Skinner Boxing; Take Your Seats, Please. the Guru of Behaviorism Is Set to Challenge the Palookas Who Discarded His Scientific Approach

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, February 8, 1986 | Go to article overview

Skinner Boxing; Take Your Seats, Please. the Guru of Behaviorism Is Set to Challenge the Palookas Who Discarded His Scientific Approach


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Skinner Boxing Take your seats, please. The guru of behaviorism is set to challenge the palookas who discarded his scientific approach.

Good evening and welcome to tonight's long-awaited academic heavyweight bout, soon to appear in a book published by Cambridge University Press. In the near corner stands the "Behaviorist Bomber," B.F. Skinner of Harvard University. Jammed into the far corner are 142 of his critics -- biologists, computer scientists, linguists, neuro-scientists and philosophers -- waiting to hit the head of behavioristic psychology with their best shots.

The fight is scheduled for six rounds, barring any low blows or rabbit punches. As usual in psychological scuffles, scoring is up to each spectator. There's the opening bell.

Round One: Skinner takes the offensive, brandishing a 1984 paper in which he argues that the environment -- not individual decision-making -- shapes human behavior. He throws a one-two-three combination: Natural selection picks out adaptive traits for the species; individual behaviors are "reinforced" and shaped by their consequences; and cultural practices promoted by external circumstances further determine each person's behavior.

Often, he explains, the last two factors end up outweighing natural selection. For example, certain foods were originally consumed solely for their survival value. Gradually, different foods acquired reinforcing properties in different cultures, leading to new ways of gathering, processing and cultivating foods. Conditioned eating behavior is not always adaptive, since unhealthy foods, such as sweets, are over-reinforced in some modern societies.

The appearance of language, or "verbal behavior," greatly increased the importance of cultural reinforcement, adds Skinner. Individuals who talk are able to take advice from others, learn rules, heed warnings, follow instructions and develop self-awareness in response to the questions of comrades ("Why did you do that?"). Responses that prove to be successful for a group -- a better way of making a tool, growing food or teaching a child--shape cultural practices.

The critics quickly counter-punch. There are limits, they say, to the environment's power over a species and its members. For instance, when someone creates a work of art or takes action to solve a disagreement with someone else, they might mentally rehearse various scenarios, envision probable consequences and select one with the most desirable imagined outcome. In this way, thoughts and goals work in tandem with prior reinforcements.

In a shot to the body, the critics further contend that Skinner's three categories are oversimplified. The aim of natural selection is survival, they say, but reinforcing consequences often promote sensory gratification that can be destructive (drug addiction and dangerous sports are two examples). Human survival, as well as animal survival, may be intertwined with a need for sensory satisfaction that, paradoxically, works against survival in some ways.

Skinner, however, rolls with the punches. The thoughts and goals of an artist or a negotiator spring from their inherited qualities and the prior reinforcements each has received, he says. Furthermore, reinforcers work by strengthening behavior, be it heroism or heroin abuse, over time: Behaviors are defined as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, by groups and cultures.

Round Two: In a condensation of several early articles, Skinner jabs at psychologists' "flight from the laboratory" and reluctance to study how behavior is "selected" by its consequences. They are attracted, he says, to real-life people (as in psychotherapy), all-encompassing mathematical models of learning and performance, the "inner man" composed of perceptions, habits, ideas and other presumed qualities, and the "remedial patchwork" of commonsense notions about why people do what they do. These pursuits are often fun, he admits, but a science of behavior should study orderly changes that take place in different contexts. …

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