Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 5.5*]

*A lengthy philosophical discussion I had with my dad (while drinking wine and listening to Dark Side of the Moon) about Radical Behaviorism while I was in graduate school studying a variety of Psychological Paradigms. 

Around this time, Dad decided to pay me a visit. He was attending a week-long training course in Atlanta, so he drove down afterwards for a weekend. I took him to my favorite spots, let him sit in on one of the classes I was teaching, and got permission for him to attend a graduate level class in Skinner’s behaviorism I was taking from the psychology department. On Saturday night, we ate at my favorite Vietnamese place and then saw Trainspotting at the independent theatre. When we returned to my apartment, I poured us some wine and lit a clove cigarette.

“Can I have one of those?” Dad asked, surprising me a little. I’d never seen my dad smoke. Then again, he’d never seen me smoke either.

“Sure!” I answered, pulling one out of the pack and handing him my lighter.

I put Yo La Tengo in the stereo and went back to sitting cross-legged on the couch.

“So, how’d you like the Skinner class?” I asked Dad.

“Oh. It was great. I’m so glad there are still professors teaching radical behaviorism.”

Dad proceeded to elaborate on the concepts we went over in the class, namely the schedules of reinforcement from The Analysis of Behavior. Then he said, “You should really read Skinner’s The Technology of Teaching. Did you ever get around to reading Beyond Freedom and Dignity or Walden Two?”

“Um. Well, no. I haven’t really had time,” I said, feigning self-recrimination.

Dad had given me those books a year ago, and I’d added them to the pile of other Skinner books I also “hadn’t had time to read yet.” He wanted me to read them because I was the only person in his life he could discuss stuff like that with. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get interested in them right now. All my life, Dad always managed to use something I said—a personal issue or some new insight I wanted to share—as a segue back to Skinner. Presently, I was saturated.

Lately, I was more interested in reading about things that were relevant to whatever answers or guidance I was seeking—or skills I was trying to develop—at the moment. I sought information I could apply. But Dad often liked to keep the discussions theoretical.

I let Dad stay on Skinner for a while, then I told him about some of the other psychology courses I was taking. A lot of my professors dismissed Skinner altogether and simply wouldn’t talk about him. Some got angry when I brought him up. One completely misquoted and misunderstood Skinner’s basic principles, while she admonished him for trying to “control us” and “reduce us to the intelligence of rats.”

I was genuinely taken-aback by their reactions to Skinner and even more surprised by how personally I took their attacks. But I tried to stay open-minded because I found that a lot of the other fields seemed to have ways of describing things that made sense, too. Their frameworks made conceptual sense, at least, and seemed to have some utility. They gave me new ways to look at the world and understand behavior and phenomena. So, I was constantly trying to reconcile these other theories on learning, development, and behavior with how I’d come to view things through Skinner’s behaviorism. It created a lot of cognitive dissonance. Many times, I couldn’t relieve it.

“Dad, you know I love Skinner, but lately, I’ve been thinking that he can’t explain everything, you know?”

“Um. No, I don’t. What do you mean?”

“Well, I have this developmental psychology class and a lot of those theories point out how all humans universally seem to progress through stages of development in the same way. Jean Piaget has a theory of intellectual development that includes four distinct stages. The sensorimotor stage, from birth to age two, is when a child can only interact with the world by manipulating it through her senses, by tasting, touching, grasping, etc. They are like little scientists trying to discover how the world works and how they are separate from it and other people by seeing how things react to them and how objects function.

“The pre-operational stage, from two to seven years of age, is when children gain a real imagination and can think symbolically, although not very logically yet, and learn to use language to make sense of the world. The concrete operational stage, from seven to eleven, is when we develop the cognitive capacity to think logically to solve more complex problems, although those problems must be based on actual concrete objects, and not abstract concepts or hypothetical tasks. And, in the last stage, from twelve to fifteen, called the formal operational stage, we can start to think logically and systematically to solve abstract problems and we gain the capacity for metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking.’

