Optimist Wager

Preface & Reader Response

When the term utopia implies or requires perfection, I revolt, which now seems the only natural and logical response.



The Skinny on Uniformity


by Jerry Murley

Beginning in 1970, I have thought about B.F. Skinner, the evangelist of radical behavioral psychology, more than is healthy to do. That thought was reignited recently by an essay in The New Yorker by Anthony Burgess – the man who wrote the book behind Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. [1] The essay included his impassioned critique of behavioral psychology à la Skinner. We agree in the main, but I have further objections to Skinner of my own.

When I first read Skinner's book Walden Two, I was living in Santa Monica, California, and had applied to complete my study of psychology at Berkeley. In reading the book, I began to question whether utopia – an ideal society – was something very interesting to me or not. Politics had led to reform impulses as my college know-it-allism asserted itself and demanded that things be done differently – that things be improved and perfected. However, most of what interests us in life is associated with risk and uncertainty, reconsideration and speculation, unlikely and accidental successes and failures. With those thoughts my imaginings of a perfect world became a lot more imperfect. Perhaps the communes of the day were not so pure and were not as scalable or desirable in a practical sense as one might dream.

The basics of behaviorism, in my mind, are these: if a specific animal reaction to a specific stimulus is somehow rewarded (preferably not punished), the coupling of reaction and stimulus becomes increasingly fixed in the animal's repertoire of actions .The consequences of actions experienced by the animal make the animal "learn" a stimulus-response relationship, the molecule of habit. Given similar conditions, a desirable set of actions could be associated with other stimuli and broadened in their application. It is solid scientific logic, if focused on very discrete, controllable stimulation, such as a chocolate nugget, in very controlled conditions, say with the trainee tethered to a post or locked in a cage, with a limited number of reaction options – bark and you get it, don't and you won't. In other words, it is pretty rock solid if you are training rats in a box in a lab to push a blue lever instead of a red one.

Now extend the application of Skinner's methods to a human being in society exposed to an abundance of stimulations and options. If you seek to control the actions in one person for everything he or she does, then you are going to be tempted to limit the variety. Now apply the same infinite number of training points to a society and try deciding, let alone determining, the perfect set of outcomes. For a utopia, these routines once learned would have to become self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. North Korea has tried something like this but may have failed to realize the affirming portions of Skinner's theory. They apparently failed to read the well-intentioned and hopeful parts and apply the affirming methods that allow a semblance of dignity and free will. In the imagination, the possibility of utopia seems to come closer as the range of behavior is limited enough to insure that everyone, without much deliberation, acts as planned, as defined by the masters in control – for perpetuity. In the mind's eye, it starts to look fatally lackluster and destined for extinction. Sure, half a generation of people can be trained to avoid sex, especially if the options were skewed against it, but that doesn't make for a viable society. Even if it were sustainable, who wants to hang with that bunch on Saturday nights? Where's the unexpected spice of life?

Let's better focus here: We are discussing the concept of utopia and not the tiny steps of behavior acquisition. The question is whether utopia can be achieved and whether it is a good thing or not if it can be. The topic of behaviorism comes into play when you look into the how. And the how, in terms of Skinner, is control – lots of control, perhaps more control than is possible without making human society...well, not human in the sense that we are used to thinking of human: unpredictable, imaginative, creative and...well, free and readily adaptable.

Another point of order here: When I fled psychology it was not because I was not fond of observation and theory about the fundamentals of the human mind and behavior. Far from it, that interest persists today and has paid off handsomely in countless ways. My problem was the focus on abnormal behavior and control. It seemed to me that too many students of psychology were fascinated, even addicted, to the wild and fanciful lunatic, which conveniently made the practitioner seem more healthy in comparison, more worthy and superior so to speak. Though I appreciate a crazy nutter story like anyone else, I mainly wanted to take what abnormal functioning teaches and see how it normally functions in ordinary people. Where Skinner's ilk might focus, for good purpose, more on reshaping the behavior of the aberrant personality, I wanted to understand more about human society and its individuals in all their splendor and variety. And like every student of psychology, I wanted reassurance that I wasn't as nuts as that guy down the road.

