Sunday, December 31, 2006

At the Bar with B.F. Skinner

(Note: This is an first post in a series that I plan to do over the next year and a half. This series will introduce and talk about well known psychologists/psychiatrists/neurologists, who have now passed on. The goal of this is to show the basic premises and ideas that these persons advocated. The format will be an informal conversation at a bar). While creative modifications were inevitable, I think this captures an accurate picture of the ideas and defenses used by Dr. Skinner.

Interverbal: Dr. Skinner, thanks for coming to get a drink with me

Skinner: Oh, you are welcome. What did you want to talk about?

Interverbal: So, much mythos seems to surround you. Some people hold you in the profoundest sort of respect as a great humanitarian and some accuse you of being a stepping stone to full dictatorship, the door-keeper to the loss of all the makes us human. So……maybe you can explain yourself and your position more fully….

Skinner: Well…for myself I want to see human culture develop so that we can accomplish two goals, 1, to survive, 2, to have all of us be happy. You see, what we do is a reflection of what we learn...

Interverbal: [Interrupting] But not everything we do is learned…..What about reflexes, what about innate behavior, what about behavior related to problems in the neurology, like seizures?

Skinner: There is behavior that is not related to classical or operant conditioning, but much of it is and it is that portion that I choose to look at. I will say this though; no good student would ever say that behavior is purely conditioning or that we are a tabula rasa (scraped tablet/blank slate).

Interverbal: So, then John Locke is out of the picture.

Skinner: In that regard, yes, Locke is out of the picture.

Interverbal: So, would you say that the fields of neurology and genetics play an important role in teaching us about our behavior.

Skinner: To an extent, yes.

Interverbal: And cognitive neuroscience?

Skinner [hesitates] Not necessarily, that depends on their use of mentalism and circular explanations for phenomena.

Interverbal: So, if they invoke thought process in their answer they are wrong?

Skinner: No, a mentalism is not the invocation of a process we can’t see. What I mean by “mentalism” is the circular explanation of phenomena. Why is the boy crying? Because, he is hungry. How do we know he is hungry, because he is crying.

Interverbal: So, you believe in parts of our mind?

Skinner: I think this type of labeling is tip-toeing into a mentalistic fallacy. However, yes, I do think there is thought and feelings and that these things are important in human behavior. I will go so far as to say that if we are to tell the whole story we must include those things in our analyses.

Interverbal; What about cognitive psychology?

Skinner: I view cognitive psychology as mentalistic and archaic. I see it as for psychology, what creationism is for evolution.

Interverbal: That seems very strong, many people must disagree, even behavior analysts.

Skinner: Correct….

Skinner: Before we go much further, I would like to switch roles and ask you a few questions.

Interverbal: Sure…

Skinner: Why are you here tonight?

Interverbal: Because, I wanted to talk to you.

Skinner: And how do you know you wanted to talk to me?

Interverbal: [laughs] you are trying to get me…

Skinner: [smiles] To be honest I have no problem with you describing your own feelings as “wants”. It is simple and efficient, just like we say that “sun rises”, or the “Stars come out”.

However this sort of simplistic language has no place in a genuine discussion of a science of human behavior. This is the precise problem we face in psychology; it is analogous to some astronomer telling us to really believe the sun orbits around the earth.

Although to be fair this really was true at one time. But here is the difference; biology and astronomy and medicine have all moved on beyond the earliest theoreticians; not so in psychology. Aristotle could stroll into a professional presentation of many types of psychology here and now and probably keep up with the conversation.

Interverbal: [smirks] Probably, he might even do better than some.

Skinner: You laugh, but that is true. Psychology is rutted down in simplistic descriptions that have little to do with science and a great deal to do with language.

Skinner: Sir, you are sounding all Wittgenstein-ish now.

Skinner: And for good reason, the logical positivism makes some good points, it actually was necessary for behaviorism to arise.

Interverbal: A lot gets made of the fact that you are a determinist. Our genes in combination with our environment determines how we will behave.

