- Capitalism and Alternatives -

The promise and limits of Skinnerianism

Posted by: Barry Stoller on February 09, 19100 at 11:01:56:

In Reply to: Skinner, the master of puppets? (corrected) posted by Piper on February 08, 19100 at 10:16:04:

: Well, strictly speaking Skinner couldn't have thought anybody capable of autonomously controlling anybody else, after all on a proper reading of Skinner the controller is only a vehicle of control, as much subject to control as those he controls.

Thatís right, he mentioned that often: 'Who is to control? The question represents the age-old mistake of looking to the individual rather than the world in which he lives' (About Behaviorism, Knopf 1974, p. 226).

: However I am not sure Skinner fully recognized this. After all in Walden 2...

Skinner mentioned it repeatedly: 'The scientist also is the product of a generic endowment and an environmental history' ('The Design of Cultures,' Cumulative Record third edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts 1972, p. 46). Concerning Walden Two, kind in mind it was written in 1945---prior to most of Skinnerís scientific research being developed...

: To [Skinner's] way of thinking not to control people would be to leave them to the mercy of chance and just as subject to control (in an arbitrary form).

Right: 'Accident is the tyrant really to be feared' (Theories of Reinforcement, Appleton-Century-Crofts 1969, p. 46).

: For Skinner, freedom was merely retaining a 'personal sense' of freedom, even though all our actions are highly controlled. Thus in Walden 2, people are allowed to 'choose' to do whatever they want. But they are not 'free' in the popular sense of the word because it is Frazier who allows them to do what is best for themselves and the community.

: But this begs the question, as i said earlier of 'how does Frazier know what is best', when he is apparently guided only by arbitrary forces. He is the master puppeteer, but himself is a puppet whose strings are being pulled by caprice.

A common---and incomplete---conclusion.

According to Skinner, there are three types of selection: natural selection (Darwinism); operant conditioning (selection by consequence); and---importantly---'the evolution of social environments---culture':

The process presumably begins at the level of the individual. A better way of making a tool, growing food, or teaching a child is reinforced by its consequence---the toll, the food, or a useful helper, respectively. A culture evolves when practices originating in this way contribute to the success of the practicing group in solving its problems. It is the effect on the group, not the reinforcing consequences for individual members, that is responsible fro the evolution of the culture.(1)

So, the better techniques for cultural evolution are already there, developed---and developing---by trial and error. Skinner merely wanted to study what is most effective---and he sees the big challenge as bringing deferred consequences (long-term behavior) into the present where it can be 'modified.' To wit: 'The task of the social engineer is to accelerate the development of practices which bring the remoter consequences of behavior into play' (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Knopf 1971, p. 143). His goal was to end inequality, overconsumption, and aversity in human relations.

On many occasions, he advocated the vanguard of science, claiming that scientists are more likely to be impartial controllers than anyone else:

The scientist is usually concerned with the control of nature apart from his personal aggrandizement. He is perhaps not wholly 'pure,' but he seeks control mainly for its own sake or for the sake of furthering other scientific activity.(2)

This view, of course, is but Skinner's own bias for the 'detached' scientist. It is, as Jerome Ulman correctly noted, a petty bourgeois world view ('Toward a Synthesis of Marx and Skinner,' Behavior and Social Issues Spring/Summer, vol. 1, no. 1, 1990, p.67). It probably reflects Skinner's admiration for Veblen's 'technocracy' (recall in Walden Two that Frazier introduces himself with a reference to Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption).

Later in his career, however, Skinner struggled with his bias:

Democracy is an effort to... [let] the people design the contingencies under which they are to live or---to put it another way---by insisting that the designer himself live under the contingencies he designs. It is reasonable to suppose that he will not use aversive techniques if he himself will be affected by them... [b]ut specialization is almost inevitable (minorities readily understand how difficult it is to keep the controller and the controllee in the same skin), and specialization implies special contingencies which are still open to suspicion.(3)

: I do not think one can deny that Skinner was interested in controlling people.

I'd agree. But one should be careful that to mention that Skinner wanted the control to use only positive reinforcement. The worse you can really call him is a liberal. After all, he said 'the government of the future will probably operate mainly through educational techniques' (The Technology of Teaching, Appleton-Century-Crofts 1968, p. 260).

In conclusion, I would say Skinner's political views were petty bourgeois and only slightly leftist.

Nonetheless, the science of behaviorology is promising in that it posits behavior can be controlled WITHOUT the use of aversive sanctions (something no bourgeois government can claim). Indeed, I would say that the single most important line in Skinner's oft-misunderstood Beyond Freedom and Dignity was that '[r]inforcement is usually only intermittent, and the schedule of reinforcement is more important than the amount received' (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Knopf 1971, p. 34). This implies that a culture need not interpret positive reinforcement as an endless succession of rewards (which might deplete fiscal or ecological resources)---as popular media expositions did (when they weren't calling behaviorism the next Naziism, that is).

The ultimate promise, of course, is a culture free of adversity---and I submit that all socialists should consider that.

: So operant conditioning is just a conceptual slight of hand to make something that is in the future (the food) a cause.

You know, Piper, I'm going to have to pass on your debate at this point, however well articulated it is becoming. I did Skinner the whole summer of 1998 with Bill here on this debate board, and I'm kind of tired of the topic.

Politics, anyone?



1. Skinner, 'Selection by Consequence,' Upon Further Reflection, Prentice-Hall 1987, p. 54.

2. Skinner, 'The Design of Cultures,' Cumulative Record third edition, Appleton-Century-Crofts 1972, p. 48.

3. Skinner, Contingencies of Reinforcement, Appleton-Century-Crofts 1969, p. 43, emphasis added.

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