Getting Skinny with Skinner

The Atlantic recently ran a piece on the use of smartphone apps as behavioral trainers. It is an interesting enough topic in its own right but it was a good reintroduction to B. F. Skinner too. I hadn’t thought about him for ages. The description of the angry response he generated made me think that I should:

In 1965, When Julie Vargas was a student in a graduate psychology class, her professor introduced the topic of B. F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist who, in the late 1930s, had developed a theory of “operant conditioning.” After the professor explained the evidently distasteful, outmoded process that became more popularly known as behavior modification, Vargas’s classmates began discussing the common knowledge that Skinner had used the harsh techniques on his daughter, leaving her mentally disturbed and institutionalized. Vargas raised her hand and stated that Skinner in fact had had two daughters, and that both were living perfectly normal lives. “I didn’t see any need to embarrass them by mentioning that I was one of those daughters,” she says.

Vargas is a retired education professor who today runs the B. F. Skinner Foundation out of a one-room office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a block away from Harvard Yard. The foundation’s purpose is largely archival, and Vargas spends three days a week poring over boxes and shelves full of lab notes, correspondence, and publications by her father, who died in 1990. A prim but engaging woman, Vargas can’t seem to help seething a bit about how her father’s work was perceived. She showed me a letter written in 1975 by the then wildly popular and influential pediatrician Benjamin Spock, who had been asked to comment on Skinner’s work for a documentary. “I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any of his work,” Spock wrote, “but I know that it’s fascist and manipulative, and therefore I can’t approve of it.”

The other, greater (if fictional), Spock would have found that most irrational…

Behaviorism exploded in prominence in the 1950s and ’60s, both in academic circles and in the public consciousness. But many academics, not to mention the world’s growing supply of psychotherapists, had already staked their careers on the sort of probing of thoughts and emotions that behaviorism tends to downplay. The attacks began in the late 1950s. Noam Chomsky, then a rising star at MIT, and other thinkers in the soon-to-be-dominant field of cognitive science acknowledged that behavior modification worked on animals but claimed it did not work on people—that we’re too smart for that sort of thing.

You have to laugh at that.

While Skinner’s argument that behavior modification techniques could be used to improve society raises quite a few quis custodiet issues to say the least, that controversy has no relevance to the question of whether these techniques actually work. Soft machines that we are, they seem to…

And you have to laugh at that too.

It’s not referred to in the article, but the good doctor also claimed that it was possible to create ‘superstitions’ in pigeons (his test species of choice). To be sure, those findings have since been challenged, but, consider their implications and…

Yes, you are laughing again.

Good work, Dr. Skinner.

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