Saturday, 20 March 2010

Happy birthday, BF Skinner

Today is the birthday of Burrhus Frederic Skinner. I have a soft spot for ol’ BF, because he was right about a lot of things and refused to let the man get him down. Behaviourism gets a bad rap these days, with cognitive people the world over rolling their eyes at the idea that all behaviour can be explained by stimulus-response associations of varying kinds. But Skinner was my kind of scientist: driven by the data and refusing to indulge in the theoretical excess he saw in others.

Skinner was, in part, responding to the Freudian school of thought, that saw all human behaviour as generated by unseen drives and urges. Skinner recognised that there was no scientific evidence for the existence of these particular kinds of internal mental states mediating between the environment and our behaviour. In fact, you could account for a lot of behaviour, human and otherwise, without ever assuming any internal states, simply by recognising that behaviours can be shaped and assembled by learning via schedules of reinforcement.


Skinner’s importance to the history of psychology is made clearest by the fact that the first shot of the cognitive revolution was Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior. In that book, Skinner attempted to account, using behaviourist principles, for the human behaviour that had always been a thorn in behaviourism’s side: language. Chomsky’s review dealt a harsh blow to behaviourism as a complete theory of psychology, and in true style psychology abandoned the theory entirely for the new replacement (a theme I hope to get to soon).

As a Gibsonian I’ve been accused in the past of trying to resurrect behaviourism. I actually say, no bad thing. Skinner’s behaviourism was empirically and theoretically disciplined, postulating only those processes and entities required to capture the data. He recognised the key role the environment plays in shaping our behaviour; the environment is not random, and in fact contains enormous amounts of information in terms of schedules of reinforcement and the causal relations between behaviours and their consequences. He didn’t have a rich theory of information, but he saw that you could go a long way explaining behaviour with no reference to anything other than a relation between a particular kind of organism and a structured environment.

The other reason I respect Skinner so much is that he never gave up, and he went out fighting. He completed his final paper, Can Psychology Be a Science of Mind?, the night before he died, after giving a speech based on this to the APA, who were giving him a lifetime achievement award. He essentially stood up and said ‘You are all wrong, I am still right, and you will eventually recognise this. You bastards.’; only with a little more class. From the paper:
Cognitive psychologists tried to restore the status quo. Behaviorism, they declared, was dead. They could not have meant that psychologists were no longer studying behavior, of animals in laboratories and of teachers, students, therapists, clients, and so on. What they hoped was dead was the appeal to selection by consequences in the explanation of behavior. The mind or, failing that, the brain must be restored to its rightful position.

Because of its similarity to the vernacular, cognitive psychology was easy to understand and the so-called cognitive revolution was for a time successful. That may have accelerated the speed with which behavior analysts drew away from the psychological establishment, founding their own associations, holding their own meetings, publishing their own journals. They were accused of building their own ghetto, but they were simply accepting the fact that they had little to gain from the study of a creative mind.

Cognitive psychology was left as the scientific companion of a profession and as the scientific underpinning of educational, clinical, developmental, social, and many other fields of psychology. The help it has given them has not been conspicuous. A version of the vernacular refined for the study of mental life is scarcely more helpful than the lay version, especially when theory began to replace introspection. Much more useful would have been behavior analysis. It would have helped in two ways, by clarifying the contingencies of reinforcement to which the vernacular alludes, and by making it possible to design better environments–personal environments that would solve existing problems and larger environments or cultures in which there would be fewer problems. A better understanding of variation and selection will mean a more successful profession, but whether behavior analysis will be called psychology is a matter for the future to decide.
Behaviourism is actually alive and well in psychology, but restricted to the study of animal behaviour as a rule. People don’t like thinking they can be manipulated by such simple tricks, and so continue to gamble and shop driven mostly by the sophisticated reinforcement schedules casinos and corporations are happy to use. In addition, the cognitive literature is filled with people ascribing behaviour to internal states because that’s the dominant paradigm, when actually the behaviour is readily accounted for by stimulus-response relationships. By forgetting what Skinner’s careful experimenting revealed, psychology falls repeatedly into the same theoretical traps he railed against for his entire career.

I won’t say I wish you a happy birthday, Skinner, but I will behave in a manner consistent with such a vernacular account of my behaviour. You weren’t entirely right, but you were a lot more right than you get any credit for and I hope I grow up to be half the scientist you were.

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Dammit. I accidentally deleted this comment. Sorry, Anna, I didn't mean to do that :( Feel free to repost it if you want, there doesn't seem to be a way to recover it.

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  2. "Behaviourism is actually alive and well in psychology, but restricted to the study of animal behaviour as a rule."

    It maybe restricted to animal behavior in psychology... even that is a long shot though. I can assure you that there is almost no straight-behaviorism in today's animal research (you need to tie in with drugs, or addiction, or something else to get funding). On the other hand, Behaviorism is doing exceptionally well outside of psychology. There is ever growing demand (in the US at least), and an ever expanding profession. A college near me has a Masters program, and every student has job offers before graduation. The classic behaviorist journals are also doing quite well. I'm not at all part of that world, but I know of it. And, there are people in that world very interested in what we are up to.

    The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) has a B.F. Skinner Lecture series to bring people outside behavior analysis to their meetings. Tony gave one recently (last year, I think), and I'm pretty sure Harry Heft was invited a bit after his book came out.

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  3. Theodor Ickler10 June 2012 at 08:02

    "The idea that all behaviour can be explained by stimulus-response associations of varying kinds" is, of course, not Skinner's, it is the cognitivists' caricature of radical behaviorism. This is made clear by the very first sentence of Verbal Behavior: "Men act upon the world, and change it, and are changed in turn by the consequences of their action." Skinner himself wrote an article "Why I am not a stimulus-response-psychologist".

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    1. That's fair, and my appreciation for how rich Skinner's behaviourism was has certainly grown since I wrote this. I remain a fan, though :)

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