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The human as a machine

Mechanism sees humans as machines that passively react to internal and external forces over which they have no control
B. F. Skinner's Child Shock Box. With stimulus > response as its foundation, mechanism inspired shock therapy as a child development method

Competing "isms" of human development

The field of human development views the world through scores of philosophical "isms", with each philosophy representing itself as the only correct philosophy, and automatically dismissing all others. While an oversimplification of reality, academics generally classify the competing perspectives under Pepper’s (1970) “reasonably adequate” philosophies of human development: mechanism, organicism, and contextualism. Mechanism sees humans as machines that passively react to internal and external forces over which they have no control. Organicism sees people living organisms that actively make choices about how they will react to and control the internal and external forces of their lives and that have inherent growth potential. Contextualists see people as a product of the continuously changing context of society and history. The article is the first in a series of articles that will compare and analyze these competing philosophies of human development to do the following:

  • provide an overview of the historical and emerging state of the field of human development;
  • summarize key theories and practices that have emerged from each philosophy, and;
  • synthesize disparate perspectives into an integrated approach to personal and collaborative growth.


The mechanistic philosophy attempts to explore questions about what makes people the way they are (Goldhaber, 2000). Those who see through the mechanistic lens see humans as machines (Pepper, 1970) that passively react to internal and external forces over which they have no control (Goldhaber, 2000). Literally, mechanism is "the physics of motion or the study of mechanics", that describes how parts of a system work together to produce phenomena (Hunt & Ellis, 2004, p. 23).

Classical and operant conditioning are the principles that explain the theoretical foundations of mechanism. Classical conditioning explains stimulus-produced responses (S > R), while operant conditioning explains response-produced stimulation (R > S). Mechanists hold that the laws of S > R and R > S are fundamental in the natural world and can explain the behavior and development of all organisms, including humans (Skinner, n.d.). For example, when John drops a coin into the office vending machine and pushes a sequence of buttons for a candy bar, the gears of the machine drop the candy into a receptacle from which John extracts his snack. Applied to human behavior, John habitually visits the office vending machine at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. each day to purchase a candy bar. Having gained 50 pounds since starting the job 12 months prior, John wants to cut back on his snacking ritual, but just cannot help himself. Every time he walks by the machine, he has to buy a candy bar. Learning to live with his habit, John concludes, "It's just the way I am, I was born this way; besides, the candy bars help me deal with the stressful environment at work."

From the perspective of mechanistic philosophy, human behavior like "John's" is a result of genetics and environment; individuals have no control over their behavior (Lerner, 2002). Mechanists believe that the best strategy for influencing human behavior is to understand efficient and material causes that influence human behavior. Efficient causes are the "nurture" of human behavior, or the environmental factors that make an individual behave a certain way. Material causes are the "nature" of human development, or the biological factors that make an individual behave a certain way (Goldhaber, 2000). Mechanists take a scientific approach to studying human development, believing that gaining enough knowledge of the human machine allows them to predict (Lerner, 2002) and control (Skinner, 1955) human behavior.

The mechanist assumes that universal laws of nature govern all natural events, including human development and behavior. This reductionist view asserts that understanding the parts of a system leads to understanding the entire system. For example, understanding how atoms and molecules function helps the scientist understand chemistry and physics, which explain universal laws that apply to human chemistry, physiology, psychology, and sociology. However, mechanists do not necessarily claim to explain human development, but to "reduce the phenomena of physiological, psychological, and social functioning to the fundamental level of analysis—the laws of chemistry and physics" (Lerner, 2002, p. 51). Therefore, with enough knowledge of chemistry and physics, there would be no need for the sciences of human development physiology, psychology, or sociology (Lerner, 2002). For example, Hunt and Ellis (2004) state that cognitive psychologists can be "thoroughly mechanistic" (p. 12), choosing the computer model to explain how the brain processes information. When looking through the mechanistic lens, cognitive psychologists attempt to explain mental processes by discovering their origins in the brain. In other words, knowing the parts and understanding how those parts work together will help explain the workings of the machine.

Human development theory through a mechanistic lens

Major classical theories through the mechanistic lens include Watson's behaviorism, Skinner's radical behaviorism, and Bandura's social learning theory and social cognitive theory. A brief summary of each of these theories provides a clearer understanding of the view through a mechanistic lens.

Watson's behaviorism

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist in the 1890s, observed that he could cause a dog to salivate by conditioning the dog to associate a ringing bell with food. Pavlov had demonstrated classical conditioning, which is "a basic form of learning in which a stimulus that usually brings forth a given response is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus. Eventually the neutral stimulus will bring forth the response when presented by itself" (DuBrin, 2000, p. 33). American Psychologist John B. Watson used Pavlov's work on classical conditioning to pioneer a natural science of psychology called behaviorism in the early 19th century. Watson (1914) asserted that psychology should not focus on subjective and non-measurable mental experiences, like consciousness, but should be a study of objective behavior, like reflex. In his initial salvo to the field of psychology, Watson said: "The time seems to have come when psychology must discard all reference to consciousness; when it need no longer delude itself into thinking that it is making mental states the object of observation" (p. 7). To Watson, human behavior is driven by the same stimulus-response connection that causes a leg to kick when the knee is tapped by a hammer. Thus, psychology should be "a science of behavior" that never uses "the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, will, imagery, and the like" (p. 9). In other words, human behavior was no more than stimulus-response connections that Watson could observe, predict, measure, and control.