Nowadays when I use the term utopia, which is seldom, to refer to real-life conditions or social possibilities, I mean a society or subculture that appears to be as good as it gets, given the inescapable fallibility and weakness, the curiosity and restlessness, of humankind. When the term utopia implies or requires perfection, I revolt, which now seems the only natural and logical response. It is easy to predict behavior when one limits the range of motions and thoughts to only a few possibilities. That is why the actions of rats in a box make for malleable and comprehensible scientific objects. My revolt in my early twenties was a refusal to be a rat in a box or to think of my fellow beings in such a way.

I won't claim to know or understand the ins and outs of radical behaviorism or the full range of Skinner's theories. If I did know it, I would not expect to be able to communicate it so that readers would know any more than they already know.

The essay that follows was written in 1991 in the form of a letter to a professor at Vanderbilt University. It has been edited only to remove specific references to an assignment due at the time for a course in adult learning theory required for a graduate degree. The curious may continue to read, but for the purely practical, I have pretty much stated my case in a nutshell in this introduction. From here on I explore the minutiae of a debate about the merits of designing learning guided by the theory and techniques of radical behaviorism. Clearly my expanded prejudices regarding Skinner, including his questionable notions of utopia and how to create one, interfered with my even considering employing his approach to teach adults, even though in some commercial settings adult workers appear to be directed toward behavior little more complex than that of rats in tiny boxes repeating mind-numbing tasks day in and day out for minuscule treats.

* * *

The best thing about letters is that you don't have to read them. This letter continues a notorious personal tradition – or at least a peculiar one – of appending my papers with explanatory letters that rival the papers in length. It is important to me to declare what I am trying to say and what I am not. The accompanying paper is strongly self-oriented – perhaps to my detriment.

The paper represents a rare departure from an academic habit: I never write papers in the first person. I don't view the paper as being a scholarly one; rather it is a reflective and creative one, but it does apply the theories in detail and synthesize them as well. I recall your charge, made in our last Saturday meeting, not to make this project a go-to-the-library-and-research one but rather make it a think piece. If I have misinterpreted the charge, I guess that's my bad luck. Anyway, I have reached inside my head and discovered some once-quieted arguments ready to rage again. And I have confirmed for myself once again that theories are constructs to be used – points of view and sets of concepts and techniques – not religions to settle all the doubts and solve all the problems confronting teachers and learners.

B.F. Skinner is one of the primary reasons I left the study of psychology twenty years ago. His theory continues to discomfort me. Reading the first portions of Beyond Freedom & Dignity in preparation for this paper, following as it does on the heels of our classroom debate about the merits of behaviorism in relation to humanism, has rekindled an unsettled internal dispute. There is something tremendously appealing in Skinner's logic, air of certainty, and combative style, but the extent to which he argues his case begs for rebuttal. At twenty, I was entranced by Walden Two. By twenty-two I was amused by the anarchism of Italian culture and tamed by English anarchist theory. At over-forty, and as a relatively new parent, the truths, or at least the effectiveness, of behaviorism have been amply demonstrated in many situations having to do with the formation of personal habits – and these techniques have been found not to be absolutely antithetical to personal decision making and responsibility. Parenting has also taught me, however, that learning is not a chain of habits that can be easily controlled. It has also confirmed for me that the formation of habits is essential to building a self-controlled and confident character.