“So, my point is that Piaget observed and described a lot of thinking tasks that children grapple with at different ages and pointed out that we have cognitive limitations until we progress through the various stages. It just seems to have face validity to me. I mean, the babies I’ve seen do stick everything in their mouths and bang things and drop them to see if adults will pick them up. And, I’ve watched videos of several 8-year-olds making the exact same mistake in perception and/or logic. I like Piaget’s work because it helps me see, for example, how teachers of younger-aged kids should use more concrete materials than teachers of older kids.

“So, Dad, I guess what I’d like to know is what would Skinner say about all this? Because if all our behavior—aside from innate reflexes and maybe fixed action patterns—is learned, how can we explain these seemingly universal stages of development that we all progress through. I mean, we can’t skip stages or teach a two-year-old to think like a twelve-year-old. Should I denounce all these theories because they weren’t obtained using the scientific method?”

There, it was out. I took a huge gulp of my wine and went for another cigarette.

“Well, first of all, Skinner did NOT think ALL behavior is learned. This is another common misconception of him, but he was not a ‘blank-slate’ psychologist. He wrote many times about innate behavior. He mentioned that spiders isolated from birth will still build webs, so building webs is clearly innate. Skinner wrote a paper called ‘The Shaping of Phylogenic’ Behavior’—you remember ‘phylogeny’ means ‘evolutionary development of’—but he wrote about how seemingly complex innate behavior could be gradually ‘shaped’ by natural selection. For instance, some eels can travel thousands of miles over a three year period to spawn, so you have to wonder how an animal could ever come to have such behavior; it couldn’t just appear in one generation. Skinner proposed that the behavior could have been selected over many generations as the sea floor gradually spread—perhaps only a few inches per generation—due to continental drift. The distances to swim would have been short at first and then gradually increased over many generations. The eels that made the slightly longer journey would be selected to breed and pass on the new behavior.

“He just said we have to be very careful about calling any behavior innate just because the organism exhibits it early in life. Remember back to your animal behavior class and the famous experiment by Konrad Lorenz and the ducklings. He pointed out that baby ducks will follow their mother—or any other object, including him, for that matter—immediately after birth. Lorenz called it ‘filial imprinting’ and it certainly looked like this ‘following behavior’ was innate. But, the Skinnerians set up an experiment where whenever a baby duck moved TOWARD a moving object, the moving object was moved quickly away from it.

“Likewise, when the duckling moved AWAY from the object, the object was moved quickly TOWARD the duckling. Under these conditions, the ducklings began moving AWAY from the object in order to bring it closer! If pecking at the ground brought the object closer, the ducklings would do that behavior instead. So, what the Skinnerians showed was that ducklings hadn’t actually inherited ‘following-behavior,’ they inherited the capacity to be reinforced by proximity; whatever behavior brought the object closer was reinforced and strengthened.

“And as far as Piaget goes, you should look into Arthur Staats’ work. I think you’d really like it. He’s not a radical behaviorist, he’s a psychological behaviorist. Like Skinner, he believes operant conditioning plays a central role in any explanation of human behavior, but he believes the totality of a human’s personality can only be explained by unifying other paradigms in psychology. He states that one’s personality consists of a set of learned behavior patterns that we acquire through our interactions with the environment, facilitated by mental, emotional, and biological factors—all redefined in terms of real behaviors, of course. And, like Skinner, he doesn’t want to invent explanatory fictions.

“Staats points out—in practically all of his books—that we must learn basic behavioral repertoires before moving on to more complex behaviors. These necessarily follow in a sequential order and build upon previously learned behaviors. As babies, we begin with a lot of undifferentiated movements, but these movements are reinforced by sensory feedback. We learn how to bring objects into view by moving the eyes, and grasp them by reaching, etcetera. Reaching is strengthened by tactile feedback when we touch the object. All of these basic motor behaviors must occur and be strengthened before we can move on to more complex behavior.

“So, for Staats, behavior is layered with each example of complex behavior built upon simpler units of behavior. We usually have to learn to balance before we can stand, and stand before we can walk, and talk before we can reason. It usually occurs in some kind of sequential order, and all of these behaviors take some average time to acquire. I don’t know why this mystifies cognitive psychologists. But just imagine taking a baby and suspending it in a sensory deprivation tank devoid of all stimuli (and therefore all external feedback). What behavior would you expect it to learn? Of course there would be proprioceptive and interoceptive stimuli arising from the baby’s own body, and these may strengthen some movements. But there would be nothing like the complex behavior seen in normal adults. The individual MUST interact with the environment to develop increasingly complex behavior; behavior just doesn’t unfold according to some predetermined genetic program! Skinner was interested in the environment’s role in all of this.

