Keller Breland and “Instinctive Drift”

(Note: I am very new to WordPress. My footnotes are at the bottom of the page)

Not many people know the name of Keller Breland outside marine mammal and dog training. Keller Breland was B.F. Skinner’s first graduate student at University of Minnesota – before Skinner became the icon of behavioral psychology, AKA behavior analysis. Keller was brilliant and highly motivated. Once, in 1940, Skinner showed Keller a toy clicker. Skinner had noticed that the click-click of the mechanical feeder magazines used for rat experimentation somehow caused the rats to learn the experimental process faster. A few months later, according to one of Skinner’s autobiographies, he entered the General Mills labs where his psychology department was conducting research for the war effort. Breland had taught a pigeon to push a marble down the alley of a toy bowling game to hit the pins. Skinner recalled that this was his epiphany. For someone who knows this topic intimately, this sets off red flags. Skinner had shown Keller a toy clicker in 1940 – three years before. He told Keller that you could use it to increase the rate at which animals learn. It is obvious that he was speculating and not speaking from experience.

In the next year of their collaboration as professor and gifted student, something went wrong. Breland left academia to make his way training animals, sans PhD. He founded Animal Behavior Enterprises and trained thousands of animals for road-side attractions, television commercials and most notably, marine mammal exhibits. Breland created marine mammal training in a six-week period, on time and under budget. He later trained mine-detection dogs for the U.S. military and a host of projects intended to use animals for covert spy operations. By 1960, Breland was arguably the most knowledgeable person about training more species of animals than anyone on the planet. His vast experience of the minute details of teaching animals put him at odds with Skinner’s broader speculation about behavior. At this time, Skinner was a big-name professor at Harvard University and considered the master of operant conditioning – a man who had trained nothing other than rats and pigeons in tiny little boxes to do a single behavior. That is when Breland launched his torpedo at his former mentor.

After a 15 year break from the scientific community, Keller Breland wrote a hallmark paper about animal training. He titled this paper, The Misbehavior of Organisms. This was an obvious shot at Skinner’s magnum opus – The Behavior of Organisms. In his paper, Breland catalogues a number of cases where species-specific behavior trumps Skinner’s belief that you can train any animal to do anything using the same methodology. In fact, Breland’s work contradicts some of Skinner’s basic tenets.

EG: Breland shot a television commercial for a bank that included pigs placing giant coins in a giant piggy-bank. During the training for the animals, the “reinforcement” for the behavior fell apart. According to Skinnerian ideology, reinforcement strengthens behavior. In this case, the pigs stopped picking up the coins and started rooting with their noses – pushing the coins around on the floor rather than picking them up. It was obvious that though the animals had learned the behavior easily, something happened that interfered with the linear progression inherent in Skinner’s concept of reinforcement. This was mirrored during shooting the television series “Green Acres” a few years later. Arnold the Pig was an integral part of the show. Pig wranglers for the show used many pigs for the production because their working life was shot. Adolescent pigs adapted well, but on reaching maturity they stopped working for treats.

The ultimate issue is that using a micro-view of behavior to explain macro behavior is problematic. Breland learned that virtually every species is susceptible to what he called “instinctive drift” – a melding of purely learned behaviors with instinctive behavioral tendencies. Skinner never studied ethology and assumed that all species responded to learning in the same fashion without bothering to test his hypotheses. In effect, the devil was in the details and Breland knew them well. Skinner resisted admitting that his one-method-fits-all structure could have been mistaken. The mainstream behaviorists of today have followed the Skinnerian path. This is why modern dog trainers cite marine mammal training as proof that Skinnerian methods are valid. One wonders why they don’t cite methods that have proven far more effective with dogs than those created by Breland, more than 60 years ago. They don’t cite outside their academic club-house because practical trainers make scientific trainers look bad. Consider that Hannibal crossed the alps in 200 BC with 80 war-elephants. The Seeing Eye has trained tens of thousands of working guide-dogs since 1929. No scientific training program has even come close to the accomplishments of trainers. Trainers have a 15,000 year head-start and have always had to produce results. There is also a dirty little secret – most academics who try to encroach on practical animal training use methods created by practical animal trainers. They just add fancy terms and pretend they created the methodology. Consider clicker training for dogs. It is usually credited to a man who never successfully trained a dog from the ground up. Then he died in 1965, leaving no written manuals. When Karen Pryor and I introduced clicker training in 1992, it was almost 30 years after Breland’s death. Neither one of use had ever heard of him. How did a man who never openly revealed his trade secrets come back from the grave to create something he had never done successfully in his lifetime? Hmmm.

