Toward a Less Coercive World Via Skinnerian Ideology

In Science and Human Behavior, B.F. Skinner laid out an impressive plan for the creation of a science of behavior. His logic was that after two major wars in the first half of the 20th century, human behavior is the next logical area of serious scientific study. To paraphrase his points, science has created awesome tools of destruction and science can also impart wisdom that will prevent such weapons from being used. In Skinner’s mind, the world can achieve utopia through careful behavioral control. Ironically, the very thing that Skinner cited as the root cause of our problems – instinctive behavior – is something Skinner never studied and studiously avoided during his whole career. Additionally, the idea that watching the behavior of rats and pigeons in micro-boxes that allow only a single behavior can be extrapolated to vast human populations is on its face, ludicrous. Yet that’s exactly what he did throughout his entire career. Just six months before his death he spoke in Japan on the creation of the “coercion free society.” As if he had some actual knowledge of how to control the population of planet Earth. To quote the motto of the American Skeptics Society, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Skinner does not offer proof directly, but the results of his work, do. This is what “coercion free” environments look like.

In 2010 a captive Orca at Sea World grabbed his trainer and dragged her underwater by the arm. He then took his time and bit off the arm leaving her body mangled and lifeless – just as his wild counterparts would handle a sea lion. A little less violently, perhaps, but the outcome was the same. Though the news spin has marked this animal as some kind of psychotic killer, this is a natural behavior that can be seen in all Orcas, all over the world. This type of behavior starts as soon as the animals are weaned and continues through their lifetime. It is integral to what they do and why they are colloquially called Killer Whales.  No one who has ever studied them could claim ignorance of that kind of behavior…other than Sea World management. When a female Orca killed herself by ramming another Orca, a Sea World spokesman said the most contradictory thing I’ve ever heard in a single statement. I will paraphrase…”It’s a natural behavior that occurs in the wild. We couldn’t have known this might happen.”

After OSHA sued Sea World, testimony revealed that marine mammals in captivity – the much lauded legacy of Skinner and his protege, Keller Breland, attack their keepers regularly. It’s not a fluke, it’s the norm. That is because positive reinforcement or the removal of positive reinforcement cannot stop or inhibit behavior. Trainers at Sea World are touted as the top of the food chain of trainers, yet they are unable to control aggression in complete captivity. If you are wondering what this is leading to, it’s simple. The death of a trainer at Sea World (and the dozens of other serious attacks cited in the Osha law-suit) refutes several of the principal beliefs of anyone who uses Skinnerian operant conditioning, AKA Learning Theory,  as the basis for their training methods. 

  1. Extinction – if you simply ignore a behavior it will go away.
  2. You don’t have to know anything about the instinctive repertoire of a species in order to train it.
  3. Reinforcing an alternate behavior stops a behavior from occurring in a given context.
  4. You can control behavior with exclusively “positive” methods.
  5. Information taken from scientists is automatically valid and needs no confirmation from “common observation” or “anecdotal” sources. If wide-spread observation of nature contradicts “scientific” training principles, nature is to be ignored.

If you buy all of those principles, I would make a simple suggestion. Please do not attempt to be a dog trainer. Dogs bite. Then you will bleed. It will hurt. It may cause permanent damage or disfigurement. Worse, they may bite someone else on your watch or attack another animal. Caution – their biting behavior is not extinguished by ignoring it. That is only logical. Aggression is not created by reinforcement and “removing reinforcement” to control it is a non sequitur. You also cannot control it by teaching an alternate behavior. No treat can prevent it. That is because, again,  positive reinforcement cannot stop a behavior or create a future inhibition. By definition, positive reinforcement increases behavior. Negative punishment – withholding a reinforcer – will not block the future occurrence of a behavior.

The Skinnerian world is one without coercion and therefore without inhibitions. All aspects of an animal’s natural repertoire are available at all times. Inevitably a behavior pops up that has never occurred before that causes some naive soul to say, “Gee, he’s never done that before.” This often follows a serious injury. A knowledge of animal behavior requires that you know what to inhibit and then know how to inhibit it. Trusting to exclusively positive methods abdicates responsibility for preventing dangerous behavior before it occurs or stopping unacceptable behavior when it emerges.

p.s. The death of the Sea World trainer caused a huge flurry of contradictory statements from experts about orcas and marine mammals in captivity. Here are a few thoughts that may help cut through the nonsense.

