behavioranalysishistory / Bolacchi, Giulio
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Bolacchi, Giulio


«Methodological analyses are fundamental for the advancement of any science, but behaviorism has somehow disregarded this perspective. Since its beginning, behavioristic research has focused on experimental-analysis techniques. This situation has prevented the growth of a well-defined science of behavior characterized by the various experimental analyses been connected within a unitary theoretical formulation, as it happens in all the other sciences. We can observe scholars who are inclined to interpret their experiments autonomously, and a multiplicity of interpretations for the same experiment (as in the case of the matching law). Experiments, although refined, are not enough to found a science if a univocal theoretical interpretation of all of them is missing. This situation affects also professional activity, which suffers from this theoretical naivete that makes behaviorism relevant only in the simplest cases (those in which it is possible to manipulate positive and negative reinforcers immediately and directly).»


- Giulio Bolacchi




Primary Areas of Study

The Galilean scientific method applied to the study of human behavior, social interaction and society.


  • The language of scienceI am interested in the syntax and semantics of the scientific language, particularly in the logic analysis of the functional relation, different levels of abstraction and the relation between theoretical and experimental languages, the concept of time in science (reversible and irreversible order), mathematical logic, formalization, and axiomatization. 


  • Science and experimental analysis of behavior. The Aristotelian physicists studied motion based on everyday experience. Hence the erroneous theory that all in-motion objects tend to the state of rest. Galileo (whose methodological revolution started modern science) completely turned this statement around. He formulated and demonstrated the hypothesis that, in principle, any in-motion object never stops. Then modern physicists wonder: why we observe that all in-motion objects do stop on earth? The scientific answer is: because of frictions. That allows physicists to start designing experiments to study frictions based on the abstract law of motion. Let's do likewise in the field of behavior science. If we conceive stimulus and response in abstract terms (i.e., without any frictions), we should say that applying a schedule of reinforcement must determine - necessarily and immediately - a behavior strictly conforming to that schedule. Why this does not happen is a matter of frictions. Therefore, we should start studying frictions in the laboratory. It is a fact that Skinner's contribution is invaluable, as he applied the experimental method to the study of behavior, but he has not managed this methodological step. Skinner has been capable of conceiving laboratory experiments to study the behavior of organisms; he designed a controlled experimental environment by engineering the reinforcement schedules, and he found the learning curves. What about the theory, namely, an abstract hypothesis about the theoretical reinforcement schedules and the corresponding "pure" responses to them? If we want fully to embrace a scientific perspective, we must succeed in connecting the more abstract context to the more specific experimental context. We can also start from experiments, but we must be able to build up the theory. 


  • The scientific analysis of social interactionsI formulated the Theory of Interests to explicate human behavior and social interaction from a perspective conforming to the intersubjectiveness of the scientific language. The abstract primitive predicates of the theory can be related to the experimental predicates through a correspondence relation. Notably, the basic schemata of the theory of interests (positive and negative involvement of interests, which explicate cooperation and conflict) can be related to the social reinforcement relations between operant behaviors of different subjects within the experimental analysis of behavior. The combinations of the basic schemata of the theory of interests allow explicating power (typical of institution), exchange (typical of the market), organization and all complex social interactions.


  • The scientific integration of economics, psychology and sociology. I propose the Theory of Interests as a unitary paradigm of reference in the field of behavioral and social disciplines. My objective is to make the languages of economics, psychology, and sociology compatible with a consistent system of behavior-science axioms so that the propositions formulated within the different linguistic constructions can be logically brought back to a common core of primitive predicate.


I am also interested in the scientific explication of the teacher-learner interaction and teaching methods, with a special concern on the psychological variables relevant for educational intervention and attitude change. I analyze computer-aided programmed instruction as a reconstruction of the knowledge contexts compatible, in principle, with frictionless learning processes.






Official website: (English language - Italian language)



Selected Papers


A New Paradigm for the Integration of the Social Sciences, in Nancy K. Innis (ed.),  Reflections on Adaptive Behavior: Essays in Honor of J. E. R. Staddon, M.I.T. Press, 2008.


Excerpt: "All possible types of social interaction have to be explicated in terms of reinforcement, because the reinforcing stimuli for one subject’s social behavior sequences are, by definition, the behaviors of other subjects. As stated above, the set of social stimuli (the social environment) does not replace or remove the set of natural stimuli, but it widens the extent of control on behavior, determining a further constraint on the execution of instrumental sequences: in order that the subject can complete his sequence with the consummatory behavior, it is necessary that the instrumental behavior is compatible not only with the physical environment, but also with the social environment. In short, these are the basic reference points for the experimental analysis of social behavior.


