Behaviorism Outside the Skinner Box

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It’s a long way from the research lab to the street. Here’s what can go wrong when we take bedrock psychological theory and try to apply it to real life.

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For anyone who’s ever taken an introductory course in Psychology, the name B.F. Skinner should be familiar. His contribution to Psychology can hardly be overstated. Dissatisfied with what he saw as a lack of rigor in the field, he insisted that theories should reference only observable behavior rather than conceptual constructs that may or may not be active in the minds under study. Skinner’s theory of Behaviorism led him to foundational discoveries about how punishment and reward affect behavior in both animals and human beings. In the simplest possible terms, Skinner described with mathematical precision how reward increases the frequency of behaviors, while punishment reduces the frequency of behaviors. Skinner ensured the purity of his data by controlling every aspect of his animal subjects’ lives in specialized cages bearing his name: “Skinner boxes”.

Skinner casts a long shadow. If you’ve ever received a performance bonus or paid a ‘sin tax,’ you’re part of Skinner’s legacy. The allure of his ideas was threefold. First, they were intuitive. Punishment and reward seem like they ought to work the way Skinner described them. Skinner was able to give rigor to what most people already assumed qualitatively. Even more attractive was the fact that Behaviorism was simple in its design and implementation. There’s no need to consider what the subject wants, needs or feels. Only desirable and undesirable behavior, and rates of responding matter. Third, behaviorism works quickly, especially relative to the psychodynamic approaches championed by Freud.

Applications and Complications

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Perhaps the best demonstration of the power and appeal of Skinner’s theories can be found in the form of Cesar Millan, popularly known as “The Dog Whisperer.” Viewers of his popular dog-training television series will recognize the sudden and profound effect he has on dogs through well-timed corrections (mild punishments) and removing subtle rewards from problem behaviors.

Dogs aren’t the only ones being trained on reality TV. The Supernanny series, popular in past years, is making a comeback. And the core message is essentially the same: we can shape children’s behavior by rewarding behavior we like and punishing behavior we don’t like.

On TV it works so well. And the reason it works is not that the shows are lying to us, but that Behaviorism seems most powerful when you only know a little about it. On deeper inspection, Behaviorism includes a number of less obvious limitations. What B.F. Skinner, Cesar Millan and the Supernanny all have in common is that they have nearly total control over their respective charges’ environment. It’s rare in real life that we have that level of control, and without it, behavior intervention is hard to achieve.

It used to be popular to ask clients to keep a rubber band around their wrist to “snap” themselves when they do some undesired behavior. That’s fine in theory, but it presupposes the client has the presence of mind to notice the behavior, stop, and apply the punishment. If they could do all that, the chances that they would do the negative behavior in the first place are low. And if they can’t, then the intervention is useless.

When it comes to Behavioral interventions, timing is everything. Cesar Millan embodies this distinction when he corrects dogs. He has the uncanny ability to read the dog’s body language to recognize when they’re about to misbehave. In a flash, his hand snakes out, touches the dog on the neck and breaks it out of the incipient behavior before it can even start. That’s the kind of split-second timing that good behavioral intervention requires: the punishment or reward must be very, very close in time to the behavior or there is essentially no effect.

Meanwhile, when I work with mandated clients on probation, they may violate the terms of their release and be sent back to jail for several months. But due to delays inherent in the justice system, there are often weeks or months between the violation and the consequence. Perhaps the offender can cognitively connect his sentence to his violation, but it is not a real behavioral intervention. Parents also miss the mark with chore charts or other reward schemes that separate behavior and consequence with a gulf of time.

Behaviorism and the Human Animal

While Behaviorism à la Skinner is expensive in terms of its requirement for a highly controlled environment and second-by-second monitoring of behavior, there is a far greater cost when we consider Behaviorism when practiced on human beings. Behaviorism assumes the experimenter, trainer, or therapist must fully prescribe the desired behavior and apply punishments or rewards to shape the subject or client behavior until this pattern is established. In human beings, what’s lost is any creativity, initiative, or buy-in the client might have brought to the table. Perhaps for very specific behaviors or rote work this isn’t a problem, but for anything more complicated, creativity, reflection, and motivation matter. As complexity grows, they overshadow any behavioral conditioning effect.

As popular as Supernanny is, I find Behaviorist parenting techniques to be risky for a very specific reason: when children are small, it’s easier to control their environment and apply punishments and rewards immediately. For small children, it looks as though the techniques work, and indeed as long as kids are small and closely-supervised, they do. As children grow to young adults, they naturally become harder to control and resentful of the ongoing use of rewards and punishments. Many children raised in this way are actually conditioned to become sneaky as a way of avoiding punishments. Parents will say “don’t let me catch you…” followed by some form of misbehavior. And indeed they get exactly what they requested: a child who makes sure not to get caught when breaking the rules.

While Behaviorism has legions of theoretical detractors, my purpose is not to invalidate this venerable theory, but rather to help people understand how it truly works, including some deep and profound limitations in how and when it can be effectively applied. When Behaviorism is truly understood, we’ll know that what works in the lab and the kennel isn’t nearly so applicable to the nursery, the school, or the courtroom.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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