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The teleological behaviorism of Howard Rachlin

The teleological behaviorism of Howard Rachlin

November 22, 2022

Given the popularity of behaviorism, especially half a century ago, it is not surprising that there are a large number of variants of this paradigm. Thus, we find classical models, such as the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner and Kantor's interbehaviorism, together with more recent contributions, among which the functional contextualism of Hayes stands out.

In this article we will describe the main aspects of Howard Rachlin's teleological behaviorism , which emphasizes the importance of the human will and our capacity for self-control of behavior. We will also present the most significant criticisms that have been made towards this theoretical perspective.


Biography of Howard Rachlin

Howard Rachlin is an American psychologist who was born in 1935 . When he was 30 years old, in 1965, he received his doctorate in Psychology from Harvard University. Since then he has dedicated his life to research, teaching and writing articles and books, among which "Conducta y mente" and "La ciencia del autocontrol" stand out.

Rachlin is considered one of the determining authors in the emergence of behavioral economics; Some of his research has examined phenomena such as the pathological game or the prisoner's dilemma. It is also known for teleological behaviorism, on which this article focuses.

During his professional career this author has studied mainly the decision making and the behavior of choice . According to him, his main objective as a researcher is to understand the psychological and economic factors that explain phenomena such as self-control, social cooperation, altruism and addictions.


Currently Rachlin is professor emeritus of Cognitive Science at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. His ongoing research focuses on analyzing patterns of choice over time and their effects on interpersonal cooperation and individual self-control.

Principles of teleological behaviorism

Teleological behaviorism follows the fundamental principles of classical behavioral orientation. Rachlin argues that the object of study of psychology must be observable behavior and adheres to the theories that conceive the mental contents (thoughts, emotions, etc.) as forms of behavior rather than as causal factors.

The central aspect that characterizes this discipline is its focus on voluntary or proactive behavior . This principle leads Rachlin to emphasize the relevance of issues such as the free will of human beings, our capacity for self-control or collaboration between different individuals.


In this sense, Rachlin's theory can be related to the contributions of authors such as Edward Tolman, whose proposals are known as "proactive behaviorism", or Albert Bandura, who affirmed that people can control their own behavior through processes of self-regulation ( which include self-observation or self-reinforcement).

Voluntary behavior, self-control and free will

With the popularization of Skinner's radical behaviorism, which attempts to predict behavior exclusively through the manipulation of environmental stimuli, the old question of free will became central in scientific psychology. According to Rachlin, determining whether a behavior is voluntary or not is fundamental from a social point of view .

This author affirms that the actions that most people consider voluntary are also motivated by environmental factors, but this is less obvious than with other types of behavior. At this point the concept of self-control is introduced, which Rachlin defined as the individual capacity to resist temptations thinking in the long term.

For Rachlin, for people with good self-control, the goal of behavior is not always to satisfy a present need, but also to seek reinforcement or avoidance of long-term punishment. This interest in delayed consequences and in the vision of the future is another of the most characteristic aspects of teleological behaviorism.

The ability to self-control is understood as a skill that can be trained; Rachlin affirms that the fact that a person develops it adequately or not depends on the consistency of his efforts to guide his behavior based on long-term gratification, and not on the immediate one. This can apply to problems such as addictions.

Criticisms of Rachlin's theory

Rachlin's teleological behaviorism argues that free will is a social construct whose definition depends exclusively on the context. This approach has received criticism for its relativistic nature.

MMany behaviourists believe that Rachlin's contributions deviate from the path that this discipline should follow . A particularly criticized aspect has been its focus on self-control, which some equate with the phenomenon of self-help psychology, reviled for considering that it seeks obvious economic benefit.

Bibliographic references:

  • Rachlin, H. (2000). The science of self-control. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  • Rachlin, H. (2007). Free Will From the Viewpoint of Teleological Behaviorism. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 25 (2): 235-250.
  • Rachlin, H. (2013). About Teleological Behaviorism. The Behavior Analyst, 36 (2): 209-222.

Matching Law Presentation (November 2022).


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