Skinner: That is a concise summery.

Interverbal: That seems so simple to disprove. I mean…I can get up on the bar right now and sing a song about how I have free will. That IS free will…

Skinner: [smiles] Unless of course your behavior was controlled by the reinforcing feeling of supposing you proved me wrong….

Interverbal: I could do it much later too, maybe just by spontaneously remembering.

Skinner: What would precede the behavior?

Interverbal: Well, my thought of proving you wrong…

Skinner: Exactly…

Interverbal: Okay, but people do off the wall things all the time. I mean let’s just start with kids. How many times does a kid do some ludicrous thing and when we ask them why they did it, what do they always say….”I don’t know”.

Skinner: I think you are confusing the fact that you don’t always know why a child does something with the idea that they must have done so because of free will. But I would argue that you probably haven’t even really looked for a reason why.

The more I look, the more it seems that people behavior is logical, even if they themselves can not determine this system. Research backs this up by the way.

Interverbal: So, why don’t people behave the same…. or at least the people within the same culture?

Skinner: Careful, you are bouncing into illogic. It would be a mistake to assume that culture alone tells you what you need to know to determine behavior. In reality culture almost never tells us enough to determine why a person does a given behavior. That is much more specific.

Interverbal: So you discount the work of social scientists.

Skinner: No, but I often wonder if their work searches too broadly and misses critical details.

Interverbal: Well what about a class then. In a classroom, the same rules apply for everyone and produce the same outcomes.

Skinner: Actually that is simply not always true. Also, maybe it shouldn’t be true, but that is another story. Anyway the classroom is not a child’s only environment, maybe not even the most important one.

Also, I think you are gunning for “all or nothing” comparisons. You see the most extreme options, but miss the subtle middle ones. You simply can’t ignore these.

Remember a child does not walk into a class as a bundle of unwritten and untapped potential. They arrive with several years of previous learning and possibly a different set of established reinforcers and preferences.

Skinner: Anyway I have another question fro you. What kind of beer are you drinking?

Interverbal: Duffs..

Skinner: And why do you drink Duff’s?

Interverbal: Well let see…. That would be because it’s a rich hops mix with excellent texture and smooth taste.

Skinner: You misunderstand me a bit. What I mean was why do you drink Duff’s as opposed to McCallagans?

Interverbal: Because Duff’s tastes better.

Skinner: Yes, and that is a perfectly acceptable answer all by itself. Answer me this though; are you more likely to order Duff’s or McCallagan’s.

Interverbal: Duff’s, clearly.

Skinner: We are talking about what you as one individual value. You would prefer Duff’s when given a choice. Humans are like that, we value different things, possibly because our genes determined that we would, possibly because it was paired with another reinforcer at some earlier time.

This fact permeates us and it deeply relates to our behavior. There is individuality in this deterministic system. We can never be totally sure even after lots of successful reinforcement that a person will do a given behavior at the “right time”. We can not speak of probability in out science only of likelihood or what we expect to happen.

Interverbal: This ties in well with certain mathematical theories I think.

Interverbal: Dr. Skinner thank you very much for having a drink with me. I deeply appreciate it.

Skinner: You’re welcome

Interverbal: And now, [smirks] let us choose of our own free will to have another round…

Skinner: I will drink to that.


Blogger mcewen said...

As a youthful student I was very impressed with Skinner's 'science.'

As a mature student, I found his principles clashed with my philosophy classes.

As an old crumbly person, Temple Grandin's comments in Animals in Translation, let me see him as a 'man.'

On another note I don't know whether I'm shocked that you can plan 18 months ahead, disappointed that you're going to be so deadly 'slow' or merely jealous of both?

Cheers dears

2:13 PM  
Blogger Do'C said...


Great format. I enjoyed this.

Do I detect a slight cultural commentary influenced by Matt Groening?

5:29 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Cheers mcewen!

9:03 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...


Mayhap :)

Two points for knowing the reference.

9:04 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home