Smith College Admission Academics Student Life About Smith Offices
  Department of Psychology




Broadly speaking, my intellectual goal is to explore the extent to which elementary principles of learning can explain complex human behavior. That toolbox includes items whose interpretive scope is not widely appreciated, such as covert behavior, automatic reinforcement and joint control. Most of my papers are conceptual in nature, sometimes laced with demonstration experiments that make a salient point.


The Book: Learning & Complex Behavior

Donahoe, J. W. & Palmer, D. C. (1994). Learning and complex behavior. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon; reprinted in 2005 by Ledgetop Publishers. 

This is our magnum opus.  It offers a biobehavioral approach to complexity, one that draws on principles of both behavior and  physiology.  Selectionism is the overarching principle, and parsimony is our goal.  It tackles complex phenomena such as attention, perception, memory, language, and problem solving.  Please see for an overview of the book and supplementary materials for each chapter. 

For reviews, see Shull, R. S. (1995), Interpreting cognitive phenomena: Review of Donahoe and Palmer’s Learning and Complex Behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 63, 347-358.  Also please refer to, where the book is anonymously reviewed.  The book was also at the center of a controversy published as a set of commentaries in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (1997, vol. 67, pp. 193-273).

Sample Publications

1) Palmer, D. C. (2003). Cognition.  In K. A. Lattal & P. N. Chase (Eds.), Behavior theory and philosophy. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.
  This paper summarizes the conceptual foundations of the behaviorist’s approach to cognition. It is relatively easy to read.
2) Palmer D. C. & Donahoe, J. W. (1992). Selectionism and essentialism in cognitive science and behavior analysis. American Psychologist, 47, 1344-1358.
  In our attempts to understand complexity in nature, selectionism is good, essentialism bad.  Selection processes merely set the boundaries of natural categories; they do not provide blueprints. This paper argues that the practice of defining natural phenomena empirically rather than imposing definitions in advance is consistent with selectionism.  Implications for psychology are far-reaching.  A difficult paper, I’m told, but I think it is important.
3) Palmer, D. C. (1991). A behavioral interpretation of memory. In L. J. Hayes & P. N. Chase (Eds.), Dialogues on verbal behavior (pp. 261-279). Reno, NV: Context Press.
  Memory as the radical behaviorist views it.  Memory is not a unitary construct; rather, there are two entirely different sets of phenomena commonly lumped together.  A relatively easy paper.
4) Palmer, D. C. (1998). The speaker as listener: The interpretation of structural regularities in verbal behavior. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 15, 3-16.
  An attempt to extend Skinner’s interpretation of verbal behavior by emphasizing the role of some variables that I believe have been given insufficient emphasis in the behavioral literature.  Difficult and narrow.
5) Palmer, D. C. (2000). Chomsky’s nativism reconsidered. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 17,  39-56.
  Behaviorist bites back.  Chomsky’s nativism offers an illusion, not an explanation.  Polemical and narrow.
6) Palmer, D. C. (1997). Selectionist constraints on neural networks. In  J. W. Donahoe & V. Packard Dorsel (Eds.), Neural network models of cognition: Biobehavioral foundations, (pp. 263-292).  Netherlands: Elsevier Science Press.
  For those who think that attempts to simulate behavior with neural networks is useful (and I am one), some fundamental things to consider.  Fairly easy.  A more general paper than you might think.

David Palmer


& Writings


Related Websites

Home Search Campus Directory Calendar Campus Map Virtual Tour Contact Smith