What Is Third-Wave Behaviorism?

March 2, 2015 by Shawn Smith

third-wave-behaviorism rocks!Strap yourselves in! Prepare to recalibrate your definition of excitement! Why? Because I’m going to oversimplify and possibly misreport the history of behaviorism. There’s no need to thank me. It’s what I do.

This question comes from my friends at Northeastern Junior College, where they are kind enough to use The User’s Guide to the Human Mind as an example of passable writing. I mentioned in the introduction of that book that it is influenced by third-wave behaviorism, but I didn’t define the term. As it turns out, it’s hard to find a concise definition.

Let’s start with a quick description of behaviorism in general. It’s a branch of psychology that studies measurable behaviors and their interactions with the environment. It’s been around since the 1800s, and we can divide it into roughly three eras, or waves of thought. Sort of like dinosaurs.

There’s no clear dividing line between the three waves. That means other behaviorists may disagree with my description. They are a passionate bunch given to harsh debate over such matters. Cast your gaze upon the fearsome visage of this typical behaviorist and his army of winged killers:

B.F. Skinner

At the risk of displeasing other behaviorists (whose comments are welcome ‘cause I ain’t the boss of behaviorism) I’ll divide the three eras based on how they approach two major considerations:

  • Causes of behavior. Does the environment drive behavior? Is it history? Why do we act the way we do?
  • The relevance of thoughts and feelings. We can experience thoughts and feelings, but we can’t easily measure them. This causes headaches for behaviorists because we love to quantify things.

By the way, the man with the pigeons is a pivotal figure in this discussion. We’ll come back to him. But before we even approach the titillating evolution of behaviorism we need to talk about two important fictional characters.


Dexter Morgan vs. Gregory House

OK, maybe Dexter and House are of minor importance in the pantheon of great literature, but they are useful to our discussion. Each solves mysteries, and each relies on a different kind of thinking. Let’s start with Dexter the serial killer/crime investigator.

Most of the facts are missing when Dexter Morgan approaches a crime scene on behalf of the police department. He can’t see the weapon, the manner in which it was used, the size of the attacker, or the time of the crime. He can only assess the remnants of the crime, so he must work from general principles to deduce a guess about what happened.

For example, as a “blood spatter expert” he understands the general behavior of blood when it is… er… enthusiastically released from a person. He understands how it flows, how it pools, how it dries. He works down from that unusual body of knowledge to develop a theory about the crime scene. Once he forms a hypothesis he searches for evidence to confirm it, foreclosing other possibilities in the process.

Greg House operates differently. He observes specific clues and works up to a diagnosis. When a patient appears with an odd cluster of symptoms, he searches for the way in which that pattern of symptoms matches a known diagnosis. After he spots the pattern, he runs tests to confirm or deny the diagnosis. (For some reason this usually involves a dangerous lumbar puncture.) Sometimes the tests show that the diagnosis was wrong and he has to start over.

the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning

Dexter uses deductive reasoning; House uses inductive reasoning. This is the hallmark difference between behaviorism and other schools of psychological thought… most psychologists and researchers use deductive reasoning, while behaviorists prefer inductive reasoning.

This has real-life implications. Suppose you go to a behaviorist like me to treat your anxiety problem. I’ll gather data by asking lots of questions and running some experiments. (Don’t worry, the experiments are harmless. Mostly.) I’ll assemble that data, with your help, and work upward to a hypothesis about where your anxiety is coming from and how to treat it.

If you go to another type of psychologist—perhaps a psychoanalyst—she’s more likely to ask for a description of the problem, then work down to a diagnosis using what she knows about the psyche. For example, if you describe a fear of dating she might assume that your parents had a bad relationship. Research has shown that sort of connection. (A similar assumption might enter my head but I will try to ignore it while I’m gathering data.)

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Monty Python shows an example of deductive reasoning gone bad, and nearly every episode of House MD shows poorly-executed inductive reasoning. Bad induction usually resembles a wild guess.

If House were a shrink he would be a behaviorist—albeit a reckless one. Behaviorists like to begin with data. We love data. That proclivity defined first-wave behaviorism.


Wave 1: Thoughts Don’t Matter

We can’t discuss first-wave behaviorism without talking about John B. Watson, who is best known for a pivotal demonstration that quantified human learning in a rather noteworthy manner. Watson is considered the father of behaviorism and one of the world’s preeminent baby-scarers.

