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B.F. Skinner
"A Technology of Behavior"
By  Nada Salem Abisamra


(B.F. Skinner’s Biography-- By C. George Boeree- 1998)
[Operant Conditioning]

“Why, according to B.F. Skinner, the behavioral /
social sciences have not advanced as much as the physical sciences?”

Opponents of Skinner’s Theory
Supporters of Skinner’s Theory

“Why, according to B.F. Skinner, the behavioral / social sciences have not advanced as much as the physical sciences?”

What is happening in the world today? Why is it facing such terrifying problems? Pollution, overcrowding, bad sanitation, diseases, ghettos … Physical sciences and technology have advanced so much, yet, we see things growing steadily worse! Then, we can say that physical and biological technology alone cannot solve our problems, since almost all of them involve human behavior. What we need is a “good” technology of behavior, one comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology, one that helps us to treat the causes of behavior. However, this “good” technology of behavior is lacking, why? Why have physical sciences -- which have led to so many catastrophes and disasters-- why have they advanced so much whereas the behavioral sciences -- which study how major aspects of the environment interact with, and influence our own continuously evolving behavior-- haven’t advanced as much?
In the chapter entitled “A Technology of Behavior”, excerpted from the book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”, B.F. Skinner gives us a detailed answer to our main question. I shall try in this essay to enumerate and explain the points that he gives.

 According to Skinner, there are three major problems that have prevented the behavioral sciences from advancing properly:
1- Mentalistic explanations (hard to get rid of)
2- Alternatives for mentalistic explanations (hard to find)
3- Control in the “controlled society” (hard to exercise)

1- Mentalistic Explanations: (Unobservable and useless for scientific psychology)
“The task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behavior of a person as a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved and the conditions under which the individual lives.” Therefore, in order to have a good scientific analysis, we should focus on the environment which keeps us going, and on the antecedents that get us where we are. We should then get rid of those mentalistic constructs and explanations that lead us nowhere. Can we do that? Can we get rid of those wonderful feelings like freedom, dignity, autonomy, reward &
punishment … ? Our main problem is that we refuse to believe that it is the environment that causes us to do everything. We like to feel free, autonomous; we like to be held responsible and be given credit; we like to believe in the “inner person” (“homunculus” or “the little man”) that resides inside us and is used to explain our behavior, ideas like soul, mind, ego, will, self, and personality. There is nothing like this in modern physics or most of biology, and this fact may well explain why a science and a technology of behavior have been so long delayed.  We are not focusing on the antecedent events and circumstances, just as we are not focusing on consequences: “It is now clear that we must take into account what the environment does to an organism not only before but after it responds. Behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences.”

2- Alternatives for Mentalistic Explanations:
The second major problem is that it is very hard to find alternatives to those “mentalistic explanations” used in social sciences. We are supposed to look for them in the external environment, while the role of this environment is not clear at all. It does not push or pull; it selects. Its role is similar to that in natural selection, and this function is difficult to discover or analyze. In physical sciences, we don’t deal with things we cannot analyze, observe, or measure with the precision demanded by a scientific analysis; that’s why these sciences can’t but advance quickly.

3- The Exercise of Control in the Controlled Society:
Once we have created a society based on the environment, where there is no autonomy, no freedom… Who will be controlled? Who will exercise control? What type of control will be exercised? Most important of all, toward what end or what purpose, or in the pursuit of what value, will control be exercised? These are questions whose answers are difficult to find! Then, how can the social sciences advance as quickly as the physical sciences? Problems such as this one don’t exist in physical sciences where everything is clear; where solutions are at hand.

After having enumerated and explained the major problems that are preventing the behavioral sciences from advancing as much as the physical sciences, we can say that we haven’t by any means exhausted the possibilities that lead us to the advancement of the social sciences. Behavior has to be recognized as a subject in its own right. Solutions have to be found if we want to solve our problems in the world today. We need to take control, to design culture in such a way that good gets rewarded and bad gets extinguished; we need the right behavioral technology in order to reduce the harm of physical technology.

Opponents of Skinner’s Theory:

# Humanists - Behaviorism in general treats man as if he is the product or puppet of external events and has no free will for him to control himself. It essentially dehumanizes man and therefore cannot comprehend the intricacies of the mind and personality, nor can it explain feelings, goals, or creative thoughts such as art or science (Mischel,W.,1993, pp 314-15)

# Robert C. Bolles - The problem with Skinner's article is that he doesn't realize that natural selectionists take more into consideration than just the great causal effect of survival of the fittest. In fact, they rarely use it to explain anything, choosing instead to rely on smaller cause and effect mechanisms. Skinner on the other hand refuses to use the small events and instead uses his initial grand theory of selection by consequence to explain everything. Skinner needs to realize that there may be more than one way or mode of looking at things. The mind is composed of both thoughts and feelings as well as stimuli and response and Skinner is wrong in believing otherwise.

# Bo Dahlbom - While Skinner uses Darwinian ideas to present his theory, he overlooks a lot of obvious concepts that clearly contradicts his ideas. According to Darwinian thought, humans are constantly improving themselves in order to gain better self-control. However, self-control only plays a factor if humans have free will. This simple idea of gaining self-control automatically negates Skinner's theory from agreeing with Darwinian ideas of natural selection (Dahlbom, 1984, 484-6).

# Michael T. Ghiselin - The problem with Skinner's ideas are that they are oversimplified as well as exaggerated. Not all human actions are initiated due to a previous stimulus. Humans have a distinct thought process that affects their decisions (Ghiselin, 1984, pp 489).

# Jonathan Schull - The problem with Skinner is that he believes that by believing in the whole environmental selection process, one must also reject any ideas which claim that people themselves can act as causal events and cause change. The fact is societal change is caused by just such a person, an initiating agent. Skinner refuses to admit that his linkage between selection in individual humans and selection in society goes deeper and indeed thought processes and people contribute to the whole causal selectivity proposed by Skinner (Schull, 1984, pp 497-8).

# Gestalt psychology - It demonstrates through its research that there is something internal that manipulates stimuli input. These variables can be: memory, expectation, motivation, and attention. Skinner cannot adequately demonstrate that all mental events are indeed a product of the environment.

# Albert Bandura's - His experiments show that people can learn by observation and not just experience and reinforcement. His study suggests the presence of symbolic processes that are present before any responses.

# Christian Information Ministries - There is no place for a rebel in Skinner's ideal society. But rebels are what bring about the intellectual and moral growth of a society.

Supporters of Skinner’s Theory:

# Duane M. Rumbaugh - The reason why Skinner's idea isn't widely accepted in society is because it takes the blame off the shoulders of people and pushes it on the environment. This would be bad for the survival of society so therefore, by Skinner's theory of societal evolution, the theory will never be accepted as true as it may be. Yet, despite its failure of acceptance and Skinner's claims of environmental creation not personal creation, the "selection by consequence theory" is a good theory and one he deserves credit for (Rumbaugh, 1984, pp 496-7).

# William Vaughan, Jr. - There are three major revolutions in history that changed the view of mankind. The first brought in by Copernicus, which said that mankind is a but a speck in the vast universe, and Darwin's second, which said mankind is nothing more than a machine working towards survival of its genes, left intact the belief that man is a moral, thinking being. The third, Skinner's selection by consequences, destroys that showing that free will is no longer a truth. However hard this may be to accept, it is better to believe a truth than a lie (Vaughn, 1984, pp 501).

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