Wednesday, April 20, 2005

B. F. Skinner by Daniel W. Bjork

HarperCollins, New York

Carl Rogers and BF Skinner are often introduced as close yet antithetical friends. Both were behavioral scientists and each allowed for truths in each other's therapeutic theories. Rogers believed strongly that successful therapy derived from reaching the client in an empathic way and helping them align their life's experiences with present day life itself; each person has within them the self-actualizing energy to heal and the therapist has only to help them use that. Energies emanate from within and they simply have to be tapped.

Skinner is a pure behavorialist and is credited with bringing that field of social science to critical mass so that it could be applied to psychotherapy. He used mechanical devices, Skinner boxes, to show cause and effect correlations in his process of conditioning animals to consistently influence their behavior. He separated the animals that he studied from the realities that had brought them to his lab, and sought, with his devices, to prove that thinking organisms are entirely controlled by the environment, in the moment, with their genetic makeup providing for their history.

The "carrot" is positive reinforcement, simply described; it has been the common knowledge of parents and bosses that rewarding goodness in a person will encourage further goodness. Conditioning the human, positively, where the reward ultimate would be a more stable, comfortable life, could only be a good thing; if humans can be conditioned to behave better social problems could be solved instantly. This technique, a technology really, evolved from the devices bearing his name, is now combined with cognitive therapy and is helping people in therapy just as much as Roger did.

Skinner's concept that positive conditioning can bring us from the realities of the Earth to a paradise of perfection is naive; he wrote a book, Walden II, where positive reinforcement replaces personal decision making in a small utopia was designed to explore this premise. Criticisms from all parts of America would be predictable, in fact, individualists howled and I don't believe anyone would actually support a system that would replace the balance of fairness we call the law, with logical positive conditioning technology. On the other hand, while his animal experiments are largely discredited for their over simplification and their artificial environments, therapists can bring relief to suffering patients in an expedient way through behavioral conditioning, which, in many cases may be a life and death necessity, as in the cases of suicidal depression or uncontrolled drug abuse.

While Skinner sought to control the patient into proper behavior and Rogers wanted to empower his clients to find their true selves, they had surprising commonalities and they liked each other enough to enter into a lively and lengthy debate, which helps define these contradictory perspectives. Skinner had to admit that respect and empathy and therapeutic congruence are key to creating a healthy mind and Rogers conceded that there are limits to the self-actualizing process and that influences of the realities of our environment as well as our genetic make up are unavoidable givens in our existence.

(Skinners behavioral science roots)
P 82
Walter Hunter was a professor at Clark University who taught classes at Harvard where Skinner attended in the late 1920s. He was a careful clever examiner who challenged the then held belief that animals learned from imitation. He built multiple-choice boxes and delayed response boxes that proved that behavior in animals was more sophisticated that previously thought. Skinner considered himself Hunter's grandchild in terms of the lineage of ideas.

A German gestalt psychologist, Wolfgang Kohler, had done work with apes in the wild and had maintained that apes did not solve problems through trial and error but through perceptual restructuring. Kohler felt he proved, through experiments, that animals did more that behave, they could think as well.

Skinner wanted to repeat Kohler's experiments but was not convinced; in fact he made fun of his work.

(Rats in Mazes)
P 85
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the maze was routinely used to test sense discrimination and motivation and, by the 1920s, used to test learning ability. The use of multiple animals became standard practice with twenty or more rats making repeated maze runs. American behaviorists Edward Tolman and Karl Lasheley were among the notable rat researchers when the maze reached its zenith about 1930.

(Rats on aluminum plates)
Skinner was more interested in the rat's changing postures. He attempted to measure the reflexes in young rats whose body temperatures didn't maintain normal levels when moved between hot and cold. Next he made slings on which he placed young rats to measure their muscle reflexes. It also proved unrewarding so he created a device from an aluminum plate and piano wire to measure reflexes. A measuring device, a kymograph, was attached to the device. When he pulled the rat's tail, a kymograph recorded the rat's leap forward. Skinner was "over-joyed" at the accuracy with which he could measure rat's leaps.

