Emperor Skinner’s New Clothes

In the late 1930’s, Burrhus Frederick (B.F.) Skinner wrote his magnum opus, The Behavior of Organisms. Today, his perspective on behavior is the foundation for almost all behavioral fields that deal with non-verbal animals. Skinner is the creator of the term operant conditioning, or “learning by consequences.” Skinner’s primary desire was to create a science of behavior. He promoted the idea that scientific behavioral control would make the world a better place. The essence of his ideology was a non-punitive society that would control behavior through “reinforcement” – the strengthening of behavior through rewarding good behavior. (See: http://clickandtreat.com/wordpress/?p=44 for more about the “non-coercive society of B.F. Skinner)  If you have noticed that scientists with an agenda often stray from the essence of science, you’d be correct. B.F. Skinner failed to create a science of behavior. Instead, he created an ideology that fails even cursory tests of scientific validity. You can skip any reference to veritas – truth for truth’s sake.

Behavior Analysis: myopic and built to stay that way

Skinner got his bachelor’s degree in literature and did not take hard sciences courses as an undergraduate. (By contrast, Ivan Pavlov studied physiology, organic and inorganic chemistry and was a doctor of medicine.) After his bachelor’s program he studied the budding discipline of psychology at Harvard University, gaining his PhD in 1931. Seven years later, he wrote his high-sounding magnum opus, The Behavior of Organisms. The lofty name conjures up kinship with Darwin’s Origin of Species but the foundation for the work was minimalistic to the extreme. The problem was that Skinner hadn’t really studied the behavior of organisms. He studied only two species – rats and pigeons – and only one behavior each; lever pressing in rats and key pecking in pigeons. The essence of B.F. Skinner’s attempts to be scientific can be summed up in two words – speculation and extrapolation. His work is really a collection of hypotheses, many of which are unprovable because they contradict simple observation of natural phenomena. His work never reached the level of theory yet is usually absorbed into the broader topic of “learning theory”, unexamined.

The Basis:
In Skinner’s mind, science requires numbers. In order to have a science of behavior one must somehow quantify behavior into a cumulative record that could be analyzed graphically. His solution was to pick the rate of response of a single “operant” – a behavior determined by its consequences. The essence of all Skinnerian experimentation revolves around the creation of a behavior and monkeying with the conditions under which the animal is “reinforced.” A reinforcer is a tautological term for something that strengthens behavior – most often food or water. However, the term is ambiguous because it can also refer to something nasty. (In essence, Skinner lumped behavior into two types – reinforcers that strengthen and punishers that weaken or stop behavior. As a cattle prod and an ice-cream cone are both “reinforcers” it would seem this dichotomy causes more confusion than understanding.)

A typical early operant experiment included pigeons or rats pecking keys and pressing levers, respectively. When they pecked or pressed, reinforcement was delivered by a lab assistant with a spoonful of feed. Skinner believed that he would get cleaner data if he removed the experimenter from the process and worked diligently to create an “operant chamber” that required no human intervention. He was partially concerned with the delay between the instant the animal pecked or pressed and the time it took for the animal to be fed. His goal was to create a completely austere environment where the only factors present were those chosen by the experimenter.

The biggest problem with the scientific literature of Skinnerian ideology is that the research was never conducted in a robust environment. On the contrary, any “noise” that filtered into the experiment was eliminated to create bare-bones data that could be displayed on a chart or graph. In the process, any real understanding of behavior was sacrificed to the minimalist desires of the master. This is problematic when modern behaviorists cite behavior analytic research to explain real-world problems and solutions. The literature does not describe the way an organism would behave outside of a box or when the animal has access to its full behavioral repertoire. i.e. Real pigeons use flight as a means of solving problems and gaining “reinforcement.” Inside a “Skinner Box” flying is not possible. Ergo, studies of flightless pigeons have little to do with the Real McCoy.

Bias isn’t everything, it’s the only thing:
Of all the critical errors of Skinnerian ideology, the bias against aversive control is the most damaging to an understanding of practical behavior modification. Skinner was openly opposed to using any form of compulsion to shape and control behavior. For confirmation of this, one need only look at the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section of the website of the Association for Behavior Analysis, International (ABAI) an organization created by Skinner and the largest professional organization for behavior analysts.

Throughout his career, Skinner opposed the use of all forms of punishment; he advocated positive ways of changing behavior.

