Questions, Lecture, and Assigned Paper on B.F. Skinner's Determinism

William O'Meara (c) Copyright, 1997

1. Define Determinism and give an example. Define the position opposed to Determinism.

2. Define necessary condition, sufficient condition, necessary and sufficient condition.

3. What kind of explanation is Skinner looking for in these terms?

4, 5, 6: Compare Skinner's approach to a typical scientific explanation. What is Skinner's argument in Walden II? State it in logical form. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this form of argument?(See Basic Analysis of Deductive and Inductive Arguments in General (with specific analysis of the deductive and inductive aspects of the three steps of scientific method:

7. Evaluate whether or not the premises of his argument are true. The distinction between reward and punishment is introduced to support a crucial premise of Skinner here. Define positive and negative reinforcement when used as reward, when used as punishment. What has experiment shown about the effects of reward and punishment?

8. How does Skinner interpret Jesus on the principle of love your enemies? How would Jesus interpret himself on this principle? (After we have covered the thought of Carl Rogers, you could come back to this question for your own study and attempt to understand how would Carl Rogers interpret this principle.)

9. Define operant conditioning. Explain again positive and negative reinforcement in operant conditioning.

10. Distinguish between shaping behavior and maintaining behavior through reinforcement. What works best, continuous or intermittent reinforcement? Distinguish fixed interval reinforcement, variable interval reinforcement, fixed ratio reinforcement, and variable ratio reinforcement. Give examples of each.

11. What are the five principles of Walker for educators?

12. How do Martin and Pear analyze the example of the sleepy student who can't study well? What are the five steps of cognitive behavior modification in Martin and Pear's view?

Questions for Remarks about Hard and Soft Determinism

13. Define freedom negatively, positively. Distinguish two meanings of positive freedom for human, voluntary action.

14. Which meaning does Skinner hold? (After we have studied Rogers and Sartre, you may come back to this question for your own study and determine which meaning Rogers holds and which meaning Sartre holds for freedom in terms of the definitions in question 13.)

15. What does William James mean by soft determinism, hard determinism? How does he evaluate Skinner's position?

Lecture on B.F. Skinner's Determinism

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines determinism (Skinner's position) as the general thesis which states that for everything that ever happens there are conditions such that, given these conditions, nothing else could happen. For example, if an individual becomes a criminal, that identity was necessitated by his heredity and social conditioning. Given the precise conditions of his life, there is only one identity he can be, that of a criminal. See Necessitarianism and Libertarianism in the Ism Book, a Philosophical Glossary (Student will have to select N to find Necessitarianism and L to find Libertarianism). See also Philosophical Terms and Definitions (from Philosophy for Everyone) for Freedom, Determinism and Responsiblity.

It is helpful to understand the meanings of necessary condition and sufficient condition to see Skinner's approach as determinism:

Those opposed to determinism generally argue that to say that a given action was free means at least that the agent could have done otherwise given the very conditions that obtained, not just that he could have done otherwise if something within him had been different. Those opposed to determinism argue that given those very same social conditions and heredity, the criminal could cease being a criminal, that in fact he need never have become a criminal. (vol. 2, 359-367)

In Walden II, the spokesman for Skinner's view, Frazier, says, "I deny that freedom exists at all, I must deny it-or my program would be absurd. You can't have a science about a subject matter which hops capriciously about. Perhaps we can never prove that man isn't free; it's an assumption. But the increasing success of a science of behavior makes it more and more plausible."

This one paragraph sums up the attitude of Skinner very well. We can formulate his argument on the following manner:

At this point, we will assume that the first two premises are true and examine the logical structure of the argument. The argument has a logical structure comparable to the following example:

Notice, that we cannot conclude in this last example that it is necessarily true that it did rain today. We can only be sure of that conclusion if rain is the only possible cause of the car's getting wet. However, the car could get wet in many ways--from a car wash, from snow, from a student prank even. Since both arguments have the same logical form (If p, then q. But q did occur. Therefore, p.), the first example cannot conclude with necessity but only with probability. Only if Skinner can eliminate every other possible cause of the predicted effects, then can we conclude with necessity. But the scientific method never assumes that the present hypothesis in any field will ever be stated with finality. Hypotheses only become more and more verified, the more that other possible hypotheses are eliminated as unable to predict the observed effects and the more that new and varied effects can be predicted from the hypothesis in question. Since the use of the scientific method forbids concluding with absolute necessity, Skinner does not affirm determinism as absolutely true, but only as more and more verified. It is important to realixe that Sinner's use of scientific method here is in accord with the overall practice of scientific method:

If the scientific hypothesis is correct, then the predictions deduced from it will be observed experimentally.

The predictions are observed under experimental conditions.

Therefore, the hypothesis is confirmed as a scientific theory always open to further refinement because of new observations that may be made in the future.

Skinner's argument against freedom is more and more verified to the extent that his premises are true and to the extent that no other hypothesis affirming human freedom could explain the predicted consequences. Skinner, of course, would argue that his two premises are true:

Skinner distinguishes two basic ways of attempting to control human behavior: reward and punishment.

