I’ve been trying for some time to write a post on Behavourism because it’s something that holds a perennial fascination for me. I have a number of B F Skinner’s books on the go About Behaviourism, Science and Human Behaviour and Verbal Behavior. This last is the book Noam Chomsky made his name reviewing. It’s very heavy going, but it is brimming with interesting ideas (although a proper behaviourist would never put it in those terms). Anyway, I twisted my ankle this weekend and it can’t really bear my weight, so Alice has cleared her day at work to look after the kids so I can sit with my leg up and blog.
Most people have only a very vague and possibly caricatured notion of what Behaviourism is. I remember a joke about behaviourism doing the rounds when I was at university. What did one behaviourist say to the other after sex? “That was good for you. How was it for me?” Implying among other things, that behaviourism has no account of first-person experience or introspective self-knowledge. In fact, Behaviourism doesn’t deny the reality of feelings and experiences although it does challenge the traditional account of how we should understand them and their place in psychology.
Behaviourism seeks to understand an organism’s behaviour in terms of a history of differential reinforcement or punishment that shaped that behaviour. Behaviour assumes its specific form because in the past certain forms of behaviour were rewarded and certain other forms were punished. For example, a tennis player’s serve takes the form it does because tossing the ball so high and swinging so hard cleared the net and landed in the square in the past, whereas tossing it slightly differently and swinging slightly differently either didn’t clear the net or didn’t land in the square. Those movements of the body that resulted in a legal serve were selected by their good consequences for the player and reproduced in subsequent behaviour. It is the environment that determines whether the consequences are good for the player. If the rules of tennis were different, and a different trajectory of the ball were highly prized, a different combination of movements would be selected. This is a different sort of explanation from the one that goes ‘because that’s the way the player wants to hit it’, but, the behaviourist argues, it’s ultimately more satisfying.
In the usual run of things, people explain something like the way a tennis player serves the ball in terms of the beliefs and thoughts and attitudes of the player. An explanation that appeals to the player’s intentions is a regress stopper. It gives the explanatory process a stopping point. You can but you don’t have to ask why the player chose to play the shot that way, because human agents are taken to be capable of spontaneous action (that is, genuinely initiated action, action without a previous cause).
If I understand him correctly, Skinner denies that human agents do truly behave spontaneously. He thinks that all behaviour has a determinate cause (or allowing for irreduciably probabilistic causal connections in atomic domains, all behaviour is made highly probable by some antecendent event). Human actions are never the result of spontaneous (i.e. uncaused) decisions by human agents. So behaviourism is deterministic. Determinism is a hard doctrine to counternance, because it implies that human actions are never free. They are the ultimate consequences of chains of causal interactions beginning aeons and aeons ago in the distant past. If each link in the chain is causally sufficient to bring about the next, then our actions were already going to happen before we were even born.
I happen to think determinism is more plausible than the alternative, which holds that at some point there was a gap in the causal order that required the intervention of a non-physical causal agent to overcome. All my actions, whatever their wider meaning might be, are at one level the movements of the parts of my body (nerves and muscles and that sort of thing). It is incredible to me that these physical body parts become activated without some other physical cause.
Behaviourism implies determinism but not vice versa. You don’t have to be a behaviourist if you’re already prepared to be a determinist. Most philosophers and cognitive scientists would be determinists but not behaviourists. They think the common sense psychological explanation of human action in terms of beliefs and desires and that sort of thing is actually compatible with determinism because the mind is somehow just another piece of the still not very well understood physical causal story. Behaviourism is radical in seeking to reject the explanation of behaviour in terms of these familiar categories (of belief, desire and so on).
I think the strongest reason to take this sort of explanation seriously comes from the parallel between behaviourism and the theory of evolution. Both theories see current forms of phenomena as the result of historical processes of selection. Behaviour takes its current form because in the past behaviour it resembles was reinforced and dissimilar behaviour was not. The organism takes its current form because in the past organisms with that form survived while those without it did not. The mechanisms of shaping and selecting phenomena are different, but complementary. Natural selection works by a sort of winnowing out of unsuccessful forms, whereas behavioural selection increases the probability of reinforced forms. A certain trait has a survival value so subsequent generations of organism that inherit that trait are created and over time the trait spreads through the population as more and more of the subsequent generations have it. In behaviour modification, actions that were reinforced are simply repeated which happens at the expense of untried forms that otherwise might have been emitted. Behaviour modification relies on the survival value of being disposed to find certain things rewarding (the attention of other people, smiles, physical affection, certain tastes and so on). These dispositions ensure that certain actions are rewarding so they are repeated when similar circumstances recur.
