Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders

A critical review of fact, fiction, and speculation in the field of autism

021. Behaviorism, part 2. BF Skinner

Is all human behavior is the result of prior conditioning?

The views of Thorndike and Watson were refined by their most famous adherent, B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner built on Thorndike's "law of effect" - the tendency of whatever behavior immediately preceded an animal's escaping from the cage to increase in frequency. In Thorndike's work, the target behavior and the reward for that behavior were one and the same: escape from the cage. Skinner's genius lay in separating this process into two elements: There was no way to escape from one of Skinner's devices (which have become so popular with animal psychologists that they now go by the nickname "Skinner boxes"). Instead, Skinner provided the opportunity for the animal to obtain other rewards, such as a drink of water or a food pellet. His approach involved specifying the desired behavior beforehand, and then presenting a drink or a food pellet whenever that behavior happened to occur by chance. Relying on Thorndike's law of effect, whatever behavior immediately precedes doling out the reward goes up in frequency.

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In one famous experiment, Skinner pushed a button, causing a food pellet to drop into a pigeon's cage, whenever the bird inadvertently raised its head for a second or two. Getting a food pellet was a pleasurable experience, which tended to increase the likelihood that the immediately preceding behavior (in this case, head-raising) would recur. Before long, the pigeon was keeping its head raised continuously. In Skinner's terms, the pigeon's spontaneous, initially random behavior (head raising) operated on the environment - with a little behind-the-scenes help from Skinner - resulting in the release of food. Skinner therefore described his procedure as operant conditioning.

Using the technique of operant conditioning, Skinner could shape the naturally-occurring behavior of his subjects in all sorts of ways. It wasn't necessary to believe that the subject "understood" what was happening. And in the case of pigeons, that's probably true. It's unlikely that the pigeon is saying to itself "Hmmm....it seems that I get a reward every time I raise my head." But behaviorists - at least, "radical behaviorists, such as Skinner - deny the existence of "understanding," as we commonly use the word, for humans as well as pigeons: A behaviorist would say that our subjective perception of the "Aha!" phenomenon, when we suddenly "get the idea," or "figure out what's going on" is just a fiction, a product of successive trials that have reinforced a stimulus-response pattern. (Skinner even attempted to reduce all of language to what he termed "Verbal Behavior."  More on this in a later post.) Fortunately, we do not need to embrace radical behaviorism, in order to reap the considerable benefits of operant conditioning as an instructional technique for children with ASD.

Go here for an interesting short documentary segment on Skinner: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm5FGrQEyBY

Go here for a modern demonstration of the skinner box: http://brembs.net/operant/skinnerbox.html

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Follow Dr. Coplan on the web: http://www.DrCoplan.com and on Facebook (James Coplan, MD - Developmental Pediatrician / Autistic Spectrum Disorders)

Dr. James Coplan is a developmental pediatrician, with four decades of experience caring for children with special needs and their families.

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