The behavioral approach to cognition is a kind of atomic theory. Phenomena commonly called “cognitive,” such as recall, problem solving, composition, planning, and imagining, are typically complex behavioral events that are compounds of elementary or atomic operants. For example, a long division problem can be solved by a series of one-digit multiplication and subtraction calculations along with various ordering operations. The compound usually serves some adaptive purpose, and over repeated instances can itself emerge as a kind of behavioral molecule—the solution to a brain teaser can be dashed off after it has been worked out a few times—but more commonly such compounds are unique; they are seldom repeated exactly when people solve problems, recall an episode, or plan their day. In any case, it is the first instance of a phenomenon that poses a special challenge to science. From a behavioral perspective, such phenomena are best analyzed at the level of the elementary operant, appealing only to principles of behavior that have emerged from experimental science. The behaviorist’s task is to show how such behavioral atoms can combine to produce complex human behavior. Although some examples, such as solving long division problems, may be formulaic, others, such as recalling what one ate for dinner Sunday night, are not. The challenge is formidable. The experimental analysis of even a single operant requires considerable effort, and the study of the relations between two competing operants has kept researchers busy for decades. How much more difficult must be the study of unique mosaics of many operants!


Experimental Analysis Verbal Behavior Behavior Analysis Behavioral Approach Behavior Analyst 
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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • David C. Palmer
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologySmith CollegeNorthamptonUK

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