(Skinner's life)
P 104
The timing of major life's events was one variable Skinner could not control. "It is amazing the number of trivial accidents which have made a difference. I don’t believe my life was planned at any point."

(Transference of the science of rats to humans)
P 109-110
The most radical implication of this new behavioral science was in its potential social application. Skinner never doubted the transferability of operant condition of white rats to human beings. "The importance of a science of behavior derives largely from the possibility of an eventual extension to human affairs." The only difference would be verbal behavior. "The Behavior of Organisms" would eventually influence the development of teaching machines, programmed instruction and the community treatment programs for juvenile delinquents.

Skinner could not apply his science to society until the 1940s; he was having trouble convincing his associates. In one letter to Fred Keller, "You can control your drive (the rat's state of deprivation) well enough to rest easy about it, and there is a hell of a lot more fun (in this psychological camp) and a better chance you will become famous."

Edward Tholman wrote in his book, Purposive Behavior in Animals and Men that he worried that "the rat emerged with psychological dignity which no behaviorist has previously granted to the ape."

(Behavior on its own right)
P 112
Skinner had found it, what scientists are always looking for, a purely descriptive experimental behavioral science that was freed from physiology as well as mentalism.

Others said that Skinner was wrong in setting off behavior as something that can e studied with reference to physiological processes (Carmichael)

(Sadomasochism or other mental illness in Skinner)
P 114
Among Skinner's girlfriends was Ruth Cook, with whom he was wildly in love. He called her Nedda in his book, Particulars of My Life. It did not matter to him that they were basically dissimilar and when she left him to return to a lover who was chronically ill, Skinner was stunned. "I was almost in physical pain, and one day I bent a wire in the shape of an N (for Nedda), heated it in a Bunsen burner (presumably in his lab) and branded his left arm."

(Pigeons as guided missiles)
P 123
The idea was simply that pigeons could guide planes loaded with dynamite into targets. In Minneapolis he bought a few pigeons from a supplier of Chinese restaurants. He found that, when bound, they could be taught to peck at targets. He also experimented with cows "which proved remarkable subjects, but for their difficult temperaments.

(Skinner bonds with his pigeons)
Skinner was surprised at the variety of behavior that pigeons could perform if held by hand and reinforced after pecking. By successive approximation, a gradual increase in reinforcement for more sophisticated tasks in a step-by-step basis, Skinner actually got the birds to play simple musical tunes. Pigeons, he discovered, were no "dumb" animals and when hand held they could achieve the first important Information Communication Technology, which is music. He felt this was a "great illumination" and reinforced his belief that operant conditioning would be applied to human endeavors.
**Unbeknownst to Skinner, the discovery he made did not bolster behaviorists’ theories; he had reached his pigeons in a truly empathic way. Had Skinner been a true scientist, had he followed every possible lead, he could have then and there credited himself as being an early and scientific discoverer of the natural existence of empathies in higher organisms.
When he found that handholding the pigeon produced such amazing results, he had discovered the relationship between emotion bonding and intelligence. Intelligence, as Goleman points out, rests on top of bonding, and that bonding is so important in history because it gives us the ability to care for our young. Furthermore, his caring for the pigeons could have become the operant of behavioral behavior in that he always maintained that there is no place for negative reinforcement, what we would think of as the criminal act of "shocking the monkey." He completely ignored any possibility that this emotional bonding represented the key to higher life and that possibly there were loyalty issues associated with it. Instead he continued to try to convert pigeons into cruise missiles and, needless to say, the premise for the project was too mystifying to be grasped by the generals of the time, and far too complicated to be deployed in the field. This was one of many failed projects Skinner had initiated and saw fail, largely because of his lack of empathy for the real needs of either society, business or, in this case, the military.
** Skinner could have leaped past what Mumford described as the paleotechnic phase of technical growth right here. Today we are still burdened by the use of negative reinforcement in animal testing, when clearly observance in nature is the best behavioral gather technique. As later pointed out, he loved nature, and nature lovers run the interference against Munford’s worst enemy, the hunters who converted the weapon into the ruthless labor saving device it is today and put the nation state on its track to perpetual war.

