SKINNER: BEHAVIORAL ANALYSIS
†††††† Unlike any theory discussed to this point, the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner avoids speculations about hypothetical constructs and concentrates almost exclusively on observable behavior. Besides being a radical behaviorist, Skinner was also a determinist and an environmentalist; that is, he rejected the notion of free will, and he emphasized the primacy of environmental influences on behavior.
II.†††† Biography of B. F. Skinner
†††††† B. F. Skinner was born into an upper-middle class family in Pennsylvania in 1904. As a youngster, he was interested in constructing gadgets, playing music, and writing novels. While in college, Skinner wanted to be a writer, and after graduation he spent a year trying to achieve this goal. Having no success, he changed his identity from that of a writer to psychologist. He spent the next eight years at Harvard, five of which were after he earned his Ph.D. Skinnerís first job came at age 32 when he accepted a teaching and research position at the University of Minnesota. During his nine years in Minneapolis, he invented a controversial and well-publicized baby tender and also trained pigeons to guide bombs into enemy ships. After World War II, Skinner moved to the University of Indiana, but not before he had written Walden Two and realized his earlier ambition of being a writer. In 1948 (the same year Walden Two was published), he returned to Harvard where he remained until his death in 1990. (For more information on Skinnerís search for identity, see Beyond Biography on the McGraw-Hill Web site.)
III.††† Precursors to Skinnerís Scientific Behaviorism
learning theory received a strong impetus from the work of Edward L. Thorndike
who began working with animals more than a century ago. Thorndikeís law of effect stated that responses
followed by a satisfier tend to be learned, a concept that anticipated
Skinnerís use of reinforcement to shape behavior.
The second person to influence Skinner was John Watson, who argued that psychology must deal with the control and prediction of behavior and that behaviorónot introspection, consciousness, or the mindóis the basic data
of scientific psychology.
IV.††† Scientific Behaviorism
Skinner believed that human behavior, like any other natural phenomena, is subject to the laws of science, and that psychologists should not attribute inner motivations to it. Although he rejected internal states (thoughts, emotions, desires, etc.) as being outside the realm of science, Skinner did not deny their existence. He simply insisted that they should not be used to explain behavior.
†††††† Skinner believed that scientific behaviorism allows for an interpretation of behavior but not an explanation of its causes. Scientists should begin by studying simple phenomena and later evolve generalized principles that permit interpretation.
†††††† B.††††† Characteristics of Science
†††††† Skinner believed that science has three main characteristics. First, science is cumulative; second, it is an attitude that values empirical observation, and third, it is a search for order and lawful relationships. Skinner believed that the primary goals of science are to predict, control, and describe. He also believed that scientific behaviorism can accomplish each of these goals because it rests on the assumption that human behavior is determined and lawful.
†††††† V.††††† Conditioning
†††††† Skinner recognized two kinds of conditioning: classical and operant.
†††††† A.††††† Classical Conditioning
†††††† In classical conditioning (also called respondent or Pavlovian), a neutral (conditioned) stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus a number of times until it is capable of bringing about a previously unconditioned response, now called the conditioned response. An important early example of classical conditioning is the case of Albert B. (Little Albert).
††††† B.††††† Operant Conditioning
†††††† With operant conditioning, reinforcement is used to increase the probability that a given behavior will recur. Thus, in classical conditioning, behavior is elicited, whereas in operant conditioning it is emitted. Three factors are essential in operant conditioning: (1) the antecedent, or environment in which behavior takes place; (2) the behavior, or response; and (3) the consequence that follows the behavior.
†††††† 1.††††† Shaping
†††††† Psychologists and others use successive approximations to shape complex behavior. With this procedure, gross approximations of the target behavior are initially reinforced, but later only more specific responses are followed by reward. Different histories of reinforcement result in operant discrimination, meaning that different people will respond differently to the same environmental contingencies. People may also respond similarly to somewhat different environmental stimuli, a process Skinner called stimulus generalization.
†††††† 2.††††† Reinforcement
†††††† Anything within the environment that strengthens a behavior is a reinforcer. Any behavior that increases the probability that the species or the individual will survive tends to be strengthened. Positive reinforcement is any stimulus that, when added to a situation, increases the probability that a given behavior will occur. Negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by removing an aversive stimulus. Both positive and negative reinforcement strengthen behavior.