Evolutionary explanation and the explanation of behaviour in terms of a history of reinforcement both do away with explanation in terms of the decisions of an agent. Evolutionary theory has rid us of the need to see the variety of species of animals as the result of the creative decisions of God, and behaviourism would rid us of the little god in the human mind for explaining human behaviour. (This reminds me of another joke about behaviourism. The American philosopher Sydney Morgenbesser, on having behaviourism explained to him, apparently said, ‘So what you’re saying is: Don’t anthropomorphize people!’ That’s astute. It’s absolutely spot on, but it’s not a criticism of behaviourism. Behaviourism is a rival to traditional belief-desire psychology.
It can sometimes seem as if the behaviourist explanation presupposes the kind of thoughts and feelings and inner goings-on that the behaviourist officially disavows. For what is rewarding but positive feelings of satisfaction? Chocolate is rewarding because the boy likes the taste. Praise is rewarding because the boy wants to feel loved and valued. And so on. Skinner’s answer to this criticism is that the feelings, while genuine, aren’t needed to explain the mechanisms of the reinforcement of behaviour. He appeals instead to the survival value of dispositions to find certain things rewarding. Organisms with these dispositions were able to learn to respond to the environment in effective ways, and this conveyed a selective advantage (“About Behaviourism”, p.52). It is a corruption of the behaviourist explanation of things to say the agent is motivated to behave in such and such a way because they like the feeling the reward brings. That is smuggling a homunculus into the explanation that doesn’t need to be there.
Its easy to see the principles of classical and operant conditioning at work in utterances Frank makes. For example, sometimes he says Good Boy to himself (he actually says ‘Bo Boy’, but that’s his version of Good Boy). A behaviouristic explanation of this might go something like this. He does things that we reinforce by saying ‘Good Boy’. He is disposed to find our warm smiles and attention rewarding and purely by association is conditioned to find ‘good boy’ itself rewarding. So it is slightly rewarding when he says it to himself. So he does. So there’s an explanation of how the behaviour came about and continues, but if we scale this sort of thing up to adults, we seem to lose hold of a distinction between learning and proficient stages. I mean, you can see how someone could acquire behaviours by a training process of reinforcement, but when does it end. Is the behaviour of a competent tennis player still under the control of the reinforcing environment? Does the professional still play the shots as they do for reward and reinforcement? I don’t know what the behaviourist would say about that, but I suspect that the answer would be that there is no genuine distinction between learning and proficient behaviour. Learning never ends. Proficient behaviour is highly effective at getting its reward. So effective it doesn’t feel like learning anymore, but it is still operating according the the same principles. Or maybe the distinction needs to be recast in different terms. Perhaps proficient behaviour is rewarded on a more intermittant schedule and perhaps it is rewarded by other sorts of reinforcers than the ones it was trained up with.
In spite of the unsettling consequences, I think behaviourism must be true of human behaviour. For on the one hand, it is easy to see how it applies to some aspects of human behaviour, and on the other hand it’s hard to imagine circumstances that violate the rules of behaviour actually happening. If you get rewarded for doing something, you’re more likely to do it again in the future. Things that don’t pay, people tend to stop doing. But now what about the exceptions? Well, are there any? If I do something that is rewarding, e.g. well remunerative, what would interfere to make me unlikely to do it again in the future? The contingencies of reinforcement might change to make it no longer pay, or alternatively, I could find some incompatible actions more rewarding (for example, a woman who is a successful lawyer might leave her job to be a full-time mother because she finds it more rewarding). In general, it is hard to conceive of a case where someone finds something rewarding but doesn’t do it (unless they find an incompatible action even more rewarding. Actions are ‘incompatible’ if and only if you cannot perform both). So what would make behaviourist principles stop working?