Skinner vs. Marshall

“I had the opportunity to do a lengthy interview with B.F. Skinner. I concluded that I do not subscribe to much of what he taught—for example, his rejection of all inferred states such as attitudes and motivation. . . . Marvin Marshall addresses a fundamental problem that every society must solve: how to produce individuals who will take responsibility for doing the important tasks that need to get done. Using some of the latest findings of social science, Dr. Marshall has developed an approach that enables parents and teachers to help young people grow into responsible citizens and live satisfying and rewarding inner-directed lives.” —Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was the famed Harvard University psychologist who became popular with his practice of behaviorism, which is an extension of classical conditioning that is identified with Pavlov’s dog. It begins with the observation that some things produce natural responses. The dog smells meat and salivates. By pairing an artificial stimulus with a natural one—such as ringing a bell when the steak appears—the dog associates the two. Ring the bell; the dog salivates. (Pavlov was smart enough not to use a cat; cats, like humans, are too independent.)

Operant conditioning, in contrast to classical conditioning, is concerned with how an action may be controlled by a stimulus that comes AFTER it, rather than before it. When a reward follows a behavior, then that behavior is likely to be repeated. Today, we refer to this psychology as “behaviorism.”

Skinner preferred the term “reinforcement.” Skinnerians (behaviorists) are apt to argue that virtually everything, even who we are, can be explained in terms of the principal of reinforcement. Behaviorists speak about how “organisms” learn based upon the assumption that humans are animals—different from other animals only in the types of behaviors displayed. It is no wonder that, with this belief, Skinner conducted most of his experiments on rodents and pigeons but wrote about people.

All decisions are based on the ability to make choices—be it pigeons and pecking, rats and mazes, or horses and corrals. The trainer does not teach but rather sets up the conditions for the “organism” to learn by the decisions it makes.

IF YOU BELIEVE THAT HUMANS ARE “ORGANISMS” LIKE ANY OTHER, then it makes perfect sense to treat them using external reinforcers and other external manipulators. However, if you believe that humans have the ability to be taught using literature, stories, and other vicarious experiences—that they need not personally experience a particular behavior to learn—then you have joined the ranks of those who realize that HUMANS CAN BE TAUGHT. (I can hear my mother’s influence who told me that you train a dog but you teach people.)