mentalism in the 20th century was a reaction to the attempt to dismantle it by concurrently developing behaviorists.
- Mentalism is concerned with the nature of mental imagery and the origins of mental imagery. Do mental images and ethereal ideas exist in reality in the universe and are then discovered with the mind? Mentalists believe that they do.
- Mentalists believe that ideas, dreams, feelings, and thoughts have a concrete existence in the universe that is valid although intangible.
- Mentalists are more likely to approach a human as a “whole person,” believing that each individual is capable of real mental expression that is unique. Further, each person is capable of individual expression that is unaccountable by simple conditioning or neurological pathway stimulation.
- Mentalists would argue that society is made of people, rather than people being made by society. That without individuals there is no society, therefore society as an intangible can not be blamed for all of the ills of the individual.
- At its most radical, mentalists claim that everything in existence is simply a state of mind. It is this radical mentalism that caused a rise in behaviorism which sought to dismantle this idea that all that exists is a projection of the mind.
The Principles of Radical Behaviorism
Behavioralism in general is a psychological study that aims to take the mystique away from human behavior. The beginnings of behaviorism were largely a reaction to more radical forms of mentalism that claimed that all things that we perceive as existing are simply entities in the mind. Behaviorists wanted to approach human rationality from a more concrete and empirical standpoint.
Behaviorists began to explore the idea that the human mind can be understood best from the outside looking in, rather than using the mind to interpret itself. They felt that in order to properly understand the intricate workings of the mind, it must be viewed scientifically and tested empirically. Ideally, they hoped to eliminate all forms of bias, impression, ideation, and feelings from the scientific data about human behavior.
The most strict approach of behaviorism is called radical behaviorism. This very approach violated its own tenets through inherent bias against the capabilities of the human mind, and the design of tests to gather empirical data that would show that the human mind is an unthinking, conditioned automaton. Much thought was put into proving that the human mind is unthinking.
- Classical behaviorism began and was based on Pavlov’s research on training dog behavior.
- Radical behaviorism began with the rat and pigeon training work of B.F. Skinner, and is still seen as a major basis of psychology today.
- Radical behaviorism is seen as an extension of the natural sciences. This is because it eliminates the introspection from psychology and places experimentation, theory, and analysis outside of the mind and into empirical data.
- Radical behaviorism reduces human thought, feeling, creativity, perception, and ideology to conditions imposed from without. This conditioning can come from family, school training, religion, media, or society at large.
- Radical behaviorism teaches that a person has no choice but to become what is imposed on him from these sources of conditioning.
- Radical behaviorism eliminates the idea of an individual being born with a certain potential that can be realized outside of his circumstances. Circumstances are both blamed and credited for the outcome of the individual.
- This empirical science reduces human cognition to the conditioning of brain synapses. When an input is received there are a myriad of possible combinations of brain synapses that may fire. The brain is trained to follow certain synapse pathways by conditioning through reward and punishment.
- Radical behaviorism imposes conditioned responses such as a dog salivating to a bell, a rat finding its way through a maze, or a child learning to be afraid of a white rat onto all possibilities of human cognition.
- The results of these experiments in conditioning are imposed on the understanding of the entire human person and all actions taken by that person. This approach ignores differences between a human and a rat that can not be quantified with empirical data.
The Imposition on the Individual
Both views have dramatically different implications for application to individual therapy. While mentalism will seek to understand a person’s mind by delving deeper into the mind, patients may find that they are becoming further lost into the web of their own feelings, ideas, and perceived reality. This can make it very difficult for both patients and doctors to come to terms with the origins of mental distress.
- The mentalist approach has taken big strides in recent decades as the cognitive sciences are now able to use brain mapping and the field of neuroscience advances rapidly, showing how external stimuli can activate parts of the physical brain.
- This shows promise in both validating human perceptions and individual identity while helping to understand how the brain is physically wired to cope with and incorporate external stimuli.
Conversely, the behaviorist approach explains all human interactions and perceptions as a result of external stimuli and conditioned responses to them. In this type of therapy, behavioral psychologists try to pinpoint external stimuli that cause various conditioned responses that cause the patient to feel distress.
- This approach aims to relieve feelings of guilt and personal responsibility so that the patient can feel more comfortable and mentally stable.
- Radical behaviorism can also benefit from new cognitive mapping discoveries, showing that stimuli can cause repeatable and reliable activation in certain brain areas.
Radical behaviorism explains human cognition and perception in the simplest terms of stimuli-response conditioning. This does not adequately explain the variation and intensity of the human mental experience. Mentalism explains human cognition and perception by introspectively exploring the inner workings of the human mind, but often fails to give credit to the fact that humans are quickly and effectively conditioned.
Neither field of psychological science can stand alone and should be viewed symbiotically. In order to understand the human as a whole sentient being, we must take into account that humans are capable of concrete and unique feelings, ideas, and perceptions that can be conditioned to react to external stimuli using both reward and punishment.