In what has come to be known as the Little Albert experiment Watson trained an 11-month-old boy to fear fuzzy white objects by pairing a laboratory rat with a startling noise. Watson would show Albert a cute little rat (to which Albert initially demonstrated no fear) and then he would frighten Albert and cause him to cry. After a few rounds of training, Albert developed a generalized fear of white, fuzzy objects such as rats, dogs, rabbit fur, and even beards.

Now Little Albert fears even Santa Claus

We could get into all manner of behavioral jargon like “unconditioned stimulus,” “latent inhibition,” and “court-ordered injunction to cease laboratory activities.” But that’s not what we’re interested in here.

What matters for our discussion is the fact that Watson didn’t care why Albert was scared. Obviously Albert was startled by the noise, but we’re talking about “scared” in the cosmic sense… why the fear existed in the first place, and how Albert generalized the fear from one object to another.

Watson, and those who followed him, believed that psychologists should concern themselves only with observable events—like crying and escaping—and nothing more. What goes on inside the mind was of no interest. First-wave behaviorism, also called the methodological school, gave us a push-pull sense of causality: do X to an organism and it will react with Y.

That manner of sterile assessment, along with unsavory experiments, gave behaviorism a bad name. But first-wave behaviorism had a lot to offer. It created a massive body of knowledge about learning. It built the conceptual foundation for second-wave therapies that are still considered gold-standard treatments for problems like anxiety and substance abuse.

Before we get to that, you might be wondering what became of Little Albert. It appears he died at the age of six from hydrocephalus. His was a tragic life. As for John Watson, he was eventually fired from Johns Hopkins University for having an illicit affair with one of his graduate students. Note that he was not fired for traumatizing children. Times were different. We don’t know what became of the rat, who presumably developed a lifelong fear of babies.


Wave 2: Thoughts Matter.

Remember the man with the pigeons? That’s B.F. Skinner. He is a revered figure to behaviorists like me.

Skinner was known as a radical behaviorist because he took a stark philosophical departure from Watson and the other behaviorists who preceded him. He adopted the heretical belief that thoughts and feelings—what we call internal experiences—actually matter to the study of psychology.

He also recognized the limitations of the mechanical, push-pull mentality of first-wave behaviorism. Skinner took the view that the organism is part of the environment rather than a thing separate from it. This added a whole new way of understanding behavior: the organism and its environment interact rather than acting upon each other like a hammer and nail.

Again, we’re going to set aside the jargon that accompanied second-wave behaviorism—words like “independent variable” and “context.” Instead, let’s look at how Skinner laid the foundation for the third wave.

There’s an idea called logical positivism that says there are only two ways to obtain information: logical reasoning and direct experience. Behaviorists prefer direct experience with a smattering of logical thought (Greg House), rather than logical thought with a smattering of direct experience (Dexter Morgan).

Most psychological research takes the Dexter Morgan approach. It’s theory-based. Skinner really disliked theory-based research because it is fraught with logical pitfalls, missed opportunities, and dead-ends.

For example, the more we pursue a theory-driven explanation, the likelier we are to find evidence that supports the theory even if the theory is dead wrong. Skinner might argue (I certainly do) that the current body of psychological knowledge is tainted by this kind of erroneous pursuit.*

Similar problems arise when the Dexter Morgan approach is applied to therapy. Therapists sometimes chase theories that have nothing to do with the cause of a problem. Just like theory-based research, theory-based treatment is prone to wrong turns and self-deception.

Here’s an example: I knew a student therapist who became convinced that her patient’s difficulties arose from abuse that the patient suffered as a child. That explanation fit the therapist’s theoretical base of knowledge, and she refused to consider other possibilities despite the patient’s insistence that she had never been abused. Obviously, this therapist wasn’t very helpful because she spent much of her time arguing with the patient.

Skinner was a researcher, not a clinician, but he would surely have disapproved of that theory-based, Dexter Morgan approach. Skinner’s brand of information gathering was the foundation of behavioral research, and behavioral research was the foundation of behavioral treatment. Whether or not he intended it, Skinner helped form therapies that rely on inductive reasoning.

In second-wave behaviorism, thoughts and feelings matter. They are counted as behavior, and so it follows that internal behaviors can be manipulated and changed following the same principles that moderate external behaviors. That idea provided endless questions and fertile ground for research. That research, in turn, led to cognitive behavioral therapies aimed at managing thoughts and eliminating irrational beliefs.