(Skinner has kids)
P 129
Yvonne, Skinner's wife, was "scared to death" of their first child, Julie, and Yvonne gave Skinner job of mother. Yvonne came from a background where domestic chores were for others and she failed to adapt when her children arrived.

Skinner's true aim)
P 129-135
When his second child arrived, Julie, Skinner wanted to "simplify the care of the baby" and all the baby needed was a "clean, comfortable and safe place." Hence the "baby tender" or what would later be marketed as the Air Crib. Yes, Skinner had placed his daughter in a human sized Skinner box. He claimed that it was not intended to "bring behavior under the control of reinforcers or to record the cumulative rates of response." Nonetheless, he had created a box with a glass side where the effects of it on the child could be observed.

He had been bothered by the plight of the restrained pigeons while trying to convert them into cruise missiles, and now the clothes that restrained his daughter as an infant as she was zipped into a flannel blanket, her arms in flippers, bothered him. The baby tender, he hoped, would restrain and protect the infant while allowing freedom of movement. It was a crib-sized living space where his daughter wore only a diaper.

The tender’s cleaning was automated, a crank pulled a new sheet onto its soft floor, the air was filtered and it was sound proofed. She was comfortable dry and clean and she enjoyed her freedom of movement. A curtain could block out the light for naps.

The tender became the "Air Crib" and was marketed. There were probably technological problems with it and these were pointed out early in his marketing attempts. He claimed that all the technical problems were solved and added the following statement, "Since the baby tender relieved parents from constantly ministering to the infant's needs, playtime was likely to be more enjoyable for them." That illustrates the second concern with this crib, it separated the child from the parent physically, limiting the single most important experience a growing human has, the bond with the caregiver.

**The "trouble" of the constant care required by growing children has been, in my experience, them most enjoyable part of my life. Skinner obviously minimalized the importance of this, possibly casting a long shadow on all the intentions he had for his life's work.

It also made him vulnerable to malicious rumors that the crib had made his daughter insane and that she had committed suicide.

Deborah defended her father later on in life, saying he was a warm and loving man. He was not experimenting on her and the crib had not harmed her in any way. Just as she had gone through life with people expecting her to be a little crazy as a result of the growing up in the tender, it was impossible to stop the rumors that harmed his product.

He later basically laid it to rest by a complete lack of ability to adapt to the realities of business. He was blessed with the luck in finding venture capitalist he maligned his relationships with a lack of social empathy and unrealistic demands and basically shut down his own products. This aberrant behavior, or lack of empathy, which ever you choose, mirrored other attempts to bring his concepts to reality and he would suffer as a result of it each time.

(Walden II)
P 146
A friend of Skinner had encouraged him to write a book about a better future. He replied that "he had found his niche," and she countered that "they had not found theirs."

Skinner had knowledge of the utopian experiments in America and was aware of details of the creation of the Latter Day Saints because the Book of Mormon had sprung into existence near his birthplace of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.