Skinner's advocacy of the preeminence of his learning theory has goaded me to express more thinking about learning than my knowledge of the pertinent research might warrant. It is not difficult to accept his assertion that it is critical for a behavioral scientist or a socially concerned layman to note the relationships between managed and unmanaged behaviors and their consequences and to discern the contingencies that produce desired and undesired effects. But in reality, as regards the total behavior of a single person, a student for example, a behavior manager could spend a lifetime in such as undertaking and fail to observe much else about life and still not be able to handle most of the contingencies in that person's life – especially in a highly differentiated modern society. Control is indeed not always bad, but one must ask how much time can be expended trying to establish such a flawless network of relationships for a single student. Semantic reductionism and conditional minimalism do not necessarily produce economy. Teachers cannot afford to take the time to decide everything in advance. Students, under the threat of failure or the enticement of instructor favor, might turn their papers in on schedule – controllable behavior – but no two papers can be expected or desired to say the same thing in the same way for same reasons, unless information and tasks are severely constrained.

It is commendable that Skinner would want to minimize or eradicate aversive controls, which he says have too long stood as prime movers in the field of education. But his method has severe practical limitations where unmonitored growth and action or education and development beyond basic training are desired. One must ask whether it is necessary or desirable to have total control – and in all learning circumstances. Does it prepare individuals to "decide" in novel situations where they are bombarded by overlapping stimuli, demands, and rewards from numerous people and circumstances, including "acts of God"? Is it in the best interest of the species or the individual or science, even if it is more scientific? The interior deliberation about meanings, truths, and values, about means and purposes, makes lives unique and places a premium on individual contributions. There may well be a Walden Two happiness without the illusions or consciousness of uniqueness, discord, decision, and responsibility, but the evidence of the centuries does not argue for it. How does the absence of concern differ from thoughtlessness? Skinner's is a seductive reason gone mad in its own defense.

Behaviorism, as espoused by Skinner, takes on the tint of an overly argued doctrine, one in which new terms are subtly substituted for old concepts and the operations of life minimized for comfort's sake. For example, feedback is as fundamental to humanism and cognitive learning as it is to the explicit manipulation of behavior, but it is viewed by the former as a necessary process of information sharing, as both a corrective instrument and a form of open acknowledgement of achievement and deficiencies that is exchanged between one human system and another. No matter what the multitude of causes to which behavior can be attributed, the individual is the agency from which behavior issues. As long as there is individual consciousness of struggling with decision prior to action, individuals capable of at least a minimum level of rational thought will be held accountable for their actions. This is a powerful pragmatic refutation of radical behaviorism.

On the other hand, humanistic learning theory is too often nebulous, disjointed, and clothed in fuzzy jargon. That, for one, is a reason that seems to justify viewing it as entailing the exposure of students – in a conducive learning environment – to broad coping and expressive principles and processes designed to enable them to function at a higher or more complex level of perceiving, imagining, reasoning, judging, and interacting than their personal experiences and circumstances alone would be expected to provide. Both behaviorism and humanism note the importance of satisfying needs and removing obstacles to their fulfillment. But it seems to me that the spirit driving humanism is the desire and expectation that every individual has the right and the desire to reach for the beyond and to comprehend and utilize as much of the accomplishments of the species as possible – not excluding religion.

Despite this talk of individual non-accountability, behaviorism is an accountant's dream theory. Its appeal is its simple logic and promise of exactitude. But not even in twenty lifetimes could Skinner devise a body of precise causal connections sufficient to teach (to guarantee learning in) even one significant section of the history of man. In essay exams as in life no one can prepare for every contingency. It seems prudence would recommend that Skinner's theory and method be accepted as valid in their every ramification and yet that one proceed to act pragmatically, applying that theory only where it is beneficial and cost effective – and consistent with moral desires and imperatives.