“You mentioned that children are like ‘little scientists’ exploring the world, but let’s operationalize what that means. To me, it means they have inherited the capacity to have their behavior strengthened by operant conditioning or learning-by-consequences. These early exploratory behaviors are strengthened by tactile stimulation, visual stimulation, gustatory stimulation, auditory stimulation, and so forth. Let’s imagine that we reverse the contingencies for a human child, like they were for Lorenz’s baby ducklings. What if a child was raised looking at the world through mirror-glasses that reversed everything? If looking to the left brought an object on the right into view, the child would learn to look left. You see, what we inherited is susceptibility to having our behavior strengthen by consequences.”

I refilled Dad’s wine glass, and ordered him to drink some more. I was just buzzed enough to keep this conversation going. And, my first question was only a warm-up anyway. I was about to get belligerent.

“Okay, Dad…so, I’m also taking a cognitive psychology class and those psychologists have, of course, developed theories about how we process and store information. There are three concepts I particularly like: long-term, short-term, and working memory. I’m grossly over-simplifying this, but the gist is that when we take in information it gets temporarily held in short-term memory, a place that has finite capacity—for something like seven plus or minus two bits of information. While it’s held there, our working memory can ‘act’ on it or ‘process’ it. So, for instance, if you give me a long-division problem to solve in my head, I am limited by the space capacity of my short-term memory to remember a lot of numbers at once and by the processing capacity of working memory to actively manipulate the numbers and solve the problem.

“Long-term memory is what they call the repository of all the information we’ve collected over the years. Long-term memory has limitations in that everything we take in can’t possibly be stored forever. We must have some kind of filtering mechanism or use some kind of organizing method to more strategically store important information in a way that we can retrieve it later. Of course, emotional events are stored more readily and more permanently because of their effect on the amygdala.

“Anyway Dad, I understand that since these mechanisms don’t physically exist in the brain anywhere they can’t really have substance or form, but still. They seem to explain phenomena like our limitations in thinking about too much all at once, and why we remember some things and not others. From these theories, people have developed memory strategies and mnemonic devices that can help students learn and remember things more readily. Do you see any value in this sort of research?”

“Well, do these theories really explain anything? Or do they just move the problem—of explaining the behavior—inside the person? Skinner wrote a paper called, ‘Are Theories of Learning Necessary.’ He was quite explicit about what he meant by ‘theory’ in this paper but, like usual, he was misunderstood, and critics said he was anti-theoretical. He was not. He was talking about a particular kind of theory. He essentially said he had no problem with theories that systematize and organize data to improve our understanding of a phenomenon. The theories Skinner criticized were those that appealed to events taking place in some other universe of discourse or some other dimension, which in my opinion is what the mentalists or cognitivists are doing. When cognitive psychologists try to explain a particular behavior they often invent some internal, unobservable, unmeasurable, unprovable explanation. They put something inside of the person—some ‘storage device’ or ‘processing device’ or ‘language acquisition device’ or what-not.

“Skinner did not fall into this trap. He stuck very close to his data, which came from observable, measurable behavior. If he ran into something that he couldn’t explain, he didn’t just invent some hypothetical internal entity or structure or analogy to account for it. He called these invented internal entities ‘explanatory fictions.’ He didn’t even borrow from physiology to account for his subject matter—yet, of course, he believed that physiology was science! He believed physiologists would eventually be able to account for his experimental observations. But as a scientist, Skinner was not trying to explain the nervous system—nor was he inventing some hypothetical internal construct that probably doesn’t exist in the first place—he was observing behavior and looking for lawful behavior-environment relationships.