  • If Killer Whales are as intelligent or more intelligent than humans, it means that when they injure someone they know what they are doing. If we are supposed to believe that they are brilliant it means they are culpable for the harm they do. “He’s so smart he didn’t realize he was killing her” doesn’t really make sense.
  • If they are so smart, why do they keep screwing up performances? (Perfect routines are rare at marine parks even though the animals are trained constantly by teams of trainers.)
  • If they are aggressive predators, why would it be unusual that they would attack a member of a different species? In reality, it is surprising that the level of aggression is limited. If you wish to read more of this, I suggest Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Same circumstances, same outcome.
  • Why do virtually all captive whales have bite marks from other whales on them? (Dolphins, too) Why don’t the trainers use Skinnerian methods to divert the aggression? (The answer is that the method cannot do what they want it to do. I gave a joint seminar at the San Diego Wild animal park. About 20 of the trainers in attendence were from Sea World. Three things emerged; they were operating from a myopic mantra, they do not really understand how to use aversive control, but they are really good at creating aversive environments and they use food to keep the animals passified. Sorry, that doesn’t work. Even fat Orcas are capable of killing someone, just for the fun of flexing their natural repertoire. Just ask Roy Horn of Sigfried and Roy. They didn’t use punishment, either.)

NOTE: Postive reinforcement cannot stop or inhibit any naturally occurring, learned behavior or combination of the two. If you wish to disagree with this article, that is the concept you will have to disprove.

3 thoughts on “Toward a Less Coercive World Via Skinnerian Ideology

  1. Hi Gary,

    Amazing article! It would be great if this message could be further spread to educate the pet owning public, who are unfortunately brainwashed by political correctness and that you should never tell your dog “NO!”

  2. Hi Gary,
    I have been a dog trainer for forty five years and have not had the “advantages” of a formal education in the behavioral sciences in the hollowed halls of academia. The material you are putting out has been so needed in our field. I was in Chicago at the APDT seminar where you did a session on using bonkers to avert dogs and though I missed your tar and feathering I did hear the horror stricken “victims” of your inhuman and inhumane dissertation. I kept thinking I had fallen down a rabbit hole and I needed a means of escaping before the I drowned in the Kool Aid.

    At my last training facility in Portland, Oregon I sent eight dogs home over my fourteen year run to be put to sleep because I considered them so dangerous that I had no other means of preventing a tragedy. Two such dogs that I advised be put to sleep were “saved” by do–gooder rescue organizations and two tragedies occurred due to their stupidity–just my opinion.

    I am a advocate of the prong collar and I teach that it is a tool that is effective in getting the attention of dogs that act mindlessly as long as pain is avoided in the overwhelming majority of the time. I seldom need do more than prompt a dog at critical “points of commitment” to modify so much outlandish behavior. I have been vilified, criticized and shunned but I have helped thousands of family dog owners over my career.

    I trained Maggie Christina at my facility and the first thing I did was to apologize for what I was going to do to her. When she asked why I would do that I told her that I was going to take her many years beyond her skill level at that time. Two years later she walked into an ongoing class and got into my face and told me that I needed to apologize to her. So many trainers that I have heard about or see on You Tube are truly oblivious to real world dog handling and training. I am a master of the leash and what I see being taught out there is strongly indicative of Kool Aid overdosing. To me, handling is ground work for training. If the handler does not understand how to guide the dog and also how the hell to leave it alone they end up with an idiot dog and set themselves up for chaos or worse.

    Thank you for speaking out for some common sense application into the behavioral abyss we seem to currently find ourselves in due to an unrealistic approach to dealing with the animals–are we allowed to call them animals now?

    My best to you,
    Michael Thorpe

  3. Michael,
    I didn’t have the benefit of academic training in behavior, either. I had a great education drinking Blitz beer at OSU. That was my major by all accounts. I was also the manager of the Benton Humane Society in Corvallis for about three years. I had nothing to offer the people who desperately would have kept their dogs if someone could have shown them how. Those people are never mentioned in the equation. So, I looked around, found little to nothing of value from the ‘experts’ and decided to do something about it. Who better? I knew the target audience perfectly. So, I created methods that took the complexity out of it. The not-so-odd thing is that the people who claimed a dedication to solving problems rejected and attacked it. (Still do) They wanted the ‘all positive’ porridge of my former colleague, Karen Pryor. The Golden I bonked in Chicago demonstrably improved immediately. It didn’t fear me. It didn’t hate me. It just stopped being a butthead. They invented the harm and fear. That’s what they do. So, thanks for the many kind words. Completely unnecessary from one kindred spirit to another. If I didn’t hate Portland so much I’d drop by for a can of Blitz. 🙂

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