†††††† 3.††††† Punishment
†††††† The presentation of an aversive stimulus or the removal of a positive one is called punishment. The effects of punishment are much less predictable than those of reward, an observation that led Skinner to de-emphasize punishment. Other undesirable effects of punishment include the suppression of behavior, the conditioning of negative feelings toward the punished, and the inappropriate spread of effects. Both punishment and reinforcement can result from either natural consequences or from human imposition.
†††††† 4.††††† Conditioned and Generalized Reinforcers
reinforcers are those things that are not by nature satisfying (e.g., money),
but that can become so because they are associated with a primary reinforcers
such as food. Generalized reinforcers are conditioned reinforcers
that have become associated with several primary reinforcers. Attention,
approval, affection, submission to others, and money are all conditioned generalized reinforcers.
†††††† 5.††††† Schedules of Reinforcement
†††††† Reinforcement can follow behavior on either a continuous schedule or on an intermittent schedule. There are four basic intermittent schedules: (1) fixed-ratio, on which the organism is reinforced intermittently according to the number of responses it makes; (2) variable-ratio, on which the organism is reinforced after an average of a predetermined number of responses; (3) fixed-interval, on which the organism is reinforced for the first response following a designated period of time; and (4) variable interval, on which the organism is reinforced after the lapse of varied periods of time.
†††††† 6.††††† Extinction
†††††† The tendency of a previously acquired response to become progressively weakened upon nonreinforcement is called extinction. Operant extinction takes place when the experimenter systematically withholds reinforcement of previously learned behavior until the probability of that behavior diminishes to zero. The rate of operant extinction depends largely on the schedule of reinforcement under which the behavior was learned.
VI.††† The Human Organism
†††††† Skinner believed that human behavior is shaped by three forces: (1) natural selection, (2) cultural practices, and (3) the individualís history of reinforcement, which we discussed above.
†††††† A. †††† Natural Selection
As a species, our behavior is shaped by the contingencies of survival, that is, those behaviors (e.g., sex and aggression) that were beneficial to the human species tended to survive, whereas those that did not tended to drop out.
†††††† B. †††† Cultural Evolution
†††††† Those societies that evolved certain cultural practices (e.g., tool making and verbal behavior) tended to survive. Thus, such cultural practices are reinforcing to the group, though not always to the individual.
†††††† C. †††† Inner States
Skinner did not ignore various inner states, such as self-awareness, drives, emotions, and purposes and intentions, but he rejected explanations of behavior in terms of any nonobservable hypothetical construct.
†††††† 1.††††† Self-Awareness
†††††† Humans not only have consciousness, but they also are aware of themselves as part of their environment. Private events, such as self-awareness, are part of our inner environment, but they cannot be directly communicated to others.
†††††† 2.††††† Drives
†††††† To Skinner, drives refer to the effects of deprivation and satiation and thus are related to the probability of certain behaviors. Drives, however, are not the causes of behavior.
††††† 3.††††† Emotions
believed that emotions can be accounted for by the contingencies of survival
and the contingencies of reinforcement. Like drives, they do not
†††††† 4.††††† Purpose and Intention
†††††† Although purpose and intention exist within a personís inner environment, they cannot be directly seen by others and are therefore beyond scientific study.
†††††† D.†††† Complex Behavior
human behavior is subject to the same principles of operant conditioning as
simple animal behavior, it is much more complex and difficult to predict
†††††† 1.††††† Higher Mental Processes
†††††† Higher mental processes (e.g., thinking and reminiscing) are covert behaviors that take place within the skin but not inside a ďmind.Ē As behaviors, they are subject to the same contingencies of reinforcement as are overt behaviors.
†††††† 2.††††† Creativity
explained creativity as a consequence of mutations and natural selection. To
him, creativity is the result of random or accidental behaviors that happen to
†††††† 3.††††† Unconscious Behavior
†††††† Humans rarely observe the relationship between their genetic and environmental variables and their own behavior. In this sense, Skinner said, most behavior is unconscious. Many behaviors are automatic or unconscious because not thinking about them has been reinforced.
†††††† 4.††††† Dreams
†††††† Skinner viewed dreams as covert and symbolic forms of behavior that are subject to the same contingencies of reinforcement as any other behavior.
