Thursday, June 19, 2014

B. F. Skinner and the relevance of Behaviorism in 21st century.

By Sajjeev X. Antony

S ALL PSYCHOLOGY SCIENTIFIC? Harvard psychologist Professor B. F. Skinner didn’t think so. He was allergic to couch psychologists who he said spun theories that bordered on fantasy. He insisted that only experimentally proven data should be accepted as fact. When Skinner died a a quarter century ago, on August 19, 1990, world lost not only an eminent scientist, but an eminent social reformer. 


Skinner’s most controversial experiments and theories were published around the time the world was in the trauma of World War II, and had started abhorring the erstwhile Fascist “scientific” ideas of human nature. The non-academic world was naturally shocked by his experimental conclusions and writings, because these upset many traditionally assumed foundations of the human psyche. But his experiments were too accurate and reproducible to be disputed seriously. This, coupled with his writing power, enabled him to publish some very unpleasant concepts and still emerge relatively unscathed. 
BORN IN 1904 IN A MIDDLE CLASS AMERICAN FAMILY, Burrhus Frederick (Fred) Skinner had never expected to become a psychologist. His ambition had been to become a writer. In the beginning he was successful, one of his short stories even appreciated by Robert Frost. But after three years of literary efforts he wasn’t making any money. Worse, he found he had dried up and had nothing more to say. 

      To the dejected and confused young man, it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell who inadvertently gave a new direction. Inspired by an article written by Russell, young Skinner realized that his love for literature had its roots in his interest in human behavior. He wanted to investigate the human mind. 

      Skinner joined Harvard University in 1928. He was brilliant and motivated and secured his PhD in psychology three years later. Thereafter he quickly became world renowned as an experimental psychologist. 

      What intrigued Skinner were the striking similarities between animal and human behavior under conditions of reinforcement (reward and punishment). He claimed that the differences between the behaviors of a saint and a sinner were entirely due to the different types of rewards and punishments each had received in his life. There need not be any sinners in a scientifically planned and controlled society. Naturally his radical views were booed and he was nicknamed “rat psychologist” by the mainstream press while scientific community remained skeptical. 

Upset at being misunderstood, Skinner decided to convey his ideas to laymen in fiction. So he wrote an utopian novel, Walden Two (1945). It was meant as a parody of Thoreau’s century-old classic Walden. The theme of Skinner’s novel was how simplicity, creativity and fulfillment were possible for entire societies through scientific conditioning, and differed from the classical utopia creations in that the ideal it represented was possible in the here and now. Critics accused Skinner of corrupting Thoreau’s noble ideals. However, Walden Two has been translated into eight languages and has been an ever fresh debating topic in American universities. 

      Skinner agreed that human beings are indeed much more complex than rats and pigeons, but otherwise not very different from them. It is just that we have a much wider repertoire of response patterns than animals do, giving an illusion of free will. We still run our lives caught in the same rut as they are reward and punishment. In his most controversial book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) he dared to argue that the concepts of free will and personal dignity are not only untrue, but impede human progress by making us pursue mirages.

Video:  B. F.Skinner expounds his hypothesis that human mind has no free will. 

It was a bold statement to make in the 1960s. In the last few years neuroscience has amply proved that human conscious mind has no free will. All that philosophers like Daniel Dennet can speculate about is the possibility that free will might exist somewhere below the level of consciousness. 
UT IF THERE IS NO FREE WILL, what about thinking, especially creative thinking? We can’t be mere computers! But as I consider this issue deeper, it seems to me that computers do in fact provide an analogy (not proof) here. At the basics, all computers are surprisingly dumb, unable to distinguish between anything between “1” and “0,” which represent the “on” and “off” positions of a switch (bit). But there are so many such bits in each microchip and electricity travels so fast through them, that their combined effects enable a computer to perform superhuman tasks. Perhaps the human mind too functions similarly, programmed by millions of “bits” of yes and no. 

      Skinner assumed that even the highest forms of human activity — such as creative thought —  are pre-programmed behaviors, which significantly narrows down scope for free will. It was difficult for critics to argue with him as he produced scientific data in support of his claims (though I don’t think he could, for creative thought). So they targeted his social modification theories, and accused him of propagating a robotic society, ridden with habit and prejudice. He retorted that we already have all these problems. Haphazard conditioning has been around for thousands of years, and had resulted in racism, consumerism, greed and crimes. He claimed that scientific conditioning would solve all these problems and make people creative, contented and happy. 

