Baggage 2 – Skinner


In the middle of the last century, Skinner’s theory of radical behaviourism ruled psychology. The theory held that mental life was unimportant and only environmental events caused behaviour. The important mechanism was conditioning especially operant conditioning. The theory has now almost gone from the scene but while it was accepted (40s,50s,60s) there were practically no attempts to understand consciousness. The idea still surfaces from time to time. It still lingers in the minds of people who were students in the middle of the century and took a psychology course or two.

Chomsky was a critic who was instrumental in the fall from grace of behaviourism. Here is some of his comments:

Skinner maintains, that “behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences” and that as the consequences contingent on behavior are investigated, more and more “they are taking over the explanatory functions previously assigned to personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, purposes, and intentions”… As a science of behavior adopts the strategy of physics and biology, the autonomous agent to which behavior has traditionally been attributed is replaced by the environment — the environment in which the species evolved and in which the behavior of the individual is shaped and maintained….In support of his belief that science will demonstrate that behavior is entirely a function of antecedent events, Skinner notes that physics advanced only when it “stopped personifying things” and attributing to them “wills, impulses, feelings, purposes,” and so on. Therefore, he concludes, the science of behavior will progress only when it stops personifying people and avoids reference to “internal states.” No doubt physics advanced by rejecting the view that a rock’s wish to fall is a factor in its “behavior,” because in fact a rock has no such wish. For Skinner’s argument to have any force, he must show that people have wills, impulses, feelings, purposes, and the like no more than rocks do. If people do differ from rocks in this respect, then a science of human behavior will have to take account of this fact.

We can hear in this quote that Chomsky’s views have their own problems because of his discomfort with some basic biological concepts like evolution. However, he did end the dominance of behaviourism.

There was little wrong with Skinner’s scientific results. We can think of his work as treating the brain as a ‘black box’ and only concerning himself with the inputs and outputs. The error was to insist that there was no mechanisms within the black box and we should just not even talk about peeking in the box.