Instinctive drift–Keller Breland vs BF Skinner (Proceedings)

May 01, 2011

Not many people know the name of Keller Breland outside marine mammal and dog training. Keller Breland was B.F. Skinner's first graduate student at University of Minnesota – before Skinner became the icon of behavioral psychology, AKA behavior analysis. Keller was brilliant and highly motivated. Once, in 1940, Skinner showed Keller a toy clicker. Skinner had noticed that the click-click of the mechanical feeder magazines used for rat experimentation somehow caused the rats to learn the experimental process faster. During his tenure at Harvard University, all of the rat operant chambers in Skinner's labs had an extraneous click added to the lever press – the operant behavior that generated data. This dates from the early 1950's through 1965. When one of his graduate students, Dr. Peter Killeen asked about it, he was told it was one of Skinner's eccentricities. (Personal communications – Dr. Ogden R. Lindsley and Dr. Peter Killeen) A few months later, according to one of Skinner's autobiographies, he entered the General Mills labs where his psychology department was conducting research for the war effort. Breland had taught a pigeon to push a marble down the alley of a toy bowling game to hit the pins. Skinner recalled that this was his epiphany. For someone who knows this topic intimately, this sets off red flags. Skinner had shown Keller a toy clicker in 1940 – three years before. He told Keller that you could use it to increase the rate at which animals learn. Personal communication with Marian Kruse Breland Bailey – Keller Breland's wife and B.F. Skinner's first lab assistant at the University of Minnesota. It is obvious that he was speculating.

In the next year of their collaboration as professor and gifted student, something went wrong. Breland left academia to make his way training animals, sans PhD. He founded Animal Behavior Enterprises and trained thousands of animals for road-side attractions, television commercials and most notably, marine mammal exhibits. Breland created marine mammal training in a six-week period, on time and under budget. He later trained mine-detection dogs for the U.S. military and a host of projects intended to use animals for covert spy operations. By 1960, Breland was arguably the most knowledgeable person about training more species of animals than anyone on the planet. His vast experience of the minute details of teaching animals put him at odds with Skinner's broader speculation about behavior. At this time, Skinner was a big-name professor at Harvard University and considered the master of operant conditioning - who had trained nothing other than rats and pigeons in tiny little boxes. That is when Breland launched his torpedo at his former mentor.

After a 15 year break from the scientific community, Keller Breland wrote a hallmark paper about animal training. He titled this paper, The Misbehavior of Organisms. This was an obvious shot at Skinner's magnum opus – The Behavior of Organisms. In his paper, Breland catalogues a number of cases where species-specific behavior trumps Skinner's belief that you can train any animal to do anything using the same methodology. In fact, Breland's work contradicts some of Skinner's basic tenets.