December 03, 2007


Photo credit: Dave Hogg, courtesy of EveryStockPhoto.

It used to be a joke that every college freshperson wanted to be a psychology major. That is the age when people are trying, generally with very limited success, to figure out themselves and other people.

El Cabrero fit that pattern back in the previous geological age. I had somehow stumbled on to Freud, Jung, and Nietzsche in high school and imagined that psychology classes would be that cool.

Would that it were so.

To my horror, I seemed to have stumbled in to a den of behaviorists. If there is one ideology I like even less than Stalinism or economic libertarianism, it's gotta be behaviorism.

I would probably have a lot less trouble learning that a good friend was a cannibal than I would to learn that he or she was a fan of B. F. Skinner. Actually, that happened recently and I'm still trying to deal with it.

Clarification: by behaviorism, I don't mean attempting to study behavior in measurable ways. That's fine. I mean metaphysical behaviorism, where people pretend that there's no such thing as conscious or unconscious mental activity and that we're all balls of stimulus response conditioning.

I remember some professors ridiculing the idea of consciousness, mind, and similar ideas and thinking "These people are idiots."

It seems to me the height of loopiness for beings who are only aware of the world through their own consciousness to deny that it exists. And I think there's something evil about reductionism, the attempt to reduce the complexity of human life to any simple deterministic factor, whether it's conditioning, genes, economics, "rational choice," etc. We're way too messy for that. Sometimes I wish we weren't.

As Dmitri Karamazov said in Dostoevsky's classic novel,

Yes, man is broad, too broad. I’d have him narrower. The devil knows what to make of it!

That was the end of my psych major.

Fortunately, it appears that the discipline has recovered from this mental disorder, thanks in part to research from many quarters, including brain science, evolution, ethology, etc., not to mention common sense.

SHOCKING IRAQ. Here's a video segment of Keith Olbermann discussing the application of the "shock doctrine" in Iraq with Naomi Klein.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS. Corporate lobbyists, nervous about 2008, are pressing to grab all they can in the months ahead.

MINE SAFETY then and now, courtesy of the Gazette's Ken Ward.

TWISTS AND TURNS. There have been some strange developments in the Megan Williams case lately. First, the WV Attorney General Darrell McGraw's office declined a request of the Logan County prosecutor to offer an opinion on pressing hate crimes charges in the case. Then the AG expressed a desire to take over the the case. Both moves were not well received by prosecutor Brian Abraham.



pumpkin said...

thats not nice daddd----i like behaviorism and have found it to be very help in providing others with therapy...although skinner was not for therapy, he was much more experimental, to hom an others, behavior accounts for thought and and feelings, for example in the functional anaylsis, a= antecendents, b=behavior (thoughts and feelings) and c= consequences, both a & c feed back into B...when applyin it functionally, it makes a lot of sense and accounts for the repeativie patterns people get matter how maladaptive a behavior is, it still receives reinforcment from the environment and reinforcement whether its neagtive or positive increases the probablility of the behavior... aren't glad my higher ed is payin off :)))----skinner fan

pumpkin said...

sorry for the spellin rushin

kevertt said...

we need to talk about "reductionism" sometime soon.

kevertt agin said...

pumpkin: what criterion can distinguish between adaptive behavior and reinforcement (which appears to lead to mal-adaptive behavior). How do you distinguish adaptive and maladaptive?

El Cabrero said...

That's it, Pumpkin--you're going back in the Skinner box!

Hey Kevertt. Let's talk. I need a certain really bad book back too.

Carnacki said...

Oh, yeah? Well I've got "Capitalism needs a leash" which quotes someone you might know.

Joe Wyatt said...

Thanks for commenting on behaviorism and B. F. Skinner. As a psychologist for about 35 years I have noticed that misunderstandings of both are fairly common, and usually were the product of uninformed professors or others in my own field. Thus, we have only ourselves to blame.

On Thinking and Feeling: As it turns out, there is a tendency among both professors and textbook authors to confuse old style Watsonian behaviorism with more contemporary Skinnerian behaviorism. Skinner never embraced the rather backward notion that we don't think, don't feel, don't have conscious experience, etc. Rather, Skinner's view (and that of behaviorists for at least 50 years) is that thoughts and feelings are important kinds of behaviors (that is, if I am thinking or feeling, then I am engaging in behaviors that differ from other behaviors only in that they can't be directly observed by anyone else--kind of like a toothache that can't be felt by anyone else, but certainly is quite real).

Some examples are helpful: In 1969 Skinner wrote "A behavioristic reformulation does not ignore feelings..." And in 1972 he wrote, "What is felt is certainly relevant to a causal sequence..." In 1974 he wrote "Human thought is human behavior..." Also in 1969 he wrote (forgive his ponderous technical language), "Other common objects of introspection are proprioceptive and interoceptive stimuli and (particularly important in the case of feelings) responses of the autonomic nervous system. It would be absurd to deny the existance of events of this kind..." (parentheses Skinner's).

Also, although Watson's early 20th centuury version of psychology was termed S-R (Stimulu-Response) psychology, Skinner added an important third element and thus created S-R-S psychology, sometimes called A-B-C psychology, in which the last of these terms stands for the stimulus that follows a response--positive or negative reinforcement, punishment, etc.

As for efforts to study human behavior scientifically, this raises an important question about free will and determinism. Although most of us were taught as children that we have free will, as a therapist it is probably not highly productive, and maybe is even non-productive, to assume that our clients have free will. That's because to do so implies that they freely chose to be suicidally depressed, schizophrenic, sociopathic, phobic, etc. But why would anyone so choose? And if someone did so choose, wouldn't a therapist's job then boil down to saying some version of, "Just use your free will and make yourself happy (non-psychotic, non-phobic, etc.)? In my view a therapist would not be earning his money if he said that. Also, a therapist's belief that his clients freely chose to become dysfunctional generally leads to the therapist feeling angry toward the client, blaming the client for not doing the right thing, etc., instead of the therapist assuming responsibility for not yet having found the best method of treatment.

Additionally, it is often somewhat self-aggrandizing to take a middle of the road approach on the determinism-free will issue. That's because it is awfully seductive to take credit for our successes (implying free will) but blame various factors ("my dog ate the homework") when we fail. One doesn't often hear anyone say, for example, "I flunked the exam of my own free will...I just chose to flunk it."

If there is any doubt that I am a college professor, the excessive length of this post will probably prove it. for that I apologize.

I enjoy goatrope. Keep up the very nice work.

Joe Wyatt
Professor of Psychology
Marshall University

El Cabrero said...

Hi Dr. Wyatt--Thanks for being such a good sport about my behavioral issues! I think I had a bad experience with it a long time ago (the late 70s) and never got over it.

But I must say I am kind of a fan of taking credit for the good stuff and blaming the universe for the bad. That's my story and I'm sticking with it!