Free Skinner

A week and a half ago I wrote about the essays I’ve been marking – I’m tutoring first year psychology (Mind, Brain, and Behaviour) this semester, and it’s absolutely fantastic.

This week we’re talking about operant conditioning. You may know about operant conditioning from such diverse shows as The Big Bang Theory, South Park, or Supernanny (in increasing levels of complexity). Operant conditioning is a principle of learning formulated by B. F. Skinner, according to which the frequency of behaviour increases or decreases according to whether it is followed by positive or negative consequences, respectively. In the class we’ll be going through a thousand examples – you eat more chocolate because it tastes good, you smile at someone because they smile back, etc etc.

As a principle of learning, operant condition is rarely questioned. However, Skinner was a major proponent of the behaviourist movement in psychology, and that movement is certainly not uncontroversial. At their most extreme, behaviourists wanted to dispense with any unobservable variables in the explanation of human behaviour. This meant getting rid of notions of “thoughts”, “desires”, “feelings” and, most of all, “free will”. According to behaviourists, you never do anything because you want to, or feel like it, or “just because”; instead everything is explained by your reinforcement history. Everything you do, you do because of the consequences you experienced last time you did it.

This proposition can of course be debated, and I hope that it will generate some interesting discussion tomorrow. Personally, I don’t “believe in” free will. I acknowledge that I often (most of the time!) feel like I am free to do whatever I want; but how unfree that makes me is easily demonstrated just by asking me to “do something random”, and seeing how many absurd possibilities I quickly dismiss, before settling on something quite mundane and socially acceptable (like cartwheeling, say). Skinner would probably claim it as proof that I have been well conditioned, and I’d be hard pressed to disagree.

Anyway, this idea of “free will” is the main point of this blog, as it relates to morality. If your behaviour is entirely determined by your environment (as the behaviourists would have it), who is responsible for your moral wrongdoings? Or, for that matter, who gets credit for the moral good you do? Many people seem very concerned about this implication of behaviourism, in that they argue that people will stop behaving morally if they stop believing in free will. As it happens, researchers in social and moral psychology have looked at precisely this possibility. Baumeister, Masicampo & Dewall (2009) showed that belief in free will was positively related to helpfulness (and negatively to aggression) and Vohs and Schooler (2008) showed that determinism increased cheating behaviour. Interestingly, free will has also been studied in the area of consumer psychology, under such great titles as “free to buy”, and “free will, temptation, and self-control: we must believe in free will, we have no choice”.

I wonder what Skinner would say about these studies? I am reading his excellent book Beyond Freedom and Dignity at the moment, so maybe I’ll have an answer for you soon! In the meantime, what do you think? Do you believe in free will? And do you need to, to act morally?


Image from scholarpedia.

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