Emperor Skinner's new clothes: comparing behavior perspectives (Proceedings)


Emperor Skinner's new clothes: comparing behavior perspectives (Proceedings)

May 01, 2011

In the late 1930's, Burrhus Frederick (B.F.) Skinner wrote his magnum opus, The Behavior of Organisms. Today, his perspective on behavior is the foundation for almost all behavioral fields that deal with non-verbal animals. Skinner is the foundation for the term operant conditioning, or "learning by consequences." Skinner's primary desire was to create a science of behavior. He promoted the idea that scientific behavioral control would make the world a better place. The essence of his ideology was a non-punitive society that would control behavior through "reinforcement" – the strengthening of behavior through rewarding good behavior. If you have noticed that science with an agenda strays from the essence of science, you'd be correct. B.F. Skinner failed to create a science of behavior. He was more ideologue than scientist who created an ideology that fails even cursory tests of scientific validity.


Skinner got his bachelor's degree in literature and had no formal training in the hard sciences. (By contrast, Ivan Pavlov studied physiology, organic and inorganic chemistry and was a doctor of medicine.) After his bachelor's program he studied the budding discipline of psychology at Harvard University, gaining his PhD in 1931. Five years later, he wrote his high-sounding magnum opus, The Behavior of Organisms. The lofty name conjures up kinship with Darwin's Origin of Species but the foundation for the work was minimalistic to the extreme. The problem was that Skinner hadn't really studied the behavior of organisms. He studied only two species – rats and pigeons – and only one behavior each; lever pressing in rats and key pecking in pigeons. The essence of B.F. Skinner's attempts to be scientific can be summed up in two words – speculation and extrapolation. His work is really a collection of hypotheses, many of which are improvable because they contradict simple observation of natural phenomena. His work never reached the level of theory yet is usually absorbed into the broader topic of "learning theory", unexamined.

The basis

In Skinner's mind, science requires numbers. In order to have a science of behavior one must somehow quantify behavior. His solution was to pick the rate of response of a single "operant." A typical early operant experiment included pigeons or rats pecking keys and pressing levers. When they pecked or pressed, reinforcement was delivered by a lab assistant with a spoonful of feed. Skinner believed that he would get better data if he removed the experimenter from the process and worked diligently to create an "operant chamber" that required no human intervention. His goal was to create a completely austere environment where the only factors present were those chosen by the experimenter. (In the 1950's, Dr. Ogden R. Lindsley was B.F. Skinner's first teacher's assistance at Harvard University. At that time, pregnancy tests were conducted by injecting the urine of a female human into a rabbit. This caused the ovaries of the rabbit to hemorrhage, causing bulging masses that could only be examined by killing the rabbit. Skinner wanted to find a more humane way to test for pregnancy. He selected the acute nose of beagles and built a large operant chamber out of a large refrigerator laid on its side. Inside the chamber, the dog had a tube that wafted the scent of female urine to his nostrils. If the scent showed "positive" for pregnancy the dog hit a paddle and was rewarded. It didn't work that way. After the dogs became sophisticated about the goal, they started hitting the lever with both feet and biting it, wildly. The primitive recording instruments of the time overloaded and could not record discrete data from this assault. Skinner instructed Lindsey to move the lever to one side of the box and build a tubular sleeve that would only allow one leg to access the paddle. It didn't work. Though there was no additional reinforcement for excessive pawing or biting, the dogs continued to try to use both feet and their teeth to engage the paddle. In some cases the animals almost dislocated the elbow of the "off" leg trying desperately to shove it down the tube. The tube was marked with teeth marks within a few short trials. This information was discarded by Skinner because his only concern was single presses of the lever. ) The biggest problem with the scientific literature of Skinnerian ideology is that the research was never conducted in a robust environment. On the contrary, any "noise" that filtered into the experiment was eliminated to create bare-bones data that could be displayed on a chart or graph. In the process, any real understanding of behavior was sacrificed to the minimalist desires of the master. This is problematic when modern behaviorists cite behavior analytic research to explain real-world problems and solutions. The literature does not describe the way an organism would behave outside of a box or when the animal has access to its full behavioral repertoire. i.e. Real pigeons use flight as a means of solving problems and gaining "reinforcement." Inside a "Skinner Box" flying is not possible. Ergo, studies of flightless pigeons have little to do with the Real McCoy.

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