He also loved the book Walden very much and in 1945 he began creating a fictional utopian community in a book that would later be called Walden II. His writing took on a "white heat", he said, and it flowed as stream onto paper. The book had written in the spirit of his predecessor, Thoreau, in that he sought to work out a way of independent life without the burden of politics. "In Walden II, there are very few automobiles, food is not purchased in small packages, tins and bottles to be thrown away, consumption does not require much heavy industry, a few copies of papers suffice for many readers ... the citizens are not taking much out of nature nor are they putting waste back in it."
** So far so good...
There is a standard utopian plot to the book, where visitors debate the qualities of the community with the leaders of it. Beyond that the book is filled with the details of daily life in the community; the required work day is four hours regardless of profession, labor is rewarded with localized money, where the least popular tasks are rewarded with the highest labor rate. Cleaning toilets is more profitable than cooking. Property is owned in common, work is not determined by gender and competition is discouraged. There is plenty of time to engage in hobbies or the arts.
** So far so good...
Walden II had arrived at this social equilibrium through behavioral science utilizing positive reinforcement. There is little decision making process and spirituality is absent, and babies are separated from their natural parents to be raised by the group in (you guessed it) Skinner's baby boxes.
**Ugh, Skinner had no empathy for his audience, instantly ruining an otherwise good idea.
In the debate between the society's engineer and visitors who were critical of his society, Skinner, through the engineer, points out that you are "controlling the contingencies of reinforcement of which individual behavior was a function; techniques of operant conditioning could be used to control individual behavior to enhance life generally. To the question of control, he shows that normal (usually undemocratic) controls are absent; the government, the economy, religious institutions and the corporate community. Without utilizing operant conditioning you are vulnerable to control form others and those hands are often tyrannical and usually ineffective. Unlike most radicals who promote freedom as a solution to irresponsible control, Skinners radicalism says that control is held by the wrong persons and used for the wrong reasons with all its cruel effects.

A nation of individualists, no matter who well controlled by the substitution of the illusion of freedom for the real thing, would not accept a fully controlled society under any conditions, no matter how beneficial the intentions and results may be.

Operant Behavioralists would be automatically suspected by a cynical culture as being tyrants disguised as healers, Skinner would once again, naively, make himself vulnerable to the abuse of misrepresentation and outright lie by a sometimes cruel public.

** But what if Walden II were simply an educational summer camp or maybe a beneficial information corporation, people would eventually leave so the control would not be permanent but only focused to the single purpose of the community, presumably a good one. This would soften the debate over separating children from their parents and raising them in boxes. This is such a radical concept that most would see as a clear mistake, but a day-care center, on the other hand, might function efficiently in this way. Positive reinforcement for successful efforts, say, work that would benefit humanity in some profound way, would not be so offensive. It would be, in the minds of the few socially conscious capitalists -- a very good thing.

Ironically, despite the obvious feminist theme where the division of labor is eliminated, many women, including his wife, hated the book. He showed he ever really got the picture when expressed, crudely, that he concluded, "that freeing women of the slavery of domesticity made them feel that they should not be loved."

** This hardly ends the story of Skinner; he is highly complex and interesting. He seems to be a loveable man, entertaining in his conceit, surprising in his innovation, and while he was wildly successful as a human, he had clearly self-actualized like few others; he missed an important mark, the undeniable need for empathy in healing. He had unusual opportunities to explore it, as with his musical pigeons, but instead pursued their purpose as guided missile components. He completely disregarded the humanist concepts of being and self, yet defined himself as "the ultimate humanist." Fortunately this left him open to praise from Rogers who used his scientific techniques to help define his conditions for scientific exploration, even though Skinner openly contradicted Rogers' conclusions. He must have been fun to have as a dinner guest.

While Skinner excelled as a valuable technician bringing many viable concepts to the table while adding more scientific value to the social science process, I wonder why he is held in a higher level, more as a guru that and technician. In my opinion, his instance on only positive reinforcement is his greatest contribution and gives him moral standing as a humanist. Yet it seems that people hold him at guru level whose use for his science is an expedience in therapy. His followers may have more sinister uses where control is socially engineered for domineering purposes, to wrest power to destroy things for obsessive and horrifying reasons.

(Rights, the right to own slaves)
P 206-207
Most Americans living in the north extolled the virtues of individualism while white Southerners were incenses over northern interference with liberties won in the American Revolution such as the right to control their property especially black slaves.

(Rogers on Skinner and power)
P 209
Rogers: I believe that skinner has seriously underestimated the problem of power.


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