Decision field theory is usually presented as a dynamic cognitive model of decision making. However, in its basic form, the theory seems to only be concerned with behavior (decisions) and stimuli (initial set of choice and their associated risk/utilities). In particular, although we can view the dynamics as the change in 'preferences' with time, it is equally easy to view them as actions that would have happened if we forced the decision-maker to stop deliberating at that time point.

In general, I do not see why DFT would force us to prescribe internal mental states to the decision maker and more than a clearly behaviorist model such as Rescorla-Wagner. In other words, it seems like we can interpret DFT (at least as initially presented by Busemeyer and Townsend (1993) without any recent neurological grounding) purely in behaviorist terms, as a behaviorist theory. Hence my question:

Is there literature that provides purely behaviorist interpretations of decision field theory (or other similar models of decision making)?


Busemeyer, J. R., & Townsend, J. T. (1993) Decision Field Theory: A dynamic cognition approach to decision making. Psychological Review, 100, 432-459.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious why you want a behaviorist explanation. It seems like a slight step backwards? $\endgroup$
    – Preece
    Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 6:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Preece to me, behaviorism in psychology smells a lot like operationalism in physics and so I want to understand it better. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2012 at 18:33

2 Answers 2


I am pretty sure that you will not find a paper that tries to give purely behaviorist interpretations of decision field theory (or other similar models of decision making), because that would not make sense at all.

As you noted in your initial question, decision field theory is a cognitive model, i.e., it tries to explain overt behavior in terms of internal (mental) states of the organism. Its goal is to understand and model decision making and predict behavior (e.g. by making assumptions about the process of information accumulation, the allocation of attention, or about how choice biases might affect information accumulation). Thus, the focus of this theory is not the observed behavior, but rather the mental "mechanisms" it is based on.

Behaviorism has neither the intention, nor the concepts to interpret mental states. A behaviorist's account to decision making would only be concerned with describing the (statistical) relation between stimuli and choices/decisions, neglecting internal states of the organism at all. Therefore you will have a hard time to find a behaviorist's paper commenting on a cognitive models, because the latter are concerned with a topic that rests in the behaviorist's black box.

Nevertheless there will be behavorist's papers about decision making, but this is a whole different question.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I suspect this much as well. The other important factor being that behaviorism is simply not as fashionable among psychologists anymore. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2012 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ I think that this is not the point. A behaviorist commenting on a cognitive theory would probably not be considered a behaviorist anymore. $\endgroup$
    – H.Muster
    Commented Apr 17, 2012 at 14:58

I believe you are correct in that the theory could be interpreted as purely behavioristic but there is no such paper that specifically does that. I think this is largely due to the fact that the products of the cognitive revolution are the prime users and purveyors of the theory. Going the other way, DFT is also not a biologically plausible implementation; hence, it is a model that falls into the central -- that is algorithmic -- level of analysis (to use David Marr's terminology).

  • $\begingroup$ how is Rescorla-Wagner anymore biologically plausible implementation wise? And I never got the impression that behaviorist models were suppose to be grounded in neurobiology, I thought that one of their strengths was that they were agnostic to implementation. Am I confused? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 8, 2012 at 0:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ sorry for the confusion (I must have typed a sentence in my head while writing my previous post); DFT is not a biologically plausible implementation and neither is Rescorla-Wagner. And you are correct that the behaviorist models are not grounded in neurobiology. In my understanding, behaviorist interpretations are generally at the most abstract level whereas DFT is in the central level of analysis; none of these are at the implementation level. $\endgroup$
    – user512
    Commented Mar 15, 2012 at 14:13

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