Science of Behavior

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What is mentalism?

Thinking Girl

Mentalism is an early approach to psychology that is still widely used today.  It involves introspection, which is the act of carefully examining one’s own thoughts and feelings.  Introspection is distinct from a scientific approach that involves variables that are observable to everyone.

Falling in Love [icon icon=”heart” size=”medium” style=”none” shape=”inherit”][/icon]

Consider the act of falling in love.  The feelings of love are not always obvious to the person who is experiencing them.  Having these feelings will often prompt a person to describe their own feelings and consider why they are thinking so much of this other person.   This is an example of introspection that most people have experienced.

Likewise, adolescents and young adults engage in a good deal of introspection.  When presented with conflict or difficult decisions, the young person will be prompted to ask “Who am I?” and consider their own private experience with the world (thoughts and feelings) in an attempt to define themselves.

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What isn’t mentalism?

Mentalism is not a science.

The fatal error of mentalism

Consider the process of introspection – it is using the mind to learn more about the mind.  In this way, the mind is both the tool for investigation and the subject of investigation.  Consider the quote below.

If the human brain were so simple
That we could understand it,
We would be so simple
That we couldn’t.

– Emerson M. Pugh

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Science of Behavior

Biology, psychics, chemistry, geology – these are all fields of science.  Each field is considered a science to the extent that it uses the scientific method to discover facts.  Is psychology a science?  The answer is the same, psychology is a science to the degree it uses the scientific method to answer questions.  Consider the definition and application of the scientific method below.

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  1. Observation – describe what occurs using objective language and use a system for measuring the amount of what is observed that may be compared across observations
  2. Prediction – use the observations to form a possible explanation
  3. Experiment – isolate a single variable to and make observations to determine whether the predicted explanation is correct



Scientific Father Wants to Know More

Thomas is a new dad of a one-month old daughter who has been crying a lot lately.  Thomas wants to get better understanding of what his daughter needs so that his daughter does not need to cry so much.   He observed that she will often suck her fist before she begins crying.  Thomas considers how his daughter sucks a bottle and wonders if sucking her fist means that she is hungryThe next time the baby sucks her fist, Thomas gives her the bottle.  When he does this, she drinks the milk a does not cry.  Then the next time the baby sucks her fist, Thomas does nothing and she begins to cry. Finally, in the third instance the baby sucks her fist, Thomas again gives her the bottle and she does not cry.  Based on these systematic observations, Thomas concludes that when the baby sucks her fist she is hungry.

What would the Mentalism Father do in this situation?  Would it be as effective?


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Despite its fatal error in reasoning, mentalism cannot be consider a science of behavior because it does not use the scientific method to solve problems.  Applied behavior analysis was derived from behaviorism, which is the philosophy behind the scientific approach to behavior.

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Distinguishing Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis, or ABA, was derived from a field of psychology that was developed in the 1930s by the work of B.F. Skinner.  The research of Skinner demonstrated that much of the behavior of animals and humans is learned through contact with the environment.  Skinner identified basic principles of behavior through his research with pigeons.  These principles are now applied to learning as the field of ABA.

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Rather than relying on a private internal experience to explain events, ABA relies on objective observations and nothing more.

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