The question of nature vs. nurture is still alive in psychology and animal training. Breland was the first to use Skinner’s “operant conditioning” to train animals. He was the first to come back and report to academics that their tidy-little-box view of behavior was woefully inadequate. He established some of the first practical rules for imprinting various species on human trainers. (If you can get an infant crow to take food from your fingers, it can learn to work for you. If it pecks your fingers, it’s too late to make a bond that will lead to a trainable animal.) His wake-up call to scientists should have spurred a renaissance in the creation of a practical science of behavior. It didn’t. Instead, behaviorists passed off Breland’s conundrums as simply “superstitious behavior.” They ignored the caution that their research was limited in scope and not practical. Breland believed that every species had specific adaptations that had to be accounted for in any practical training program – a true statement that practical trainers have known for thousands of years. Consider horse trainers who shy away from training mules.

Ironically, Breland’s only real failure stemmed from this same Skinnerian shortcoming. In 1945, when they parted company, Breland’s first attempt to be a practical trainer was with dogs. He failed. 3 You can’t train dogs in the real world with exclusively positive reinforcement. In his first days as a trainer, Breland didn’t know that. He was following Skinner’s assumption that it all worked the same way for all species. In specific, it was Skinner’s “all positive” approach that caused Breland’s failure. The only dogs he trained after that initial flop were Army detection dogs that already had a robust working repertoire created through reinforcement and punishment. Sadly, after his death in 1965, major research into aversive control established that reinforcement and punishment are roughly symmetrical. Skinnerian’s rejected this concept. They hold to a bias in favor of positive reinforcement that severely limits the ability to control a broad spectrum of behavior. In the long run, this bias prevented Breland from realizing his full potential, even as it prevents modern behaviorists from dealing with difficult behavior and training problems.

Foot Notes:

  1. During his tenure at Harvard University, all of the rat operant chambers in Skinner’s labs had an extraneous click added to the lever press – the operant behavior that generated data. This dates from the early 1950’s through 1965. When one of his graduate students, Dr. Peter Killeen asked about it, he was told it was one of Skinner’s eccentricities. Skinner never mentioned the importance of the click-click until after his protégé, Keller Breland, started getting publicity in the real world. (Personal communications – Dr. Ogden R. Lindsley and Dr. Peter Killeen)
  2. Personal communication with Marian Kruse Breland Bailey – Keller Breland’s wife and B.F. Skinner’s first lab assistant at the University of Minnesota.
  3. Personal Communication at an ABAI conference with Marian Kruse Breland Baily.


2 thoughts on “Keller Breland and “Instinctive Drift”

  1. Who did you and Karen introduce clicker training to in 1992? I distinctly remember SeaWorld having a show that explained clicker training to the audience, that was in the mid 80s.

    • We introduced it to the world. Breland used Skinner’s myopic view of behavior in a box. Breland also accepted Skinner’s restatement of normative hedonism – a preference for positive reinforcement and opposition toward aversive control – ironically used in a world of confinement that depends on the aversive control generated by total confinement. What Keller Breland discovered was less than half of the knowledge necessary to control behavior in the real world. His legacy is perpetuated by people who benefit from that narrative – but are limited by his myopic and doctrinaire vision of behavior.

      Here’s a more full explanation of what clicker training is and where it came from.

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