By Sophia Yin
Everyone who is serious about understanding animals and modifying behavior knows the research of B.F. Skinner well. But only a few have met him personally. In her new book The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World, author Dr. Susan Schneider reveals some of the lessons she learned during her 15 year friendship with the Father of Operant Conditioning. She shares some of her stories in an interview with me.
Q) How did you get to know B.F. Skinner?
A) I wrote Fred after reading some of his work for a high school psychology class. I was impressed at how scientific his work was (having previously only known of pop psychology), and how many benefits there were for people and for animals. To my great surprise, he wrote me back! We corresponded for the last 15 years of his life, and I got to meet him a number of times, especially after I switched careers from engineering to psychology.
Q) What was he like?
A) Skinner practiced what he preached: He thought one of the values of knowing more about the science of consequences was the ability to minimize aversives and emphasize the positive—providing better environments for learning, social interactions, workplaces, etc. He was caring, affable, and supportive, and (of course) extremely well-read. And he had a strong social conscience. Not that many know that he wrote popular articles with titles like Why Are We Not Acting to Save the World.
Q) People frequently say that he thought an animal was a black box that could be trained to do anything you want and that genetics were not important. Is that true?
A) On the contrary; I consider him one of the early “systems” theorists. He recognized that nature and nurture always work together, and that the interactions made for a lot of flexibility. The ability to learn through consequences could take advantage of that flexibility, and the effects on neurophysiology have now been documented many times. Skinner wrote frequently about genetics, neurophysiology, and evolution, but, of course, his own work focused on learning. A great article on this topic is by my PhD adviser Ed Morris (University of Kansas) and several of his students in the scientific journal, The Behavior Analyst in 2004. They summarize and excerpt Skinner’s writing on biology-behavior relationships.
Few people are aware that one of Skinner’s earliest research projects was in neurophysiology. He did feel that many of the speculations about how the brain worked in his era (the 1950s, say) were premature–just not enough data yet–and he proved to be correct. Later evidence showed far more neuroplasticity than had been imagined by most neuroscientists, for example.
Skinner was very aware of species-typical/”instinctive” behavior and Pavlovian processes as following different rules—but interacting with operants (that is, behavior influenced by consequences).
Q) People also thought he only cared about operant conditioning and he thought that animal consciousness and cognition was not important. Is that true?
A) He actually did research in what could easily be called cognitive psychology, and wrote extensively about animal and human consciousness and cognition–thinking and problem-solving, for example. There are many levels of what we call “consciousness”: At a very simple level, an earthworm can be said to have consciousness because it experiences sensations. But for something more complex like self-aware human consciousness, Skinner wrote once that “Consciousness is a social product”–and explored its relationship with language and consequences. As I mentioned in a previous answer, Skinner was also well aware of the other behavioral and biological processes involved in the nature-nurture system, and wrote about them frequently. His own empirical research focused on basic operant behavior principles most of the time. But he was always interested in the full range of those principles, and they extend from genetics and neurophysiology to consciousness and cognition.
Q) We think of Skinner as the father of operant conditioning, as the one who helped work out the science of learning and behavior. But when we talk about his recommendations, we only hear about the use of positive reinforcement (and negative punishment/extinction). Why is that?
Skinner established the basics of all areas of learning from consequences (reinforcement and removal of reinforcers), including signals, delays, choice, schedules, relations with Pavlovian processes, emotion, language, and much more! His research revealed that positive consequences were highly effective.
He himself did very little research on aversives, but, of course, such work was necessary–they’re out there and we have to deal with them–and other psychologists eventually performed it. Most of the studies on punishment (aversives) occurred in the 1960s and the studies revealed many adverse effects.
Q) What is the one thing you think people should know about B.F. Skinner?
Just as Ivan Pavlov was the main founder of the science of reflexes and classical conditioning (also discussed in my book), B. F. Skinner was the main founder of the science of consequences (operant conditioning). The impact of both of these sciences has been huge, both for our basic scientific understanding of bio-behavioral processes and the nature-nurture system, and for the magnificent breadth of their beneficial practical applications
To meet Susan Schneider in person, attend one of her speaking events.