There are two kinds or ways of rewarding behavior responses:

There are two ways of punishing behavior responses:

In animal experiments, psychologists have discovered that punishment is not the opposite of reward, that is to say, that punishment does not reduce the probability of the response in question whereas rewarding does increase the probability of the response in the long run. Suppose that a certain response of a pigeon such as pecking at a black spot is rewarded 50 times and then punished 25 times. If punishment were the opposite of reward, then it would work by subtracting responses where reinforcement would add them. But in this experiment, although punishment initially reduces the monentary rate of pecking at the black spot, the rate of pecking rose when the punishment was discontinued. The effect of punishment is a temporary suppression of the behavior, not a reduction in the total number of responses. Even with severe and prolonged punishment, the rate of responding will rise when punishment has been discontinued. (Science and Human Behavior, pp. 73, 184-185)

In Walden II, Frazier comments on this discovery: we've all seen countless instances of the temporary effect of force, but clear evidence of the effect of not using force is rare. That's why I insist that Jesus, who was apparently the first to discover the power of refusing to punish, must have hit upon the principle by accident." "You mean the principle of 'love your enemies'?" I said. "Exactly! To `do good to those who despitefully use you' has two unrelated consequences. You gain the peace of mend we talked about the other day. Let the stronger man push you around, at least you avoid the torure of your own rage. That's the immediate consequence. What an astonishing discovery it must have been to find that in the long run you could control the stronger man in the same way!"

Instructions for Paper on Behavior Modification/Conditioning

Write a paper, 300-400 words in length, on behavior modification or operant conditioning, showing that the principles of Behaviorism can be used to modify or to explain one's present behavior. The following paragraphs give material on Skinner's approach in psychology. Use any paragraph or paragraphs as topics on which you may write. You can use some example or exampoles from your life, or you may create apausible short story that exemplies how Skinner's principles can be operative in a person's life.

Operant conditioning: Operant behavior is behavior that works on the environment and produces consequences. The organism has on-going life processes that are active and which bring about results in the environment for the organism. For example, certain sounds which the infant makes bring about consequences from the parents. If the parents smile, that smile is a positive reinforcer. If the parents cease to frown, that ceasing to frown is a negative reinforcer. Both the positive and negative reinforcers will reinforce the behavior and make it more likely to occur in the future.

Both positive and negative reinforcers are ways of rewarding the operant behavior of the organism. A positive reinforcer adds something positive to the environment such as food or water. This positive thing will increase the probability of the behavior which has elicited the reinforcer. In contrast, a negative reinforcer removes something negative from the environment such as an electric shock. The removal of this negative element reinforces the behavior which occurred before the removal of the negative element.

It is a mistake to assume in dealing with reinforcement of humans that the same positive and negative reinforcers will work for all people. Also, it is a mistake to assume that Skinner's principles of reinforcement do not work in cases where parents have used what they thought would be reinforcers when in fact they did not. When the parent says, "I have given my children everything," we have to question whether they were knowledgeable in the ways they rewarded their children.

Skinner discusses both shaping behavior and maintaining behavior. In the shaping of behavior, "responses that are closer and closer to the desired response are required in order to maintain reinforcement. The child who is learning to speak will at first be reinforced for almost any approximation to words; gradually, reinforcement is withdrawn for this behavior, and closer approximations are necessary; finally, only fairly exact pronunciations are rewarded. n (Robert d. Nye, Three Views of Man. p. 54). Parents may be astute in shaping such desirable behavior as good language habits, but parents may be careless in shaping undesirable habits such as whining. For example, the parent may ignore the child who wants something until the child whines. Then the parent may be angry about the whining and resolve not to give in. Then the child wants something again, and the parent withstands the whining a longer time but then gives in. A succession of such behaviors would shape the behavior or habit of whining.

Reinforcement can be used to maintain behavior. We can distinguish between continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement. In continuous reinforcement a behavior is reinforced every time that it occurs. However in intermittent reinforcement the behavior is reinforced only some of-the times that it occurs. Common sense would assume that continuous reinforcement would maintain behaviors better than would intermittent reinforcement . However, experiments with animals have shown that a "pigeon whose key-pecking behavior has been reinforced continuously may peck somewhere around 50 to 200 times after the reinforcement is cut off. However, on an intermittent schedule, 4000 to 10,000 pecks may be emitted during the extinction period. Similar outcomes can be expected with regard to the extinction of human behaviors in everyday life. If a child's temper tantrums are being maintained by attention from parents each time they occur (continuous reinforcement), and if there is no physical problem involved, then the tantrums will very likely stop relatively soon after the parents start ignoring them (extinction). However, if the tantrums are being maintained on an intermittent schedule-that is, if sometimes they receive attention and sometimes they do notit will be harder for the parents to extinguish them. Very persistent behavior often results from intermittent reinforcement schedule." (Three Views of Man, p. 58)

There are four different ways of giving intermittent reinforcement. The interval of time after the behavior occures and at which the behavior is reinforced can be either fixed or variable. An example of a fixed interval reinforcement would be the Parent who always waits one day before giving his children any permissions. An example of a variable interval reinforcement would be a parent who sometimes gives permissions right away and sometimes waits a while or a day or two. Experiments have shown that variable interval reinforcements bring about a more constant performance of the behavior being reinforced. For example, if your boss checks you for being in your office on time in the morning every Monday, your being on time would be better if he checked you at variable intervals.

