B.F. Skinner and Behaviourism Today

Hugh Thomas on 4 December 2001

In so far as people are aware of the notion of Behaviourism today, it tends to conjure up images like that of the Ludovico Technique portrayed in Stanley Kubrick's film Clockwork Orange: crude, sadistic and politically-motivated attempts to modify undesirable behaviour by drug or electric shock-based aversion therapy.

This is a false impression that does not do Behaviourism justice. Furthermore, although the Behaviourist outlook is a psychological rather than truly philosophical stance, it invokes a philosophically interesting set of ideas that are still worth looking at. Perhaps it is possible that the time for Behaviourism has returned.

One of the founding fathers of psychology was William James (brother of Henry), who belonged to the Pragmatist school of Dewey. James' work yielded many illuminating insights, such as the notion of the stream of consciousness. Although his theory of emotion ("We are afraid because we run away") and his emphasis on the importance of habit both anticipate aspects of Behaviourism, the unreliability of his introspective method was exposed by Sir Francis Galton's Victorian survey of mental imagery.

The new approach of Behaviourism was founded early this century by a former student of Dewey's, J. B. Watson. Taking his lead from Pavlov, he proposed that psychology should study observable behaviour (stimuli and responses) under controlled laboratory conditions. Although this was initially only a methodological dictum, it became a view of human nature that not only de-emphasized, but also even tended to question the existence of, consciousness or mind.

The Behaviourists rejected Plato's notion of innate ideas and took their lead from the radical empiricism of Locke in assuming that environment was vastly more important than heredity. They gave mechanisms of learning a pre-eminent status in psychology.

B F Skinner (1904 - 1990) became the leading Behaviourist after a scandal forced Watson to leave academic life. Skinner's is now the name most prominently associated with this school of thought. He carried out many years of laboratory experiments with rats in mazes and pigeons in Skinner boxes, investigating how learning occurred via "operant conditioning". This involved use of rewards presented in a controlled manner ("schedules of reinforcement") so as to shape behaviour.

Given the common evolutionary origins of animals and man, the assumption was that any differences between animal learning and the causes of human behaviour would be merely differences of complexity. Indeed, the work was fruitful in providing some understanding of, and suggesting treatment strategies for, human problems such as phobias and fetishes, compulsive gambling and childhood misbehaviour. Skinner, a prominent Humanist, always recommended positive reinforcement (rewarding of desired behaviour) over negative reinforcement or punishment.

Having developed a "technology of behaviour" in the laboratory Skinner explained in his audacious book Beyond Freedom and Dignity how it could be used to change the world. The obstacle to progress here, he maintained, was the persistent mistake of attributing human behaviour to indwelling agents. Supposed internal states or traits such as intentions, purposes, aims and goals - and especially "free will" - were merely pre-scientific explanatory fictions we used when ignorant of the (actually entirely circumstantial and environmental) causes underlying behaviour. The solution to the world's problems, he argued, was to design an environment such that his technology of behaviour was used to create a better human "product".

Skinner's fascinating novel Walden Two describes the sort of utopian world that he felt could be produced by such cultural engineering. In contrast to Thoreau's original Walden, Walden Two looks forward not back, and invokes science, not a mythical "state of nature". Walden Two's inhabitants behave entirely co-operatively, because that is what they want to do, due to the judicious use of cultural engineering. Co-operation vastly reducing the need for work, the inhabitants can spend most of their time in the idyllic pursuit of cultural activities.

Castle, the philosopher character in Walden Two, raises objections to each of the features of the community as Frazier, its fictional designer, introduces them. The objections are all framed in terms of general principles (one being the supposed absence of free will) and one-by-one are answered by Frizzier, by recourse to the practicalities around them. The Good Life is there for Castle to see, if only he will look around.

Skinner's views were widely influential, including having a great effect on the thinking of Bertrand Russell, constituting as they did possibly the first major attempt to apply scientific thinking to human behaviour. Furthermore, in their rejection of metaphysical general principles they reflected much of the philosophical thinking of their time, especially Logical Positivism.

Modern psychologists and philosophers tend to view Behaviourism as an outmoded and disreputable school of thought. Certainly, Skinner's views on human society display naiveté, perhaps reflecting a number of metaphysical assumptions on his own part such as his extreme nature / nurture position, his radical determinism, his epiphenomenalist stance on consciousness, and his assumption of the pre-eminence of the mechanism of operant conditioning. However, Skinner saw Behaviourism as doing for psychology what the discovery of evolution had done for biology. In this respect he therefore anticipated aspects of current psychological and philosophical thinking which are informed by evolutionary theory, such as Dawkins' concept of the meme. Skinner's rationalist approach to human psychology is also greatly to be preferred to a current postmodernist-induced vogue for reification of objects of irrational belief that threatens to bring about a new de-enlightenment.

Hugh Thomas