This quote confirms the bias inherent in behavior analytic research. To sum it up, Skinner preferred “nice” methods, regardless of context or outcome and opposed “unpleasant” methods, again, regardless of context or outcome. No other interpretation can be taken from this quote. Most disappointing is that Skinner carried his minimalist vision of behavior over to his ethics. Consistently he crafted experiments that hid the broader knowledge of behavior and the specifics of its various mechanisms. In some cases, his public pontifications fly in the face of research conducted in his own laboratory. In essence, Skinner’s hatred of all things aversive caused him to craft experiments to prove his hypotheses. This is the ultimate danger of using behavior analytic literature to craft practical applications for behavioral control. Skinner, et al, never studied the most powerful and important tool for rapidly fixing behavioral problems. If you follow that bias you will never be able to solve difficult behavior problems in a timely fashion. In the real world of animal behavior therapy, long-term “positive” solutions invariably lead to the death of the animal. Unless you can stop pica, aggression, destruction of property and general unruliness, clients get rid of the dog.

Blaming pet owners because they will not live with a dog they can’t control is disingenuous and unfair. They are not the experts. They look to experts to provide solutions. In the mainstream of veterinary based behavior services, providing them with solutions is impossible because the tools are limited to “positive” methods. There is no logic behind this restriction. The accepted practices don’t work because positive reinforcement, by definition, increases behavior and cannot inhibit anything. If the vital solution to a dog’s behavior problem requires immediately stopping it, “positive” methods are useless. Get this straight, the lives of dogs depend on understanding this point. Positive training methods can’t stop a dog from ingesting socks. Gastric surgery doesn’t stop a dog from eating socks. Psychotropic drugs don’t stop the dog from ingesting socks. Basically, the solutions that are politically acceptable in current practice are not solutions. Suggestions that take months to years to work, if ever, are less than helpful.

The Real Solution: Abandoning Skinnerian Ideology:
To be truly modern and effective with behavioral solutions, it is necessary to abandon the archaic, utopian mentality of the 1930’s. Back then, the recommendation was invariably “shoot the dog.” Today’s mantra is nicer – “pander to the dog, forever.” Neither of these extremes makes sense. The dog dies, either way. This is the legacy of Skinnerian ideology – use positive methods even if they don’t work and never use negative methods even if they work perfectly with obvious benefit and without harm.

On closer examination, B.F. Skinner’s wide-spread acceptance as an expert on behavior requires a hefty dose of skepticism or blind worship. Have you ever asked what made him an expert? His only working experience was with two species – rats and pigeons. Comparing the behavior of an aggressive pigeon to an adult, male Rottweiler is ludicrous. Unless you hold the pigeon very close to your eyeball it is hard to imagine how it can hurt you. The same cannot be said of the dog. To compound the problem, the Rottweiler can attack your staff, the owner, friends, neighbors and children if behavioral treatment is ineffective. Giving treats for the absence of behavior or teaching the dog to press a lever instead of killing the plumber is nonsense. After all is said and done, the formula for behavior modification that come from B.F. Skinner can be summed up by the average fifth grader – reward good behavior, ignore bad behavior. Unfortunately, those two panaceas don’t work in the context of an animal behavior practice, animal shelter or rescue organization. Perhaps most telling is that it doesn’t work in a family home – the one place that any behavioral methodology must work in order to be effective. Dog owners are told to create intricate, lengthy and high maintenance programs that ultimately do not stop the behavior without constant bribery. That isn’t going to last. Pet owners do not have the ability to put the family dog at the top of their activity list forever. The proof of this statement can be seen at any animal shelter in the country. It is why people surrender their pets – they cannot live with an animal that is dangerous or destructive – and the experts aren’t giving them tools that can solve the problem.  Thank you, Dr. Skinner.

3 thoughts on “Emperor Skinner’s New Clothes

  1. Very well said!! I still remember the look of total shock I got from the vet tech I handed a seven month old Hobbes of to the day after I adopted him so he could be nuetered. He started to mouth and nip my hand in excitement so I told him no and smacked him across the nose with the end of my leather leash. He stopped immediately so I could praise him and even remembered not to mouth me when I picked him later up that afternoon. I was told i shouldve ignored it but I couldn’t see the logic behind it as he was already 50+ # and I had a then 6-7 old child to keep safe. I honestly didn’t have time or patience to take weeks or months to solve something that should’ve only taken a few minutes to a few days to fix permanently.

  2. Yes, its extremely ironic… I was used to my previous vet holding my feet to the fire about my dog’s behavior so I was totally floored that they were shocked I’d actually corrected him. Apparently even in shelters and rescues only “positive” methods are accepted or encouraged with some going as far as denying good applicants a pet because they don’t use only “positive” methods. Yet dogs are being destroyed for fixable and sometimes easily fixable behavioural problems. It doesn’t make sense.

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