Second-wave cognitive behavioral therapy is still vibrant, and it is still considered the best treatment for many psychological problems. Still, there was something missing in the second wave… something that the third wave sought to uncover… something that has been there since the dawn of rational thought.


Wave 3: Thoughts Don’t Matter Again

You’ve probably heard of Sigmund Freud. He was the fellow who gave us theories like the Oedipus complex and penis envy. Freud was a prolific builder of theories. Some of them, like the theory of psychosexual development, were cringeworthy. Others, like his notion of defense mechanisms, appear to be spot-on.

Either way, his Dexter Morgan approach to the mind makes him the furthest thing from a behaviorist. In fact, if Freud and Skinner were placed in a room together their psyches would cancel out like matter and antimatter. They would both vanish with a loud POP.

Some people think that behaviorism and Freud don’t mix, but they do. Freud added a couple of foundations to psychology that are defining characteristics of third-wave behaviorism. These ideas are nothing new. They have existed for thousands of years, beginning with the Stoic philosophers in the West and even earlier among Eastern religions. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Insight
  • Acceptance

One of Freud’s greatest and most enduring contributions to the study of psychology is the notion that past experiences influence present behavior, and we don’t always understand those forces until we take the time to examine them. That’s the insight piece.

As for acceptance, it means to peacefully coexist with the constant stream of internal experiences without letting transient thoughts and feelings control our lives. Second-wave behaviorism was largely about controlling the mind rather than learning to peacefully coexist with it. The third wave is grounded in acceptance.

Freud didn’t suggest that we try to rid ourselves of history or wrestle our thoughts to the ground as the second-wave behaviorists did. I’m not sure if he openly advanced the idea of acceptance but it is implicit in his work: understanding our history helps to free us from its influence.

Third-wave behaviorists have a favorite term: mindfulness. Mindfulness is a combination of insight and acceptance. It gives us awareness of our thoughts and feelings, and it offers freedom from their influence. How do I know? Because the data say so. Even though mindfulness is an old idea, third-wave behaviorists have put it under the microscope in the finest tradition of inductive inquiry.

Here’s a quick example of the sort of thing that third-wave behaviorists like to dissect. You know what happens when you tell yourself not to think of an elephant, right? By doing so you force yourself to think of an elephant. The more you try not to think of an elephant, the more elephant thoughts you get.

You might point out that you can avoid thinking of elephants by distracting yourself. You can sing Poker Face, or count backwards from 99. True enough. You might not be thinking of elephants while you’re doing that, but imaginary elephants are now making you do silly things and that’s even worse.

That little experiment shows how the attempt to eliminate thoughts can have a paradoxical effect. Third-wave behaviorists have looked deeply into this phenomenon and have discovered ways in which attempts to control thoughts and feelings can be insidious, difficult to notice, and terribly destructive.

That line of inquiry, along with other innovations of third-wave behaviorism, have led to treatments like DBT and ACT that give new hope to people struggling with problems that previously had pretty grim outcomes.

(As for me, I’m not a doctrinaire third-waver. Experience tells me that trying to control the mind often creates a destructive internal battle. But experience also says that arguing with the mind is sometimes effective. The trick is to recognize the difference.)

In first-wave behaviorism, thoughts and feelings were considered invisible and irrelevant. In the second wave, thoughts were the focus of intense scrutiny. By the third wave, thoughts were irrelevant again but for a very different reason: they exist but they needn’t control our behavior or our destiny.

If you’re looking for a single word that distinguishes third-wave behaviorism, that word might be mindfulness. But here’s the beauty of behaviorism: the old data is still useful thanks to the inductive manner of inquiry. Even the original first-wave knowledge still applies. Good research grows but it doesn’t die. That’s what I love about behaviorism.


*Here’s an interesting video on one of the problems with theory-based research.



Brown, L.A., B. A. Gaudiano, and I.W. Miller. 2011. “Investigating the Similarities and Differences between Practitioners of Second and Third Wave Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies.” Behavior Modification 35:187-200.

Chiesa, M. 1994. Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science. Boston: Authors Cooperative, Inc.

The photo of John B. Watson tormenting experimenting on working with Little Albert comes from Wikipedia Commons. The pictures of B.F. Skinner, Dexter Morgan, and Greg House are all over the internet, so I don’t know who to credit.