“One of the problems with explaining behavior by putting entities or metaphorical structures inside the organism is that they can be invented at will and seem to bring the investigation to an end. If I account for good or bad memory by saying we all have different memory ‘capacities’ or ‘abilities,’ I’m not observing those things, I’m inventing them to explain an observation. How do ‘capacities’ or ‘abilities’ add anything useful to the explanation? Do they in any way increase your understanding of memory? No…because now we have to explain them! The only thing we actually observe is that some people have better or worse memories than others have. Now it’s the psychologist’s job to find the independent variables in the environmental history of the person to account for it. This could turn out to be genetic, but until we exhaust all of the environmental factors or find physiological correlates, we won’t know for sure.

“Skinner called the generation of these sorts of explanatory fictions ‘mentalism.’ Let’s say Skinner reinforced some of his rat subjects on what is called a ‘variable-ratio’ schedule. On this variable schedule, he didn’t deliver food for every lever-press but for, on average, every tenth or twentieth or fiftieth lever press. He would have to build this behavior up gradually, but the rats didn’t ‘know’ whether they were going to get access to food on the next lever press, or the 100th lever press. On this schedule of reinforcement, rats lever-press at a very high rate—the faster they press, the faster they get their food. Now, if someone walked into the lab and watched this rat responding, without knowing its history of reinforcement, he might say ‘Wow, that’s one enthusiastic or eager rat!’ This is mentalism—putting something inside of the rat that is nothing other than a description of the very behavior that we are trying to explain. It began as a description but then we put it inside of the organism as a cause. Of course the real cause of the fast responding was the schedule of reinforcement the rat was placed on, which is quite external.

“To me this is what Noam Chomsky did with his ‘Language Acquisition Device.’ It’s just another example of the kind of theories Skinner was criticizing. When Chomsky observed that humans learn language and other animals can’t, he brilliantly deduced that we must have a ‘language acquisition device.’ Well, I say we DO have a language acquisition device alright…it’s called a complex brain! We can speculate all we want about imaginary brain structures, but until we know more, that is all it is—speculation. I’ve never seen a chimpanzee knit a sweater, I wonder if we also have a ‘knitting acquisition device?’ Chomsky’s LAD is just another example of an explanatory fiction. As far as I’m concerned, Chomsky was a structuralist who studied grammar. I don’t take any of his explanations seriously. But he is good at tearing down straw men of his own making. I mean, did he actually believe that Skinner thought that there was no difference between the behaviors of species and that humans can’t learn more complex repertoires of behavior than pigeons or chimpanzee?! That’s ludicrous and insulting.”

Dad was on a roll and speaking faster and more loosely than I’d ever heard him speak about this stuff before. I laughed hard at his “knitting acquisition device.” But, I’d forgotten what “straw man” was and had to ask him to explain it to me again.

“A ‘straw man’ argument is a type of logical fallacy people use in arguments, but it’s based on the misrepresentation of the original topic of argument. In the case of Chomsky, it requires that his readers be uninformed of the original argument. When Chomsky reviewed Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior, Chomsky built a ‘straw-Skinner’ and then tore him down! He put arguments in Skinner’s mouth that Skinner had never made, then criticized them. Skinner himself, after reading several pages of the review and seeing that Chomsky had missed his whole point, tossed it aside without finishing it. Later when Chomsky’s ‘star’ rose, everyone thought that Chomsky devastated the whole field of behavior analysis and single handedly created the field of cognitive psychology. Chomsky’s faulty understanding of Skinner’s book became more famous than the book itself. I still can’t believe it.

“Most people have just accepted what they’ve read about Skinner—via Chomsky and others—without actually reading any of Skinner’s original work. And if it turns out that chimpanzees and dolphins, for example, can’t learn language, so be it. But I give credit to the Skinnerians for demonstrating it; not to Chomsky for guessing it from an ivory tower. I mean most people ‘know’ that animals can’t learn language; but it takes scientific imagination to produce the most favorable environment to demonstrate it. And Skinner showed us how to produce that favorable environment. Skinner’s science of behavior has produced a technology—a set of techniques for producing behavior change. I don’t know of any technology that came from Chomsky’s camp. The Skinnerians have shown us the limitations of lower organisms through experimental techniques that Skinner developed.”

