Jun 26, 2017

The behaviorist mind, or not

As previously posted in this blog one of the major distinctions between performance and learning is that learning is not directly observable and must be inferred from the observed behavior. The following video is a short description of the behaviorist approach to understanding how learning occurs. In it there is also an interview of one of the major figures of this science, B. F. Skinner.

Can pigeons read? This one gives every indication. Because it's being taught to distinguish between two words and to behave appropriately. He's learned his different response to each sign by being rewarded with food. So the bird isn't acting independently. It's behavior is shaped by controlling its environment.

Flactemb. "Dr. B.F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning." YouTube. YouTube, 19 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 June 2017.

In all intents and purpose, as per behaviorism, the pigeon has actually learned to read. It is important to note that the behaviorist approach dismisses any internal mental processes as the cause of a behavior. Instead, behavior is a function of some external stimulus. In his book Science and human behavior B. F. Skinner explains behavior as follows:

The external variables of which behavior is a function provide for what may be called a causal or functional analysis. We undertake to predict and control the behavior of the individual organism. This is our “dependent variable”—the effect for which we are to find the cause. Our “independent variables”—the causes of behavior—are the external conditions of which behavior is a function. Relations between the two—the “cause-and-effect relationships” in behavior—are the laws of a science. A synthesis of these laws expressed in quantitative terms yields a comprehensive picture of the organism as a behaving system.

This must be done within the bounds of a natural science. We cannot assume that behavior has any peculiar properties which require unique methods or special kinds of knowledge. It is often argued that an act is not so important as the “intent” which lies behind it, or that it can be described only in terms of what it “means” to the behaving individual or to others whom it may affect. If statements of this sort are useful for scientific purposes, they must be based upon observable events, and we may confine ourselves to such events exclusively in a functional analysis. We shall see later that although such terms as “meaning” and “intent” appear to refer to properties of behavior, they usually conceal references to independent variables. This is also true of “aggressive,” “friendly,” “disorganized,” “intelligent,” and other terms which appear to describe properties of behavior but in reality refer to its controlling relations.

The independent variables must also be described in physical terms. An effort is often made to avoid the labor of analyzing a physical situation by guessing what it “means” to an organism or by distinguishing between the physical world and a psychological world of “experience.” This practice also reflects a confusion between dependent and independent variables. The events affecting an organism must be capable of description in the language of physical science. It is sometimes argued that certain “social forces” or the “influences” of culture or tradition are exceptions. But we cannot appeal to entities of this sort without explaining how they can affect both the scientist and the individual under observation. The physical events which must then be appealed to in such an explanation will supply us with alternative material suitable for a physical analysis.

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic. Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press, 1953

As for B. F. Skinner and other behaviorists the process of learning and behavior between humans and animals are not different. Assessment methods, including multiple choice exams, in education and work have been heavily influenced by behaviorism learning theory since its early development. Behaviorism and technology have also been a major part of our educational system since its beginnings. In the following video B. F. Skinner explains the use of teaching machines in educational assessment:

Behaviorists do not support the concepts such as memory, or information processing when it comes to explanations of what happens in the brain during learning. Robert Epstein, a psychologist who worked with B. F. Skinner, wrote an interesting criticism of the analogy of the brain as a computer, a concept more often used by cognitive psychologists.

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.


As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences. Of special note are experiences of three types: (1) we observe what is happening around us (other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens); (2) we are exposed to the pairing of unimportant stimuli (such as sirens) with important stimuli (such as the appearance of police cars); (3) we are punished or rewarded for behaving in certain ways.

We become more effective in our lives if we change in ways that are consistent with these experiences – if we can now recite a poem or sing a song, if we are able to follow the instructions we are given, if we respond to the unimportant stimuli more like we do to the important stimuli, if we refrain from behaving in ways that were punished, if we behave more frequently in ways that were rewarded.

Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.

The concept of learning is used to mean a lot of things quite often, to the point that it just becomes a buzzword. As per behaviorism, it is nothing more than an unobservable permanent change in the brain which is inferred from behavior. Claiming specific mental processes from behavioristic assessment methods seems like a major mismatch to me.

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

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