       Skinner, who practiced conditioning techniques on himself, was certainly not a machine man. He was affectionate and jolly, and had most
unscientific hobbies such as music, literature and watching old movies. The most controversial act in his career was designing a “Skinner box” for his two baby daughters. This got him much bad publicity, which is still continuing, so much so that his younger daughter recently wrote a rebuttal of all claims by the press and some psychologists that being in that box had emotionally damaged her and her sister. Here is her article which appeared in the Guardian recently.

On the therapy side, Skinner was totally against the Freudian method of analyzing patients for years together without curing them. He held that concepts like ego-superego-id clashes, identity crisis etc. are just explanatory fiction. All mental problems are due to faulty conditioning.  He advocated behavior therapy, which sought to isolate a single faulty behavior at a time and correct it directly, by scientific application of reinforcements. 

      Imagine every mental patient as trussed by a complicated array of knots. The psychoanalyst laboriously makes the patient aware of how each knot was tied in the first place. After a year or so he might find some loose ends but the patient still remains tied up. Comes the behavioral therapist: without bothering about the nature of the knots, he starts cutting them one by one, eventually setting the patient free. At least that is the theory. Psychoanalysts says this method works only for seemingly simple problems like phobias, but even that could lead to symptom substitution. I guess the truth lies somewhere in between.

Behaviorism and the Buddha's Enlightenment.

Remarkably, the Buddha’s  enlightenment was based on a deep understanding of the stimulus-response nature of the mind. Observing his own behavior, he found that all thoughts arise based on some sensation on the body, and the thoughts in turn cause further sensations. The fresh sensation cause new thought to arise, and so on. The person, under the illusion of acting under his own free will, is merely responding to these uncontrolled thoughts and sensations. He realized that we become automatons by making choices by wanting some sensations to continue and some to extinguish. The mind's tendency to seek specific sensations and reject others is not a sign of free will, but a deeper embedded habit, formed by years of conditioning. He called this long term conditioning  sangara (Samskara in Sanskrit).  So the habit of aversion and desire too are automated.  To this extent Skinner and the Buddha probably agree with each other. 

Where they differ is in the solutions offered. Skinner suggests deconditioning and reconditioning. The Buddha suggested deconditioning only. For Buddha the only thing the afflicted person had to do was to sit somewhere quietly and observe his body or mind in action. As the body and mind are tightly interlinked, observing any one is sufficient. For beginners he suggested the body as it was easier than the mind to observe. The practitioner was supposed to watch the struggle of his mind to react to each sensation, to label it as "wanted" or "unwanted," then seek one and discard another. As the observer keeps on watching what happens, the mind slowly starts to quieten down. The meditator needs to keep observing as the habitual sensation-thought-action-sensation-thought . . . pattern weakens and is ultimately extinguished. This, the Buddhists say, make the mind to be in the present. This, they say, is the nearest to free will we can have.

There is still a problem. The very habit of observing one's own mind can produce its own new patterns of conditioning, thus trapping the mind once again. This was the view of J. Krishnamurti, who claimed that intense long-term meditation can cause mind to become feeble and patterned, rather than free. In other words, there is no real liberation by effort.

Present and future

Now, in the second decade of 21st century, the battles of various systems of psychology seem to be largely over. The psychology community has settled down mixing and matching various interventions — counseling, behavior modification, cognitive therapy, meditation etc. —  according to clients’ requirements and the therapists’ skills. We have in addition, new findings from neuroscience which promises newer methods of behavior modification such as invasive and non-invasive stimulation of brain and nervous system. Considering that neuroscience is the fastest growing scientific discipline in the world today, it is possible that one day neuroscience may trump all other interventions and become the preferred mode of behavior modification.


As I close, let me get back to Skinner. In his urge to dissect and quantify human behavior, ignoring the inner processes of the mind, as well as the genetic limitations, did he miss the wood for the trees? On the contrary, it seems that the scientific bent he gave psychology has saved the discipline from extinction. Skinner’s methods are now being used widely in various forms of therapy, while the erstwhile popular psychoanalysis has become sparsely used. Skinner’s real legacy, though, lies in his successful efforts to bring psychology close to being an exact science.