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A brief primer on Behaviorism – don’t be afraid…

This past month I was shocked when I received the June issue of the Atlantic in the mail and the cover read, “THE END OF TEMPTATION: How the creepy science of behavior modification is reshaping our desires.” WTF?! The end of temptation? The creepy science of behavior modification? Reshaping our desires? I am a behaviorist and I am used to people not fully understanding many behavioral principles and much of Skinner’s work, but the Atlantic? Really?

Then I started to read the article (actually titled, “The Perfected Self”) by David H. Freedman and I started to calm down a bit (overzealous marketers must have been responsible for the cover). The piece actually provides a fairly balanced representation of Skinner’s work. However, there are still a few things that we should review – so here goes.

First, the introduction to the article states, “Skinner’s ideas are making an unlikely comeback today, powered by smartphone apps that are transforming us into thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves. The only thing we have to give up? Free will.” Damn. Really? Give up free will? This is an unfortunate repetition of a common misunderstanding of Skinner’s work. So, don’t worry folks, you can apply behavioral modification techniques without giving up free will – in fact this type of work has been very well-developed to help thousands of people with autism lead more fulfilling lives.

So, why are people so scared about their free will? It might be part semantics and part fear. The semantics part comes from the fact that most behaviorists talk about behavior “coming under the control of stimuli.” So, if I want to teach my dog to sit by showing her a treat, she might not initially sit all the time. However, if I repeatedly show her a treat (present the stimulus) and then give her the treat when she sits (reinforce the behavior); and importantly, not give her the treat when she doesn’t sit, over time she will (and indeed has) develop the habit of sitting when I show her a treat. As behaviorists we would say that her sitting behavior has come under stimulus control (of the treat). Now bear in mind that she has not relinquished any “free will.” In fact, she will often not sit for a treat if there are alternative reinforcers available, such as when we are outside and there is a squirrel nearby…

Which leads us to our second point regarding choice, free will, and fear – what should we really be concerned about here? Skinner’s work and behaviorism was perceived as threatening because people incorrectly thought that the demonstrations of how at external stimuli influence our behaviors meant that we no longer had any choice or that we had given up our control or free will. This is not true, and in fact, a better understanding of such behavioral principles allows us to use them to our advantage (see examples of this in the fascinating work being done by Brian Wansink and colleagues). Moreover, this irrational fear of how we might use behavioral techniques to our advantage ignores the fact that major corporations and food marketers have already developed similar techniques to get us to eat their garbage. Think for a second about all of the advertising, rewards programs, coupons, rebates, product placement, celebrity endorsements, etc. etc. that you see and hear every day. Have you ever thought about how many stimuli that you encounter on a daily basis that have been specifically designed to persuade you into behaving in a certain way? Conversely, do you want to design your own environments and your own stimuli to encourage you to do the things that you would actually like to do? If so, welcome to the science of behavior.

Lastly, let’s cover some of the basic principles of behavior modification so we have a common vocabulary and can avoid any confusion at the outset.

Operant (or Skinnerian) conditioning involves: 1) the presentation of a stimulus (could be a treat like the above example, an advertisement, driving by a fast food restaurant, or just walking in the door after work); 2) followed by a behavior; 3) followed by a consequence (another stimulus). This is distinct from classical or Pavlovian conditioning in which there is no consequence of the behavior or action. In Pavlovian conditioning, an conditioned stimulus (e.g., a bell ringing) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (e.g., food presentation) such that an unconditioned response to the food (i.e., a dog salivating) comes to be associated with the bell ringing. When this happens, the salivation is now said to be a conditioned response to the bell and classical or Pavlovian conditioning has occurred. To get an idea of the potential strength and duration of classical conditioning, ask a former smoker if there are any sights, smells, or places that still make them want to light up a cigarette and see what they say. Make sure to note the (likely fond) look on their face as they recall those associations.

But, back to operant conditioning. There are three major ways in which operant conditioning occurs: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Positive reinforcement occurs when the stimulus presented after the behavior increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. An example of this is the presentation of the treat to the dog after she sits. Giving the treat right after she sits increases the likelihood that she will sit again when I show her another treat. Praise might also serve as a positive reinforcer in this regard.

Negative reinforcement occurs when the removal of a stimulus after the behavior increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. So, if I

This embarrassed dog would like to know why she has to wear these beads

was a person who made my dog wear a silly outfit that she would prefer not to wear (because such behavior is embarrassing to the dog and to the owner), but I removed the outfit whenever she sat down, over time this would increase the likelihood that she would sit down (because dogs, like humans, prefer not to look silly). Note that reinforcement (positive and negative) always involves the increased likelihood that a behavior will occur, which is not to be confused with…

Punishment occurs when the presentation or removal of a stimulus decreases the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. Scolding or yelling at a dog would represent a punishing stimulus if it followed a particular behavior and decreased the likelihood that the behavior occurred again. Anyone who is familiar with the law (or children for that matter) should have a basic understanding of punishment and why it is not a very effective method for behavior modification. This is the conclusion that Skinner came to by the end of his career and it is largely due to the fact that individuals subjected to punishment often simply try to avoid the punishing stimulus (e.g., don’t get caught, sneak out when grounded) as opposed to not engaging in the behavior that a person is trying to discourage. Punishment is not a good way to effectively change behavior for the long-term.

So, we hope to have provided the basics of behavior modification and operant conditioning here. The science of behavior deserves a resurgence and we here at Dan’s Plan will champion that effort. Don’t fear behavioral modification. By learning about these principles and putting them into practice, you won’t have to give up any rights or your free will, but you might learn a lot about how stimuli in your environment shape your behavior.