It was my turn again…

“I guess what I’m asking, Dad, is if there is any usefulness to theories that just seem to classify behaviors and describe them, even if those methods aren’t part of a functional analysis and therefore, I’m presuming, aren’t ‘valid’ and lawful? Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy is a system for classifying learning objectives. I find the cognitive domain really interesting. It describes qualitative differences among six levels of thinking, from lower- to higher-order. For instance KNOWING something, or just being able to recall facts, is surely different from COMPREHENDING something, or being able to put those facts into your own words. And APPLYING knowledge or using acquired knowledge in new situations seems different than ANALYZING or breaking information into its elemental parts. Just like SYNTHESIZING, or combing elements into a new pattern, is different that placing a value judgment or EVALUATING something. I love Bloom’s Taxonomy because it allows teachers to design questions and learning objectives that stimulate a student to think about information on all these different levels. Surely, we can’t dismiss the value in that, can we?”

“No we can’t. And I never thought Skinner had a problem with the taxonomy of behavior or the ethologist’s description of species-specific behavior. What he did take issue with was saying that these were explanations rather than descriptions. And again, Arthur Staats believes all lawful relationships in psychology have merit—although he always redefines mentalistic concepts in terms of behavior. For example, he believed it was useful to predict someone’s future behavior from his or her past behavior, because to some extent, people are likely to repeat what they have done in the past. An IQ test would be an example of this: we use how a person performed on the test to predict success in academic learning.

“But, at the same time, Staats is very careful not to assume causation just because two things are correlated. Even though a relationship exists—higher IQ predicts academic success—we cannot assume that IQ causes the success. There could be a third variable, such as socio-economic status or educational training or something else in the person’s environmental history that has a causal effect on both IQ AND academic success. Just because a lot of these relationships are not causal, does not mean they don’t have value in predicting behavior.

“So, I like Staats because he attempts to explain complex human behavior, while at the same time he insists on starting from a solid foundation, and learning theory provides that foundation. After all, we acquire most of our behavior after birth through one of the two major learning mechanisms: classical and operant conditioning. What other mechanism or mechanisms would you propose to account for it? Some unfolding of a mysterious latent innate structure? What happened to the ‘Law of Parsimony’ in science that says the simplest explanation that accounts for all of the facts is the best one to consider? Shouldn’t we only invent more complex explanations as the simpler ones fail to account for the data? So, Skinner began with simple organisms—such as rats and pigeons—in simple environments, and manipulated simple variables at first. There is nothing wrong with this.

“Every science begins with simplified phenomena and moves slowly and cautiously to the more complex only when we think we understand the processes involved in the simplified controlled/experimental phenomena. Skinner elucidated many valuable laws of learning that were very difficult to see in casual observation of the everyday behavior of lower organisms. Many people couldn’t see it even in the simplified environments that Skinner used. Physicists and chemists can get by with this simplification. But when a physicist tries to describe the path of a falling leaf he runs into trouble; small changes in variables makes the leaf’s behavior seem unpredictable. But no one doubts that the leaf’s behavior is lawful or that the physicist’s principles are valid in the explanation. But when Skinner made plausible extrapolations to human behavior, he was condemned. So, physicists and chemists can get by with this, but Skinner couldn’t.”

I thought Dad was making some very good points. I got up to pee and change the music. In the bathroom, I could feel my cognitive dissonance easing. When I returned, we both agreed Dark Side of the Moon was in order. Dad said he was ready for more. It was my turn again…

“Okay, so I also took this behavioral genetics class, where we really dove into the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate. I’m sure you’ve heard of the twin or adoption study model, where identical twins sharing 100 percent of their DNA are adopted into different homes and share different family environments. Behavioral geneticists can determine an approximate extent to which a labeled behavioral pattern, like schizophrenia, autism, or alcoholism is inherited. They vary in their estimates, but some estimate intelligence is heritable, anywhere from fifty to 75 percent. I know people criticize their methods—mostly their statistics and inferences because there are so many variables they can’t possibly control—but it’s still difficult to deny that at least some of our behavior or even our intelligence is attributed to our genes, right?”

