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Jack Nickles

AWS Project 1

1st Draft Due 1/17

When I look in the mirror what do I see? Yes, skin, bone, shape, complexion, but beyond

that? Underneath there may be habits and hobbies and relationships as well as fears, phobias

addictions and depression. Again, I look in the mirror and ask myself if all those pieces are truly

my own or if I am only the product of my environment, reduced to the whim of the world.

In 1897 Ivan Pavlov published his primary work regarding his infamous hounds and the

conditioning he could impose upon them in just a few short trials. Thus behaviorism was born

and 40 years later a Harvard researcher by the name of B.F. Skinner began to conduct his

preliminary experiments.

80 years beyond that I took my seat for the first time in an elective psychology class

secretly hoping to glance at the syllabus and quickly be let out but instead I am handed an

excerpt from ​Behaviorism as the Psychologist Views it​. The first line jumps off the page and

proudly proclaims that behaviorism is a natural science based solely around observable

experiments that attempt to manipulate behavior. The thinking mind and its mental states play no

part in why we act. Bolder still the article continued, “​The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a

unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute”

(Watson, 1913). No dividing line? Is the professor trying to tell me that I am no more than an

animal? That can’t be because surely just this morning I got up and made breakfast, went
through my daily routines and hell, even got myself a parking ticket; no animal I know can do

that. I left the class exasperated.

Upon return the professor challenged us: give me an example in your everyday life that

you believe cannot be explained by behaviorism. Immediately I gave my three examples from

the previous morning and waited in smug satisfaction. The answer I received was simple and

clear, “operant conditioning, operant conditioning and operant conditioning”. I left exasperated.

Operant conditioning I later researched was Skinner’s life long work, a concept that he

not only dedicated his research to but his entire life and beliefs. This Skinnerian principle holds

that reinforcement, that is, adding something or taking something away, is the sole contributor to

learning. Unlike in classical conditioning where stimuli are simply imposed upon the subject,

operant conditioning investigates the cause and effect of intentional behavior, meaning the

choices that we make daily. Skinner, being a behaviorist through and through, held the belief that

psychology should be based solely on the observable. He believed that “An individual's mind

cannot be known and therefore cannot be shown to have an effect on what the individual does”

(Harvey, 2017). In his first published work he thoroughly rejected psychologist Edward

Thorndike’s notion that learning can be attributed in some part to unobservable mental states like

satisfaction, saying “[it] is not that they do not exist, but that they are not relevant to the

prediction, control, and experimental analysis of behavior” (Skinner, 1953).

Skinner’s behaviorism resonated with me. I began to look at my own life and question

how I had learned the things I knew. I first examined exercise and nutrition. Being a personal

trainer and working towards a nutritionist license I told clients that I worked out because I

“loved” it. But what did that really mean? Through Skinner’s eyes I saw my passions explained
by a series of interactions with the environment. I went to the gym and trained hard because it

provided me improved health, a familiar social niche and even compliments from others, all

three of which he he would call positive reinforcement. Ironically, I realized that I was also

using positive punishment (adding a stimulus in order to remove a behavior) by being active to

reduce aggression and depression as well as eliminate idle behavior

I was shocked, the more I looked the more I saw behaviorism. I stopped snacking in my

apartment by keeping a rubberband on my wrist and stinging myself each time I felt an urge. I

tidied up my room each time my parents came to visit me at school because I was positively

reinforced by the compliment my mother gave me each time she walked in. My father even quit

a forty year smoking addiction by turning to a therapist who specialized in behavioral

modification techniques. I later found out that the therapist used Skinner’s study on shaping by

increasing the amount of reinforcement my father received as he got closer and closer to the

desired goal. From my Dad’s point of view, he didn't see Skinner’s 1953 text ​Science and

Human Behavior​ but a simple and sometimes unnoticeable series of cause and effects. As he

descended from his use of unfiltered Marlboros to the slightly less cancerous filtered USA’s, to

e-cigarettes and eventually to just a toothpick, he was slowly making his way towards the desired

behavior. Inversely, as the smoking decreased, positive reinforcement escalated. Improved blood

pressure and respiratory tests, encouragements from wife and therapist as well as increased

performance on the tennis court all created an opportune environment for behavior to be

changed. At the end of the 6 month clinic the therapist explained to my father the techniques he

used; shaping in contingency with an interval ratio schedule of reinforcement so that the old

habit was less likely to return. He ended their meeting by saying that in theory, the technique was
so simple even a pigeon could do it. Of course, he was referring to Skinner’s own experiments in

which he was successfully able to modify and teach complex behaviors to birds.

So then, if a bird can do what my father and millions of others struggle with how

different are we really? Sure, animals don’t read dissertations on comparative literature or write

hundreds of lines of code but the techniques with which we learned (or unlearned) our behaviors,

our habits, phobias are exactly the same as those used in B.F. Skinner’s famous box.

Today the behaviorist movement is long gone, squandered by cognitive psychologists and

their findings on the role of mental representations and learning. Once prominent behavioral

psychologists who dedicated their life to their research now claim “behaviorism has been refuted,

its methods have failed, and it has little to offer modern psychology" (Zuriff, 1985). Regardless, I

am amazed by how applicable behaviorism is and always will be. It’s not every day that one

comes across a scientific theory that not only can any lay person understand, but apply to his or

her life. It set the groundwork for therapy, for early education, for pet training and even cognitive

psychologists who, although reluctant to admit it, study objectively verifiable behavior in one

regard or another (Roediger, 2014). And although I do not believe the early behaviorist’s claim

that there is no distinction between man and beast, I sympathize with Skinner’s assertion that the

environment plays a majority role in shaping we are.


Harvey, L. (2017). Behaviourism. ​Quality Research International.​ Retrieved from

Roediger, H. L., (2014). What happened to behaviorism. ​Association for Psychological

Science​. Retrieved from

Skinner, B. F. (1953). ​Science and Human Behavior​. New York: New York. MacMillan

Watson, J. B. (1913). ​Psychology as the behaviorist views it​. Psychological

Review, 20​, 158-178.

Zuriff, G. E. (1985). ​Behaviorism: A conceptual reconstruction​. New York: Columbia

University Press.