†††††† 5.††††† Social Behavior
†††††† The group mind does not exist; only individuals can behave. During the history of the species, humans have formed groups because to do so was reinforcing. However, living within a particular society is not always reinforcing, and people sometimes try to escape both from families and from nations.
†††††† E. †††† Control of Human Behavior
†††††† Ultimately, all human behavior is controlled by the environment; will power plays no part.
†††††† 1.††††† Social Control
†††††† Societies exercise control over their members through laws, rules, and customs that transcend any one personís means of countercontrol. Skinner identified four basic methods of social control: (1) operant conditioning, including positive and negative reinforcement and punishment: (2) describing contingencies, or using language to inform people of the consequence of their behaviors; (3) deprivation and satiation, techniques that increase the likelihood that people will behave in a certain way; and (4) physical restraint, including the jailing of criminals.
†††††† 2.††††† Self-Control
†††††† Although Skinner denied the existence of free will, he did recognize that people manipulate variables within their own environment and thus exercise some measure of self-control. Skinner listed at least seven techniques of self-control: (1) physical restraint, (2) physical aids, such as tools; (3) changing environmental stimuli; (4) arranging the environment to allow escape from aversive stimuli; (5) drugs; and (6) doing something else.
VII.†† The Unhealthy Personality
†††††† Social and self control sometimes produce counteracting strategies and inappropriate behaviors.
††††† A. †††† Counteracting Strategies
†††††† People can counteract excessive social control by escaping from it, revolting against it, or by using passive resistance.
†††††† B. †††† Inappropriate Behaviors
†††††† Inappropriate behaviors follow from self-defeating techniques of counteracting social control or from unsuccessful attempts at self-control. Skinner listed several common patterns of inappropriate behavior, all of which can be reinforcing: (1) taking drugs; (2) engaging in excessively vigorous behavior as a means of escaping from an aversive stimulus; (3) using excessively restrained behavior, which may result in stubbornness or even hysterical paralysis; (4) blocking out reality, or paying no attention to aversive stimuli; (5) expressing inappropriate behaviors that are based on defective self-knowledge; and (6) using aversive self-stimulation, such as self-punishment or masochistic behaviors.
†††††† Skinner, of course, was not a psychotherapist, and he even criticized psychotherapy as being one of the major obstacles to a scientific study of human behavior. Nevertheless, others have used operant conditioning principles to shape behavior in a therapeutic setting. Behavior therapists play an active role in the treatment process, using behavior modification techniques and pointing out the positive consequences of some behaviors and the aversive effects of others.
IX.††† Related Research
†††††† Skinnerís theory has generated more research than nearly any other personality theory. In general, much of this research can be divided into two questions: (1) How does conditioning affect personality? and (2) How does personality affect conditioning?
††††† A.††††† How Conditioning Affects Personality
†††††† A multitude of studies have demonstrated that operant conditioning and shaping can change personality (that is, behavior). For example, Stephen Higgins and colleagues (2000) found that a contingency management program was more effective in deterring cocaine use than was a traditional counseling approach.
†††††† B.††††† How Personality Affects Conditioning
†††††† Some research suggests that different personalities may react differently to the same environmental stimuli, meaning that the same reinforcement strategies will not have the same effect on all people. Pickering and Gray (1999) and Corr, Pickering, and Gray (1997) found that learning was improved for participants high in anxiety but was diminished for those low in anxiety. Other research has demonstrated that infants as young as 2 or 3 months of age react differently to conditioning tasks, and that extraverted adults seem to learn better from reinforcers, whereas introverts learn more quickly from punishment.
X.†††† Critique of Skinner
†††††† Skinnerís ideas have been controversial for nearly 60 years, yet they have been widely adopted by therapists, parents, teachers, and others who wish to change or control human behavior. On the six criteria of a useful theory, we rate Skinnerís approach very high on its ability to generate research and to guide action, high on its ability to be falsified, and about average on its ability to organize knowledge. In addition, it rates very high on internal consistency and high on simplicity.
XI.††† Concept of Humanity
†††††† On the one hand, Skinner had an extremely deterministic view of human nature, but, on the other hand, he remained somewhat optimistic about humanityís ability to improve itself. In addition, Skinnerís concept of humanity was a completely causal one that emphasized unconscious behavior and the uniqueness of each personís history of reinforcement within a mostly social environment.