“Well, we certainly can, and do, inherit different ‘physiologies’ or physiological structures—real physiological structures, like better neurotransmitters, enzymes, receptors, and hippocampuses—not invented or hypothesized structures. And if statistical analysis points to heritability of individual differences in susceptibilities to schizophrenia or autism, say, then researchers certainly should look for them. But why not stick to real data, even if we have to wait for new methods or instruments to come along? Let’s not fall into the trap of inventing spurious explanations that really don’t explain anything. These explanations just move the description of the behavior inside and attribute it to a hypothetical construct without adding anything useful to our understanding.

“And, for the record, Skinner did not think he had a complete science of behavior; only the rudiments of a science. I saw him on Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. answering a question about the possibility that his science was in error. He said something to the effect that there was a great deal his system did not take account of. He said that physicists never have to deal with anything more complicated than the things they are working on; but if you took a physicist from a hundred years ago and presented him with a television camera and said, ‘Okay, you think you have a science of electricity, explain THAT!’ Well, they couldn’t have imagined how a modern camera works. The early physicists—like the contemporary cognitivist—would think there must be some gremlin inside tossing pictures around.

“But psychologists are always in the presence of the most complex phenomena that they are asked to explain. Skinner said he is happy to leave some complex behavior for later resolution and was perfectly content to work on the simple. But notice that he doesn’t take the bait to go beyond the facts. I admired this about him. Many psychologists would invent a fictitious internal entity and try to explain what we are not yet ready to explain. When Skinner gave his keynote address to the American Psychological Association in 1990 just weeks before he died, he said that as far as he was concerned, cognitive science is the ‘creationism’ of psychology! I don’t have to tell you what an insult this was. But, I do expect, that one day, cognitive psychologists will deny all of their ‘mentalism’ and say they were talking about real behaviors all along.”

“You know, Dad, that’s interesting…I was just thinking that I don’t know how a person could be a believer in a god and also a behaviorist. I mean, if a behaviorist wouldn’t accept something in another dimension that we can’t see or observe, then how on earth could they accept something like God? Anyway, I know we’re both getting tired, but I wanted to tell you about one more thing. I just read in the latest edition of American Psychologist about this emerging field of psychology called Positive Psychology. It focuses on optimizing the human experience, whereas a lot of psychology in the past focused on fixing problems in behavior or just understanding what caused and operated it. Using psychology to understand the positive, adaptive, creative, and emotionally fulfilling aspects of our behavior—with the sole intention to make normal life more fulfilling—is extremely exciting to me.

“My favorite-favorite class is my affective development course. We’re studying things like how basic emotions evolved, how complex social-emotions are learned, how we learn to display emotions for a social advantage, and how we can regulate them in a way that increases our happiness. Remind me of what Skinner said about emotions again. I know he didn’t think they were causes of behavior. But would he have considered that we might behave in order to have certain feelings? Can’t feelings be a positive consequence in and of themselves?”

“First let’s remember, Michelle, that feelings are not operant or voluntary behavior; they are respondent behavior, like reflexes. For example, a fearful stimulus—say a fierce dog approaches quickly or a loud crash occurs behind us—will cause a cascade of physiological responses in our body to prepare us for ‘fight or flight.’ Skinner called this the ‘activation syndrome’ because it causes the secretion of the hormones adrenalin and cortisol, and so on. Automatically, our small peripheral blood vessels constrict and redirect blood flow to muscles where it is more needed if we have to flee or fight. Also, constricting these peripheral vessels may make it less likely that we will bleed to death if we are cut. Our breathing and heart rate increases to supply oxygen to the heart and muscles. So, what we really ‘feel’ during fear are these conditions in our bodies. In other words, fear doesn’t cause these reactions, what we call ‘fear’ is our perception of these reactions. It’s the fierce dog that causes both the fear and the operant behavior of running.

“The emotions innate to all humans must have had survival value and therefore were selected for that reason. For instance, fear predisposes us to run and gives us the extra strength to do so, surprise draws our attention to help respond to danger, compassion for your offspring increases your genes’ chance of survival, disgust helps us avoid chemical toxins, envy promotes competition for increasing status, anxiety helps us be aware of potential danger, perhaps joy and happiness rewards us for making progress toward goals that help our survival, and obviously love is a bonding emotion—if we couldn’t bond, we couldn’t take care of our helpless human offspring long enough for them to survive to produce the next generation.