Goldhaber (2000) calls Watson's S  R psychology pure mechanism in that it does the following:

  • Defines behavior as the functional unit of the natural science of psychology;
  • Suggests that all complex behaviors can be reduced to the basic functional behavioral units;
  • Argues that complex behavior patterns occur through simple associated processes that define classical and operant conditioning;
  • Views humans as passive until acted upon by external forces;
  • Claims associative processes govern learning of all species, including humans, and;
  • States that development is learning (pp. 69-70).

Watson eventually lost his standing in the academic community for using human babies to demonstrate his theories (Harris, 1979), but found success as an advertising executive, conditioning people "to buy all sorts of unnecessary but appropriately associated items" (Goldhaber, 2000), and writing popular books about raising children. Watson had redefined psychology from a study of consciousness to a study of behavior, establishing conditioning as a key strategy for studying behavior and behavior change, and making raising children in 1930s and 1940s a matter of habit training (Goldhaber, 2000).

Skinner's radical behaviorism

Extrapolating from experiments he conducted with pigeons, B.F. Skinner demonstrated how learning occurs as a consequence of behavior. Whereas classical conditioning is learning by association (SR), operant conditioning influences learning and behavior using rewards and punishments (RS). Skinner proposed that a person's behavior is instrumental in determining if learning occurs (Skinner, n.d.). In other words, if a person experiences a pleasant outcome because of their behavior, that person is likely to repeat that behavior. Similarly, if a person's actions results in an unpleasant outcome, the person is less likely to repeat the behavior.

Skinner's work on operant conditioning resulted in the philosophy of radical behaviorism, in which efficient causes drive all behavior. In other words, external events cause all behavior. Skinner did not dismiss internal states, like feelings, emotions, and thoughts; however, he argued that "internal states are not the causes of our behavior but one of its results" (Goldhaber, 2000, p. 77). In short, radical behaviorism held that human thinking processes are not important.

Bandura's social cognitive theory

Albert Bandura (2001) rejected mechanistic input-output models because he thought they limited development to external factors shaping and controlling a mindless human organism. While he noted that the computer metaphor started to recognize the human as a cognitive organism, Bandura felt the computer metaphor "was still devoid of consciousness and agentic capabilities" (p. 2), asserting that "consciousness is the very substance of mental life that not only makes life personally manageable but worth living" (p. 3).

Bandura theorized that cognitive factors accurately predict human behavior. Navigating the challenges of life requires that people "make good judgments about their capabilities, anticipate the probable effects of different events and courses of action, size up socio-structural opportunities and constraints, and regulate their behavior accordingly" (p. 3). This belief system serves as a model of the world that helps the individual work towards desired outcomes while avoiding punishing consequences. Human survival and progress depend on "forethoughtful, generative, and reflective capabilities" (p. 3). Bandura's observations are important because they lead to social cognitive theory, which is a well-supported theory of development within the mechanistic perspective, while focusing on the social context of behavior that is shared by both organicists and contextualists (Goldhaber, 2000).

Social learning theory states that people learn by watching others in a social setting and modeling the behaviors they think will lead to favorable outcomes, while avoiding behaviors they think may lead to punishing consequences. Organicists and contextualists agree with this focus on the social context of development, however, social cognitive theory approaches behavior change from a mechanistic perspective (Goldhaber, 2000).

Bandura (2007) represents behavior as a function of the person and the environment. Called "reciprocal determinism," this interaction among person, behavior, and environment demonstrates how the world and the person cause each other. In contrast, the behaviorist perspective asserts that the environment causes the person's behavior. Bandura focused on the cognitive processes involved in observing, saying the conditions necessary for learning include the processes of attention, retention, motor production, and motivation (Bandura, 2007; Goldhaber, 2000; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).

Next in the series: The human as organism

Excerpt: The organismic perspective of human development attempts to explore why people are the way they are (Goldhaber, 2000). Using the organism (Pepper, 1970) or "integrated whole" (Tsoukas, 1994) as its metaphor, organismic theory is an extension of Gestalt psychology, which views the human being as a synergistic organism (Hall & Lindzey, 1959) that is more than just a collection of parts. Those who view human development through the organismic lens see people as living organisms that actively make choices about how they will react to and control the internal and external forces of their lives and that have inherent growth potential.

While acknowledging that humans do react to internal (material) and external (efficient) causes, the organismic lens also recognizes material and final causes of human behavior. Considering material causes, humans are not just a collection of parts, they are complex organisms that are greater than the sum of their parts. Considering final causes, humans have a purpose, there is a direction and a process to development (Goldhaber, 2000; Pepper, 1970). In short, the organismic lens views the human as a purposeful and active participant in constructing and interpreting his or her world (Lerner, 2002)...


Photo caption: B. F. Skinner's Child Shock Box. With stimulus > response as its foundation, mechanism inspired shock therapy as a child development method.


References cited

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Baltes, P. B. (1987). Theoretical propositions of life-span developmental psychology: On the dynamics of growth and decline. Developmental Psychology, 23(5), 611-626.

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology(52), 1-26.

Bandura, A. (2007). Social Learning Theory (Bandura) Retrieved August 30, 2007, from

DuBrin, A. J. (2000). Applying psychology: Individual and organizational effectiveness (5th ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.

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Skinner, B. F. (n.d.). A brief survey of operant behavior.   Retrieved August 30, 2007, 2007,

Tsoukas, H. (1994). Refining common sense: Types of knowledge in management studies. Journal of Management Studies, 31(6), 20.

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Watson, M. W. (2002). Theories of human development (Vol. 1). Virginia: The Teaching Company.