B.F. Skinner

James Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sun Mar 7 13:23:13 PST 1999

On Sun, 07 Mar 1999 14:29:17 -0500 Brett Knowlton <brettk at unica-usa.com> writes:
>>James Farmelant wrote:
>>> I would go along with B.F. Skinner, who held that what
>>> the human species is not the possession of an "autonomous self"
>>> endowed with Free Will but rather, is the development of a culture,
>>> social
>My understanding of Skinner is that he believed that behavior was/is
>_entirely_ determined by environment, that behavior is aimed at
>negative consequenses and attaining positive feedback. Or in his
>behavior responds to reinforcements (the mouse learns to press the
>which gives it a food pellet, and learns not to push the button which
>it a shock, etc.).

I am sorry Brett but your understanding of Skinner is faulty. Skinner never said that human behavior is determined entirely by environment, he always acknowledged that our genetic heritage plays a causal role too. Also, your technical understanding of Skinner's theory is deficient in regards to your understanding of the concepts of "negative reinforcement" versus punishment. In Skinner's psychology, a negative reinforcer is a stimulus that strengthens any behavior that reduces or terminates it. For example, when we take off a shoe that is pinching, the reduction in pressure is negatively reinforcing, and so we are more likely to repeat this behavior whenever the shoe pinches again.

Punishment should not be confused with negative reinforcement. The same stimuli are used in both cases but punishment attempts to remove a behavior by following it whenver it occurs with an aversive stimulus. Hoever, the success of punishment in reducing a behavior is explained in terms of negative reinforcement. This is because when a behavior is punished, various stimuli that are generated by the behavior or the occasion are conditioned, and the punished behavior is said to be displaced by incompatible behaviors which are conditioned (through negative reinforcement) as escape or avoidance. A punished person will remain "inclined" to behave in a punishable way, but he/she avoids punishemnt by doing something else instead.

>While people are certainly susceptible to social pressures, Skinner
>this notion _WAY_ too far.

Please specify in what ways Skinner went too far.

> There are a multitude of examples which
>theory is virtually incapable of explaining. To take just one
>black slaves who tried escape the South to the North certainly
>"negative reinforcement" when they were caught, usually in the form of
> Pretty strong stuff, on the
>scale." But there are plenty of examples of slaves attempting to
>multiple times, or of freed slaves risking their skins to help others
>escape, etc. Its not too hard to think up plenty of other examples.

Again, Brett misunderstands Skinner. What Brett is describing in regards to the treatment of slaves is what Skinner would have called punitive control. But as Skinner pointed out punitive control to the extent that it works, does so by generating escape/avoidance responses that are incompatible with the punished behavior. But punishment is often ineffective for the same reasons. Punitive control will generate attempts by the person punished to attempt to escape or avoid the controller (which is what the slaves were attempting to do by running away). It may also generate aggressive behavior against the controller (which happened when slaves rebelled). All these responses are explicable in terms of the principle of negative reinforcement. Anybody who has taken the time to read Skinner, will know that he took a dim view of punishment as a form of behavioral control. He clearly had an ethical aversion to it but he also regarded punishment as an inefficient method for controlling behavior. Much of his research was concerned with the development of behavior controls based on positive reinforcement that would replace punitive controls.

>From a Skinnerian perspective, not only is slavery a bad for of
behavioral control because it is based on punitive controls but so is wage labor. As Skinner pointed out wage labor involves punitive control in the form of punishing workers by the withdrawl of wages if they stop working. Here, Skinner advanced a critique of wage labor under capitalism that was quite similar to Marx's. Under capitalism, the worker works not because he/she is reinforced by the natural consequences of his/her labor but because he/she is will be punished by the withdrawl of wages if he/she ceases to work.

>Furthermore, Max is correct when he states that this "culture" which
>Skinner refers to could just as easily be a brutal dictatorship as a
>democracy, there being little if anything to distinguish between the
>options, or to make one preferable to the other. In order to do so,
>need to invoke some sort of belief in intrinsic human qualities
>desires, etc.), which are more compatible with one sort of social
>arrangement and at odds with another. For instance, if you believe
>have a natural desire to participate in decisions which impact their
>then you would prefer a democratic state to an authoritarian system.
>these innate human characteristics are precisely what Skinner rejects
>he claims behavior is bases _solely_ upon the rewards and punishments
>provided by the surrounding environment.

Given Skinner's advocacy of positively reinforcing controls and his opposition to punishment, he clearly had little sympathy to dictatorships, brutal or otherwise. Skinner was an advocate of democracy but he was highly critical of what passes for democracy in our society. For Skinner, the chief problem in governance was ensuring that the contingencies that control the behaviors of controllers are the same as the one that control the behaviors of the controllees. Democracy is the institutional means for ensuring this but as he pointed out manny of the important reinforcers in our society are under the control of institutions that use them to control people to serve their own selfish interests rather than the best interests of the controllees.

In any case I would suggest that if anyone here wishes to critique Skinner's radical behaviorism or Marxism or even pomo, they would be well-advised to take the time and read some of the literature in the field before making their criticisms. In the case of radical behaviorism, one might want to read Skinner's SCIENCE AND HUMAN BEHAVIOR and his ABOUT BEHAVIORISM which remain the two best introductions to this subject.

Jim Farmelant

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