“So, Skinner believed that what caused us to have emotional reactions in the first place was evolution by natural selection; emotions had survival value. I could just stand there, feel fear, and not run away. But emotions evolved to predispose us to act…the fact we feel them is incidental. And we certainly don’t say we were ‘reinforced’ for fearing a tiger or ‘punished’ for staying put and letting him eat us. We don’t have to learn to feel these primary emotions throughout our individual lifetimes because of the consequences they have for us, right? But, so far I’m only talking of respondent behavior, or our innate emotional reactions, to unlearned stimuli.

“What we can learn throughout our individual lifetimes—through classical conditioning—is to feel a whole range of secondary emotions to all kinds of different stimuli because they were paired with the stimuli that elicited the primary emotions. Think of Pavlov. Dogs don’t have to learn to salivate to food, and they usually don’t salivate to a bell. But after pairing a bell with food several times, the dog came to salivate to the bell. Similarly, if you listen to a song over and over with a loved one, you come to ‘love’ the song and think of the person whenever you hear it. And if you break up with the person, which causes painful emotions, the next time you hear the song, you’ll feel a resurgence of painful emotions.”

“Okay, Dad, but what if I know that I want to have an enjoyable evening and that my goal for tonight is to feel good. I’m going to choose to do things that I know make me relaxed and happy, like smoking these cigarettes, drinking this wine, listening to this music—and talking to you of course. Aren’t I behaving to elicit certain feelings? How can Skinner say that feelings don’t cause us to act?”

“As I said, I don’t think—and I’m sure Skinner didn’t think—that we work to produce the emotion itself, but rather we work to produce the stimuli in the environment that generated the emotion. Or in the case of a negative emotion we will work to remove the stimuli that produced the negative emotion. Producing or removing the stimuli is what would have survival value; not producing or removing the emotion itself. What would be the survival value of only producing emotions?

“Now, the reason we drink wine, smoke, and listen to music is different and more complicated because it takes a longer learning history before you find those things reinforcing. I know I began smoking initially because of peer pressure and seeing (who I thought at the time) were positive role models smoking. In fact, at first, it hurt my lungs and tasted bad. But once I had inhaled enough smoke, I became addicted to the nicotine and smoked because smoking produced a calming feeling. I know you are going to say that the feeling is what is reinforcing, and I have to agree with you. But nicotine acts on nicotinic receptors in the brain that evolved for very different reasons than to be activated by smoking. Cigarettes didn’t even exist when those receptors evolved.

“It’s no different than taking cocaine. Physiologists have found that cocaine produces its effect by ‘high-jacking’ the so-called ‘pleasure center’ of the brain. Usually, behavior that produces rewards elicit dopamine secretion in these areas. But, cocaine can activate these areas directly. We’ve talked before about how James Olds ran an electrode directly to this pleasure center so a rat could press a lever to stimulate it, and in doing so, found that the rat would continuously self-stimulate to the exclusion of all other behavior. Obviously, this area in the brain didn’t evolve only for the purpose of feeling ‘high’ or feeling ‘good’. Sitting around feeling ‘high’ has NO evolutionary survival value. In fact, it is most likely a detriment to our survival. ‘Nature’ had no idea we’d meddle with our chemistry this way. Yet, we have found MANY ways to tinker with it ourselves using various drugs and what-not.

“So, I personally say the cause of your operant behavior—especially drinking wine and smoking—is because this behavior has been strengthened for irrelevant reasons, by chemicals in them that activate the so called pleasure center in the brain and therefore mimics reward (I have my own theory of why music is reinforcing but I won’t go into it now; let me just say it takes a learning history of the respondent type.) We have simply learned how to hijack a brain region that originally evolved to strengthen behavior through learning-by-consequences (or operant conditioning), because THAT WOULD have true survival value!

In any case, the brain’s pleasure mechanism is in the domain of brain physiology and Skinner would be happy to leave it to them to explore (not that he wouldn’t be interested in a factual account of the internal structures involved!)”

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