Besides fixed interval and variable interval reinforcement, there are also fixed ratio and variable ratio reinforcement. Ratio refers to the number of times a behavior has to occur before it is reinforced. If the behavior is reinforced after a fixed number of occurrences, then we have fixed ratio reinforcement. If the behavior is reinforced after a variable number of occurrences, sometimes one, two, three, or any number of occurrences, then we have variable ratio reinforcement.

An example of fixed ratio reinforcement would be the teacher who would grade two assignments at a time and then turn them back. Another example occurs in the case of the factory worker who gets paid by the number of products produced, or in the case of the field worker who gets paid by the amount of produce collected. "If the number of responses required for reinforcement is not too great, a high response rate is commonly maintained by a fixed-ratio schedule. In plain language, working hard brings large rewards. (Three Views of Man, p. 60)

An example of variable ration reinforcement occurs in all sports. In basketball, some shots go in, others don't. In baseball sometimes the hitter strikes out, sometimes he gets a hit. Because the shots go and the hits are made on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, basketball and baseball can become quite a habit for the young person. For as Skinner has found out in experiments with pigeons, if a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement is used in which the pigeon is reinforced sometimes several times in a row and sometimes not at all, the pigeon will learn to respond at a rate of five times per second and will keep this up for many hours. (Three Views qf Man, p. 61) There are many human behaviors which are reinforced on a variable ratio schedule.

In the book, Behavior Modification: A Practical Approach for Educators, pp. 12-14, Walker presents five principles:

    1. Reinforcement must be dependent on the manifestation of the appropriate behavior. (If we desire a specific behavior, we must reinforce only that behavior.)
    2. Appropriate behavior must be reinforced immediately.
    3. During the initial stages of the behavior change process, the desired behavior must be reinforced each time lt is exhibited.
    4. When the newly acquired behavior reaches a satisfactory frequency level, lt should be reinforced intermittently.
    5. Soclal reinforcers must always be applied with tangible reinforcers .

In Behavior Modification, Martin and Pear, analyze a problem frequently reported by university students, namely, that they get tired fairly quickly when they are studying at home. "Such students usually report a typical pattern. The student sits down wherever she studies and begins reading or working at the material. After a cerain period of time, she begins to feel drowsy and decides to take a break. After the break (which is sometimes very extended), the student returns to work. But after a relatively short period of time, she again becomes drowsy and the pattern repeats itself. Now let's examine the situation. What are the immediate positive consequences of the initial desirable behavior or working in an alert fashion? None. Rather, the individual simply continues working until she starts to feel drowsy. On the other hand, what are the consequences of the individual feeling drowsy? Obviously, a very reinforcing break period. In other words, the student is following the worst possible course of action. Feeling drowsy in a work situation is being highly reinforced by taking a break, whereas working effectively does not lead to immediate reinforcing consequences. Once realized, an effective strategy for the individual is to take a break earlier than usual. If a student can study normally for fifteen minutes without feeling drowsy, then at about the thirteen-minute mark while still working effectively, she should take a brief break. Over a period of tome, the duration of the effective studying (rather than feeling drowsy) is increased in the presence of the cues appropriate to proper study behavior." (pp. 373-374)

Martin and Pearle also suggest that "teaching people how to proceed through logical reasoning to personal problems is another approach that is sometimes considered to fall within the area of cognitive behavior modification." They note the following five steps:

Remarks towards the Definitions of Hard and Soft Determinism


William James drew a useful distinction between what he called "hard" and "soft" determinism. By soft determinism he meant all those theories, like those of Skinnerl, which affirm that determinism is true and then, by means of what he considered sophisticated and contorted definitions, somehow manage to preserve a semblance of certain moral notions like moral responsibility. For example, Skinner holds that we should hold criminals responsible for their behavior not so that we should punish them for the sake of punishment, but so that we should put them into prison so that we can administer behavior modification. Then having changed the conditions of their behavior, we will have gained control of their behavior; and they will not do criminal acts. James holds that Skinner's idea of moral responsibility is not what people really mean by holding criminals morally responsible. James holds that this soft determinism really obliterates the true moral notions of moral responsibility and democracy.

Hard determinists, in contrast, are those who affirm what their theory entails--namely, that no persons can help being what they are and that moral responsibility is therefore a concept awhich is incompatible with a correct unbderstanding of people. We do not hold animals morally responsible for their behavior since they have no freedom in the sense of meaning # 2 above.