Skinner’s Operant Behaviour B.F. Skinner’s OPERANT BEHAVIOURISM and SELECTION BY CONSEQUENCES ~ a critical assessment ~ Reproduction was itself a first consequence, and it led, through natural selection, to the evolution of cells, organs, and organisms which reproduced themselves under increasingly diverse conditions. What we call behavior evolved as a set of functions furthering the interchange between organism and environment. -B.F. Skinner, Selection by Consequences- PHIL 225/02-1 First paper – 00/10/19 Known to some as the most influential American psychologist, B.F. Skinner was born in 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Attempting to further psychology’s quest for an accurate and comprehensive science of the mind, he produced some very rational and innovative writings; tackling problems that have stumped mankind since the beginning.
We will examine his philosophies on the evolution of behaviour through selection by consequences. Around 1920, behaviourists seemed to have established what they thought made sense of human behaviour by composing them into two laws. The first explains the unconditioned reflexes that produce involuntary reactions by our bodies. Direct actions that bypass consideration, also known as biological wiring. The second law explained the phenomena of conditioned reflexes that, although aren’t part of our original reflexes, can be learned and stored into memory. Similar to the first law but it included new reflexes such as Pavlov’s dog salivating when the associated bell was rung. Although these laws made perfect sense, they were found to be lacking. They didn’t, and couldn’t, explain manifestations of new responses to old stimuli.
How did they plan on explaining new inspiration or goal-oriented action of any kind if all we do is react in the same way to stimuli every time? How did a soccer player first conceive of trying to put a corner kick directly into the net if it had never been done before? How did Beethoven write music if he had no stimuli to respond to? Why did Ghandi go on a hunger strike if his natural response was to eat when he was hungry? Skinner thought that by examining these phenomena from an evolutionary standpoint we could better make sense of the psychology of behaviourism. The law of survival of the fittest best conveys this relation of evolution to behaviour. All humans born with an evolutionary advantage over others would lead easier and more successful lives, would therefore die at a slower rate than the rest, and eventually become the majority and replace the old. They would pass on their genes, which were better suited to survival under those circumstances. Through this process of selection, all species evolve, allowing only the strongest to survive. In the same way that nature evolves, Skinner postulated that our behaviour evolves, both directly and indirectly.
First, by natural selection people who are born with a behaviour more suited to surviving, with characteristics such as foresight, skepticism, diplomacy and persistence, will most likely survive better than people born with characteristics like close-mindedness, weak impulse control and laziness for example. Second, by recognizing the effects of our responses to stimuli as desirable or undesirable, and therefore reinforcing our responses, those positive consequential responses would become more frequent and likely in the future, and those negative consequential responses would become less popular. Imagine that a small child throws his dish on the floor and his mother proceeds to scold him with harsh words in a strong and unpleasant tone of voice. The child will then associate throwing the dish on the floor with his mother’s reaction. His association will strengthen every time he throws his dish on the floor until the day he remembers her reaction before throwing his dish and stops himself to avoid her response. (Being somewhat of a stingy idealist, Skinner was against negative reinforcement and would not have used this example) With this in mind Skinner added a new variable to the two original laws of behaviour: the consequential response.
He used the term operant to define the response to stimuli in terms of past memory of consequences to similar responses to similar stimulus. He therefore tried to explain (and succeeded in my opinion) that response to stimuli could be an involuntary reflex or a learned reaction based on memory. This result goes to justifying reaction to a new stimulus as well. If the subject does not recognize the stimulus, he (meaning he or she) will be confused and perhaps not be clear on how to react. But the next time a similar situation arises, he will remember the consequences of his response the last time and make a better, more educated, decision. Estimating the probability of certain responses over others using this reinforcing stimulus concept, he believed he could better predict the outcome of a given situation.
Although this did help the explanation of human behaviour it might not have been as complete as he thought. Joseph Scandura, a professor in Structural Learning and Instructional Science at the University of Pennsylvania, criticized Skinners confidence in his predicting abilities when he said Skinner gets so involved in predicting specific responses that he rarely (if ever) gets around to explaining why humans routinely learn simultaneously to perform entire classes of totally different responses. This is true in my opinion. Although we may learn which response is the best for a given dilemma, we also learn from our actions (and the actions of others) that we have the option of making a different decision for our own reasons. We might desire a consequence that may not be so obviously positive. This is in agreement with Flanagan’s criticism that Skinner too often refuses to take into account mental causations of action.
With a given stimulus, such as a drunk trying to start a fight with you in a bar, and referring to past experience as a guide, you would most likely deduct that walking away would give the best outcome. But the point is that depending on the events leading up to this point, you may decide to stay and fight, or make friends, or perhaps do something loony like stay but not defend yourself and take a beating. The mind selects a response based on a desired consequence but without examining the mental state, the desired consequence cannot be obviously determined. For example: even after the child has learned that he will be punished for throwing his dish he may decide to throw anyway with desired consequence of pissing off his mother. This point was well stated by Bo Dahlbom, a professor in the Department of the Theory and Philosophy of Science at Umea University in Sweden, when he said What good will the long neck do the giraffe if its teeth are not strong enough to chew the leaves, or its stomach not strong enough to digest them? Selection by consequences is not a process determined by the environment alone; it is the combination of organism and environment that does the selecting. To delve even further into the problem of response in the form of selection by consequences, let us examine another objection to the simplicity of Skinners view.
Jonathan Schull, a psychology professor at Haverford College (book doesn’t say where), suggested that thought processes themselves involve selection by consequences; and are selected by mental and environmental consequences; Schull explained that before acting one experiments mentally within the situation and decides on a course of action depending on the consequences which have been imagined. I agree. Selection by consequence is a natural part of every function we perform, but it is not a straightforward case of positive reinforcement resulting in good behaviour, as Skinner would have us believe. One could even go one step further and say that our mental capacities may once have had no organized method of selecting one action over another, but overtime, by learning from trial and error, the human brain opted for a successful system of consequential selection. Which is to say that our brains consequentially selected to select by consequences, adapting to a world of otherwise overstimulation, therefore giving us a potential capacity for consideration and effective decision making. This is all to say that Skinnerian psychology, although ahead of the behaviouristic thinkings that preceded him, lack in grounded applicability to a species as mentally complex as the human race is.
(P.S. In relation to the quote at that precedes my analysis, I wholeheartedly disagree. Behaviour is now a set of functions that primarily furthers the interchange between organisms themselves, and secondarily furthers the interchange between organism and environment. In his defense perhaps his view was more applicable at the beginning of evolution) Endnotes 1. Flanagan, p.83 2. Flanagan, p.105 3.
Flanagan, p.105 4. Flanagan, p.105 5. Flanagan, p.108 6. Flanagan, p.108 7. Joseph M. Scandura – New wine in old glasses, p.267 from The Selection of Behavior 8.
Flanagan, p.84 9. Bo Dahlbom – Skinner, selection, and self-control, p.30 from The Selection of Behavior 10. Jonathan Schull – Selectionism, mentalisms, and behaviorism, p.64 from The Selection of Behavior Bibliography 1. The Science of the Mind (2nd Ed.). By Owen Flanagan, 1991, M.I.T.
2. The Selection of Behavior, The Operant Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner: Comments and Consequences. Edited by Catani and Harnad, 1988, Cambridge University Press. Bibliography Bibliography 1.
The Science of the Mind (2nd Ed.). By Owen Flanagan, 1991, M.I.T. 2. The Selection of Behavior, The Operant Behaviorism of B.F. Skinner: Comments and Consequences. Edited by Catani and Harnad, 1988, Cambridge University Press. Psychology.