At the level of abstract language, there is a correspondence between the experimental language of behavior analysis and the theory of interests (which is concisely outlined in this paper); the latter fits more easily in dealing with the difficulties inherent in the explication of social phenomena. The relation between experimental language and abstract language (theory of interests) is given by the correspondence between the predicate "operant (behavior)" (minimum unit of analysis) and the (primitive) predicate "interest." In this way, the concept of interest loses the motivational connotations that the common language ascribes to it and designates only instrumental sequences of operant behaviors. Therefore, saying that an interest is satisfied or not satisfied (or sacrificed) is tantamount to saying that a behavior is realized or is not realized."




On "social sciences" and science, Behavior & Philosophy, 32, n. 2 (2004), 465-478. (Available at Jstor)


Abstract: "Scientific knowledge as opposed to common-sense knowledge entails a methodological revolution based on a search not for essences, in Aristotelian sense, but for mathematical functions, in Galilean sense, originated from the controlled experiment and founded on the concept of a closed or isolated system. The Priestley-Lavoisier dispute is an historical example that shows clearly the disjunction between pre-science and science. This methodological revolution has not yet been achieved in the field of “social sciences” for the persisting prejudices about dualism between man and nature. Starting from this situation, the paper emphasizes the need for a definition of the research about man and society that overcomes the obstacles and the presuppositions of philosophical ideology and common sense, according to the distinctive features of scientific inquiry and the corresponding requirements for the scientific language. In particular, with reference to the language of every science, the condition of semantic homogeneity of predicates is analyzed, and the main misunderstandings deriving from the non-conformity to this basic criterion (that have so far not allowed a development of a real social science) are pointed out; namely: (a) the consideration of the languages that designate the different fields of research (economics, psychology and sociology) as pairwise disjoint sets, even if there are clear intersections among them, and (b) the resort within the current “social sciences” language to pseudofunctions, whose domain is a set of internal (cognitive) events, or a set of biological events, and the range is a set of external (behavioral) events. According to these remarks, some criticisms to McIntyre’s paper, published in this issue, are formulated."




Selected Books


Metodologia delle scienze sociali (Methodology of the Social Sciences), Edizioni Ricerche, Roma, 1963


Teoria delle classi sociali (Social Classes Theory), Edizioni Ricerche, Roma, 1963


La struttura del potere (The Structure of Power), Edizioni Ricerche, Roma, 1964


Il sequestro come fatto sociale (The Kidnapping as a Social Fact), Editrice Dattena, Cagliari, 1998






An Interview with Giulio Bolacchi about some major issues in the science of behavior (2010)

Italian language. English subtitles contain some changes made by Giulio Bolacchi to his speech (2016)


Part 1On Skinner's "Verbal Behavior", schedules of reinforcement, theoretical and experimental perspective in behaviorism and science.


Part 2On some methodological problems in the study of schedules of reinforcement: homogeneity between variables and the isomorphism between schedules and behaviors; higher-level schedules; reinforcement and social interaction.


Part 3On the future of behaviorism, its relations with other disciplines (economics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry) and the need of a theoretical advancement in the scientific study of behavior.


Part 4: On society, social science and the science of behavior: democracy, market, education and applied behavioral analysis. 






My best student is Rosanna Farci: she has been collaborating with me since the early 90s and I trust she will dedicate herself to carry on my work on behavior science, the theory of interests, and the integration of social sciences. 


Many young people have attendend the undergraduate and graduate courses that I held in my long teaching career. Some of them were inspired to enter the field of behavioral science. I cannot remember them all, but I would like to remind here Rita Olla and Daniele Ortu.



Intellectual Ancestry


I can only start with Galileo and Darwin, then continue with B. F. Skinner and Rudolph Carnap. I would also like to mention: Gerard Debreu (Theory of Value), Dalberto Faggiani (La struttura logica della fisica [The logical structure of physics]), Jacques Monod (Chance and Necessity), Charles Morris (Signs, Language and Behavior), Ralph Barton Perry (General Theory of Value).




Additional Information


My academic career mostly took place in the Faculty of Economics, State University of Cagliari (Italy), where I taught sociology and social psychology from a perspective of integration with economics, based on the experimental analysis of behavior. From this perspective, I also designed and directed the graduate programs of high managerial education at Ailun (Nuoro, Sardinia, Italy). Many behavioral scholars taught in the International Graduate Program in Science of Organization: George Ainslie, Daniel Bernstein, Edmund Fantino, Sigrid Glenn, Richard Herrnstein, Peter Killeen, Armando Machado, M. Jackson Marr, David Palmer, Drazen Prelec, Howard Rachlin, John Staddon.