I've got a case for consideration: I am a graphic designer trying to learn several new computer programs simultaneously. I have hundreds of commands to learn. The consequence of using each command usually is a graphic operation that works as promised. Yet I learn some and have a hard time learning others. Why? For one reason, the metaphors used in many of the commands closely resemble the terms and techniques I have used over the years to manually execute designs. Those commands which resemble my established cognitive structure are easily learned, remembered, and recalled. Though the consequences of the various commands do dispose me to want to learn them all, those rewards alone cannot govern the learning process. Maybe Skinner would say that the familiar symbols are themselves rewarding in an unfamiliar environment. Maybe he would say they are familiar because I have needed them and used them more in the past, that this frequency of use and continued priority of need have facilitated the transfer of conditioning to the new environment. Those explanations are fine, but how do I learn the new ones, repeated trial and error? Where is the efficiency? Were I to rely on trail and error, properly structured training, or constant reference to the operator's manual, I would lose my job. The trick is not to rely on memorizing specific commands but to glean or fabricate an overarching set of principles and processes, a system of working hypotheses joining how one would like things to work with how one thinks they seem to want to work based on evidence from particular circumstances. (Principles and processes can be interpreted to overlap, but for my purposes, I intend the former to mean the primary rules governing an operation and the latter to mean the course, utility, and continuing development of an operation, touching on the dynamic interaction of many elements and component operations.) Even on the level of fixed programming in dealing with computers, behaviorism seems most helpful as a description of a stimulus-action-reaction sequence but inferior in completeness and utility as a major learning guide. On second thought, the trick to many modern learning situations, including learning to use a computer program for design purposes, is not so much memorizing every step or even just mastering overarching general principles and technical processes as much as learning when and how to select and compromise between conflicting principles and processes.

If Skinner truly thinks there is no ultimate individual-based cause for behavior – that no system of individual accountability is justifiable – how can he maintain his arsenal of positive and aversive consequences that purportedly are the cause? For example, of what validity is verbal commendation – the bedrock of feedback – as a reward if individuals are by doctrine undeserving of praise or blame? Or would Skinner keep his doctrine secret, a truth exclusively held by behavior managers? This is to ask, doesn't his attempt to make his theory universally applicable serve to undermine its efficacy, to destroy the essentials of the technique?

Social learning, humanism, and cognitive theory seem to meet rather than manipulate the need for entrepreneurial savvy, interpersonal flexibility, and activism that is coming to dominate American business all the way down to the shop floor and self-managed work teams. The commercial and competitive trends seem to drive a stake in the heart of any theory that would drain the nation's decision-making life's blood. At the same time, these same trends seem to embrace those methods which can offer innovation and more intrinsic rewards to replace the scarcer extrinsic ones. In terms of the commercial market alone, behaviorism appears to represent a single operation in a complex process; it is not integrative, though it is incremental and elemental, and thus it should not be considered an exclusive or preemptive last word in teaching and learning.

Skinner's ideas and the intensity of their advocacy may be an excellent example of a theory that is logically persuasive but impracticable and undesirable in its fullest application. His theory assumes that a correct pattern of behavior can be established – that the pattern of development and its outcome can be known to the nth degree. Any serious student of history can recognize how ludicrous would be the assertion that all the contingencies of human existence and human interaction can be known so as to predict history, yet we continue to study those contingencies seriously and for good reason. There are unknowns out of human control, and human behavior so overlaps that, outside of the prison, assembly line or the remote boarding school, it is not easy to limit even most of the integral and influencing conditions – the possibilities. One would hope that, although Skinner is absolutely correct in saying that many behavioral scientists need to be focused on the study of the minute contingencies that shape and sustain human behavior, most practitioners in the field of teaching and learning would not be so foolhardy as to do likewise – to restrict the development of decision making to a locked set of behavioral reactions with supposedly known inputs and outcomes.

I guess I've chewed on this bone long enough and must now relinquish it. If you have read through to this point you may have a very serious curiosity addiction. But thanks for listening. Please note that, though it often seems to fit, I did not include graduate school in the "prison, assembly line, and boarding school" grouping above. What a luxury it is – or was – in mid-life to have the time and opportunity to think aloud and believe one's opinions matter.


1. "The Clockwork Condition," The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012.


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