Re: Skinner

From: Parker, Chris (
Date: Tue Nov 14 1995 - 16:43:21 GMT

Chris's comments on Methods and theories in the experimental analysis
of behavior, Chapter 2, pp 77 - 105. in The Selection of Behavior: the
operant behaviorism of B. F. Skinner. Eds.
A.C.Catania & S.Harnad. CUP, 1988.

In the introduction to the whole book (p 3-8), Catania reminds us that
Skinner is not a stimulus-response psychologist. He is associated with
operant behaviour or responses which are initially emitted, rather
than elicited by stimuli, thus affecting the environment prior to any
reinforcement. Resulting three term contingencies, the response (which
started as emitted behaviour), the contingent stimulus and the
contingent reinforcement, then develop into a more familiar stimulus
response mechanism. The point being that the history of this process is
different to classical conditioning. [probably you all knew this, so
its for my refreshment]

Introduction by Skinner (p 77)

Skinner starts by equating experimental analysis of behaviour with
"scientific study" and bemoans the current lack of it in psychology. He
cleverly compares the behaviour of psychologists (their flight from the
"experimental field" to turn to other "manipulander") with rats and
pigeons faced with two or more levers or keys and each with its set of
reinforcing contingencies. [He seems to be fond of inventing words.] So
he asks what happened to the reinforcements of experimentation and what
contingencies are more effective?

The flight from the laboratory (p 77)

Again he equates, this time laboratory with experimentation, and his
reasoning appears suspiciously cognitive: "problems lose interest" and
"philosophical motivation ... has been lost". He argues that statistics
has removed reward from experimentation by constraining methodology to
favour statistical analysis. [I have some sympathy with his idea that
marginal results are often invigorated by statistical significance.]
Next he asks where have the experimenters gone?

The flight to real people (p 81)

He suggests that the whole person in real life is more interesting and
rewarding than narrow laboratory situations. The turn towards this
brand of interpersonal gratification was dismissed as short-term
remedial work. He even suggests that Schweitzer might have helped
billions of people rather than thousands if he had stuck to tropical
medicine in the laboratory. [Pity he had to go to a different field to
give an example in view of his criticism of theories based on
explanations associated with different places, levels and terms (p 77 &

The flight to mathematical models (p 82)

This escape to ideal experimental organisms producing orderly
predictions for techniques which produce disorderly factual real data,
is best summed up by his reference to words in a song: "a paper doll to
call my own" rather than a "fickle minded real live girl". [When he
says we don't need mathematical models but we do need mathematical
analysis of behaviour, he is talking about observable changes in
performance but not, I guess, statistics!]

The flight to the inner man (p 84)

He suggests that the major loss of experimenters is to those areas
concerned with what is going on inside the organism. "observable
subject matter is abandoned in favour of inferred (traits, perceptions,
experiences, habits, ideas, and so on)". Mentalist concepts should be
abandoned in favour of explanations involving causes from outside the
organism. [He thinks that the reinforcer will be the draw of the true
science and analysis of behaviour, but I think the mathematics of
complex contingencies will be a big turnoff and anyway, why waste
introspection, it gets me out of a lot of trouble despite its

The flight to laymanship (p 85)

The argument here is for pure science rather than practical expediency.
He also demonstrates how lay terminology is so universal that it
applies to elephants and cats as well as it applies to humans and, I
assume, is therefore unscientific? [Is this why he invents his
terminology as he goes along?]

Are theories of learning necessary? (p 87)

He seems to be concentrating on theories grounded in areas that are
incompatible in many important ways with the area of behaviour.
Statements about the nervous system are not expressed in the same terms
[and therefore units?] as behaviours like secreting saliva. Mental
events like being pleased are in different realms to bingeing
behaviour. [I'm not sure this is still the case with modern
neurophysiological work, and is it not possible to conceive that
certain neural activity is linked to both experience and activity a la

The basic datum of learning (p 90)

Learning is not the same as performance, like getting out of a box
faster, because learning may take place but other factors may result in
no effective change in performance. Latency is also dismissed because
it depends on what the subject is doing at the moment the stimulus is
presented. Rate of response is more promising but is not a measure of
probability. [It would not have been a good predictor of the Hungerford
massacre.] Skinner suggests that we need smaller units of behaviour
that lead to and compose the larger more complex events that we wish to

Why learning occurs (p 94)

I couldn't see what he was trying to say here. He starts by suggesting
that the Law of Effect is no theory but a procedure as in operant
conditioning of a pigeon, then goes on to say that when you ask why
reinforcement has this effect then theories arise. Then follows a
discussion of extinction curves in which he concludes that curves are
curved possibly because of competition between the normal response and
"frustration" at lack of reinforcement, and novelty (variables
changing) appearing in the extinction situation. His message is look at
more data. [Couldn't learning/conditioning simply occur because either
the brain is hard wired to support the conditioning process or it is
capable of programming itself to do so to sustain certain states such
as a level of blood sugar?]

Complex learning (p 97)

In this section Skinner explores the data available from more
complicated experiments such as with multiple stimuli. [Some idea of
his direction towards data is indicated when he asks "What are the
smallest differences in stimuli which yield a difference in control?"]

Conclusion (p 101)

While theories are fun, he suggests that we turn to obtaining data that
shows orderly changes in the learning process itself.
[He seems to be saying that there are just too many variables to
have successful theories, we need to concentrate on narrow

Some afterthoughts (p 101)

This might be summed by two of his statements here. First by his
restatement of what he considers to be a theory: "any explanation of an
observed fact which appeals to events taking place somewhere else, at
some other level of observation, described in different terms, and
measured, if at all, in different dimensions. Second by his suggestion
that "To guess who is calling when the phone rings seems somehow more
admirable that to pick up the phone and find out, although it is no
more valuable". [I think he may be wrong when the door bell rings late
at night and you are all alone!] Again he restates the case for finding
relationships between behaviour and variables as a basis for the
science and technology of behaviour. [Dangerous territory?]

POSTSCRIPT (p 104) This is the last bit!

Nothing really new here, but a useful restatement.

[It seems to me that Skinner has a case for a technology of behaviour
because human beings can change their environment and hence the stimuli
and reinforcements that shape their behaviour.
Marketeers and criminals already use it in selling or conning.]

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