Friday, December 30, 2011

Skinner’s theory of Behaviorism and its implications on Philosophy

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“We need never take recourse in any talk about mentalistic concepts such as intelligence, dreams, personality, virtues, memories, wishes or interests, because they can all be reduced to a person’s physical response to physical stimuli.”

This is an excerpt from Nina Rosenstand’s book, The Human Condition. This quote is in regards to the twentieth century behaviorist B.F. Skinner. As an unsatisfied graduate student at Harvard, Skinner explored the realms of Psychology and Physiology. Skinner explored these areas in an attempt to find an explanation for the behavior of man. Skinner dismissed the idea of personality because it lacked scientific definition.

In an attempt to provide scientific definition, Skinner offered the idea of operant conditioning. With this concept, Skinner explained that consequences of behavior are manipulated in order to increase or decrease that particular behavior in the future. With this concept, Skinner says to us that we are all organisms wandering around the planet, operating. While we are wandering around the planet, we receive a special kind of stimulus called reinforcing stimulus, or, more simply, a reinforcer. This reinforcing stimulus has the effect of increasing the effect of the operant, which is the behavior occurring just before the reinforcer.

To make the matter much simpler to illustrate, we look at an experiment Skinner performed with rats. Skinner took a rat and placed it inside a special box, appropriately named the Skinner box. Inside the box was a special pedal, and when, that pedal was depressed, a pellet of food came out. Inside the Skinner box, the rat was running around and around. Eventually the rat stepped on the pedal, and a food pellet came out. The stepping on the pedal represents the operant, the specific action that took place before the stimulus occurred. If, the action of stepping on the pedal represents our operant then the pellet is our reinforcer. Skinner would tabulate the results of the rat on another device he invented called a cumulative recorder.

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Now that the rat has been reinforced to perform the operation, he will attempt it again. The rat will continue to perform this action again and again as long as the reinforcer is present. When the reinforcer of the pellet is removed, the rat will cease to continue the previously reinforced operation. The rat may try a few more times, but when, no pellet presents itself, the rat goes back to being just another organism wandering around looking for a reinforcer. The process by which an organism (in this case our rat) stops its operating behavior because of lack of stimulus is called extinction. Although the rat may have suffered extinction for now, if the food were to reappear, the rat would return to performing the operations much faster. All of the prior reinforcement has taught it what type of function it must perform. When the pedal starts producing food again, the rat will remember to keep hitting the pedal for food. This demonstrates that while behavior is extinguished temporarily, it can be called on again with proper reinforcement.

Like many other scientists, Skinner bumped into discoveries even when he was not looking for them. Through all of his experiments, Skinner ran out of food pellets for the rats. Skinner was now forced to make his own rat pellets by hand, which took long periods of time to make. Instead of making a large number of rat pellets, he decided to give the rats food under specific conditions. Instead of one push of the peddle for a pellet, he would require three pushes of a pedal for a pellet. Skinner found that the rats would keep up the behavior with whatever they needed to do so long as it provided reinforcement. Through these studies, Skinner discovered the concept of scheduled reinforcement.

Scheduled reinforcement comes in three different modes. The first mode is continuous which we originally discussed. An example of this concept is a rat getting a pellet each time it hits the pedal. The second mode is called fixed ratio here, the idea that the rat must hit the bar three times before giving it a pellet. The final schedule of reinforcement is fixed interval scheduling. With this, Skinner took out his watch and would only drop pellets during specific intervals of time. Skinner would let the rat hit the pedal one hundred times but would only drop food every twenty seconds. The amazing thing that happened is that the rat would learn to pace itself. It would slow down its pace after reciving the reinforcer (the pellet) and speed up the pace when it perceived it was getting close to the time the reinforcer would appear again.

Skinner now decided to use the concept of variable schedules. It wasn’t enough that the poor rats had to learn to hit the pedals three times to get the pellet, but now they had to learn patterns as well. With fixed ratio, the rats had to learn to hit the pedal three times, get a pellet, now hit it ten times, get a pellet, now back to three again. For fixed interval, Skinner would make the time ten seconds treat, three seconds, treat etc.

The sum total of all this kept the rats on their toes. They could never accurately predict what method was being employed so they always stayed sharp. As a result of never being able to accurately discover the rhythm of reward, the rats learned multiple operations with a very low rate of extinction.

Through these concepts, Skinner went on to deal with more complex forms of behavior through shaping. The concept of shaping is that a person can reinforce small behaviors and chain them together until that person finally gets the overall behavior he or she desires.

Take the example of a small child learning to play on the swing set. The child wants to play on the swing set because the child sees the other kids playing on it. The child is terrified of the swing set because of how high the swing goes, and he is afraid that he will fall out. A parent starts out by just placing the child on the seat. The parent reinforces the child by telling him that he is doing fine. Bolstered by the parents’ praise, the child asks for a push. The parent pushes the child very slightly to create some movement, all the while praising the child’s performance. If the child ever becomes nervous, the parent backs off a little on the operant (the force of the swinging) and goes back to a stage where the child is comfortable. Eventually, through reinforcement and a gradual progression of the operant, that child will be swinging just as high as all the other children.

Skinner did not use such an advanced example-he taught pigeons to bowl-but the results are still the same. Whether the organism is a pigeon or human being, it has the ability to be shaped, given the right amount of reinforcement.

There is another side to reinforcing stimulus. The other side is called the aversive stimulus. Aversive stimulus is something unpleasant or even painful. If, a person attaches an aversive stimulus to a behavior, Skinner proposes that the rate at which that behavior will occur will be less. The form of conditioning that is attached to aversive stimulus is commonly called punishment. If Skinner shocked the rat for pushing the pedal, it will push the pedal much less. If a parent slaps a child’s hand for reaching into a cookie jar, the child will reach into the cookie jar less.

It is still possible with aversive stimulus to have a reinforcer. Instead of the reinforcer being positive, however, it will be negative. If a parent does not nag a child when he or she cleans their room the parent has now negatively reinforced. The aversive stimulus is the nagging. The reinforcer is to stop nagging.

It is important to note that Skinner never approved of punishment or negative reinforcement. It was not Skinner’s moral code that prevented him from feeling this way. Skinner believed that punishment and negative reinforcement failed to provide quality results. Slapping a child’s hand when he reaches for the cookie jar is punishment. Adding punishment does not remove the stimulus of the cookie jar. The cookie jar still stands there, tempting the child. The cookie jar has not suffered extinction; it provides the same stimulus. The only real effective way to alter the child’s behavior is to give positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement overrides the sensation of the cookie. The only other option is to remove the stimulus and throw the cookie jar out. With, the stimulus removed the child would eventually suffer extinction. With the extinction of the stimulus, the bad behavior would no longer exist.

While these are all very simplistic explanations for Skinner’s work, they provide the groundwork for his ideas in operant conditioning. While this may satisfy a psychological approach on human behavior, the ethical problems that go along with that are numerous. If the environment conditions an individual, then that individual has no responsibility for the actions he or she may commit. Many people also find the idea offensive that, with, the right amount of reinforcement (positive or negative), they can be influenced into any type of behavior.

In, a purely philosophical sense, it might be easy to dismiss Skinner’s work because it is counterintuitive, but then we would miss an important element of philosophy itself. There is a belief in philosophy that no idea is right or wrong. Even though Skinner’s work has been proven, it is not the final step to understanding the human mind. Philosophy teaches us that Skinner’s work is one piece to a much larger puzzle.

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