Sunday, 22 January 2012

Meeting B. F. Skinner


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B.F. Skinner is such a psychological icon that it’s easy for me to believe that he’s only someone I ever read about.  But I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times.  I can honestly say he is the most charismatic person I have ever met – more charismatic than Debbie Harry, Prince Charles, and Richard Attenborough (sorry, my list of celebrity encounters is quite limited). The reason I met Skinner so often was because I was fortunate enough to do my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Bangor in North Wales, at a time when that Psychology Department was a hive of Behaviourist research and thinking. It was the most wonderful of educations - every lecture was about objectivity, measurement, functionality, and experimentation and couldn’t fail to make you think as a scientist about every psychological question you encountered. At that time most of the faculty were newly appointed young researchers who all promoted the same scientific view of human behaviour. The Head of Department was an ex-Oxford Philosopher, Tim Miles (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Richard_Miles), who had been greatly influenced in his thinking by Ludwig Wittgenstein, someone who we heard about regularly in our lectures – I remember Tim Miles regularly saying “Say what you like as long as you know what you mean” – something I still try to explain to my own students (except for the ‘say what you like’ bit!). Tim Miles built around him in Bangor a strong and thriving group of modern Behaviourist thinkers. Sadly, he died in 2008, and is still best remembered for his work on dyslexia and his founding of the Bangor Dyslexia Unit, but I am always amazed that his role in founding a thriving Department of Psychology dedicated to scientific principles is only rarely recognized.

I entirely owe my early academic and professional progression to Tim Miles. Like many new undergraduates who had been released from home for the first time, I lost my way in my first year. In my first year at Bangor, I failed all my first year exams (but I did achieve one unforgettable accolade as Bangor Student Union Table Football Champion – perhaps indicating where I went wrong). Tim eventually called me into his office after the first year results were announced. He sat in front of me – as usual wearing his black academic gown. “Davey” he said, “you’ve failed everything”. Yes, I knew I had. In those days you expected to be simply vilified if you’d failed and sent home to take up that menial job in a boring small company accounts department that I’d actually gone to University to avoid. But no, he said to me “Davey, I’m going to give you one more chance (He was for all his life a devout practicing Quaker). We’re setting you a special exam in September, if you achieve 40% and pass you can do Psychology”

It’s a long time ago, but I’m sure I nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. I went home for the summer and as a callous teenager whose main aim was to learn how to play Led Zeppelin guitar riffs from the first Led Zeppelin album (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Led_Zeppelin_(album)) and to practice Bert Jansch’s finger picking style (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Jansch_(album)), I played lip service to revising for this special exam that I’d been so fortuitously allowed to sit. I got 43%. I passed. But most importantly I had by then decided that this was too good an opportunity to miss (apart from getting to number 1 in the US Billboard charts – something that is still on my “To Do” list). Nevertheless, my willingness to want to achieve at that point was made so much easier by being taught in a Department with a close and singular philosophy – one of scientific behaviourism.

Although I’m now willing to call myself a lapsed Behaviourist (I am very happy to embrace cognitive views and explanations), my undergraduate education as a radical behaviourist was absolutely formative. Sadly, many modern day undergraduates seem to want to be taught only psychological core knowledge (Like they need to regurgitate facts at a Pub Quiz), they rarely start from a ‘way of thinking’ perspective. In fact, they rarely experience any philosophy of science that teaches them about what scientific explanations are and what are ‘good’ explanations and what are ‘bad’ explanations. In my undergraduate training that is where each lecture started.

Needless to say I enjoyed my undergraduate psychology experience. It was then a natural progression to go on and study for a PhD. I was immersed in behaviourism and animal learning at that time, and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being nominated for a Nobel Prize for my doctoral research on the determinants of the fixed-interval post-reinforcement pause in rats! With Bangor being such an important hub of behaviourism and animal learning at that time, it was inevitable that many important researchers and theorists would pass through, and B.F. Skinner was one of those people. When his radical behaviourist treatise “Beyond Freedom & Dignity” was published in 1971 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyond_Freedom_and_Dignity) I remember sneaking out of the lab to buy the one copy that was in the bookshop before my research colleagues got it (I don’t think I’ve ever been forgiven for that!).

Skinner came to Bangor a couple of times to various Behavioural conferences. It is extraordinary that he did, because during the 1970s he was one of the most sought after psychologists and speakers in the world. He was an extraordinarily polite man (and why shouldn’t he be?), and always had available a very detailed and considered answer to every question that he was asked. He is one of the few people that I’ve ever felt overawed in the presence of – but perhaps that’s because I was a graduate student in the formative years of my life. I sat opposite him at dinner on one occasion. I only managed to ask him two questions, and they were quite disparate in their scope. The first was “Could you pass the salt please?” He did. The second was “If a society was to adopt your thesis in ‘Beyond Freedom & Dignity’ what would that society look like?” Without any hesitation, he replied “Modern day Communist China during the cultural revolution”, and continued with his meal – albeit adding small sound bites of information on this view as we ate. I was stunned into not asking for the salt again. Here was a man who had been vilified during the 1970s as an archetypical American protestant reactionary preaching tyrannical fascist views about the route that societies should take – but he firmly believed that the principles he espoused would lead to quite the opposite types of society envisaged by his critics. But that is so typical of B.F. Skinner – for example, he never responded to Chomsky’s vitriolic criticism of his book ‘Verbal Behaviour” (http://cogprints.org/1148/) because – after reading the first paragraph – he realized that Chomsky had simply not understood the main thrust of his arguments. Some of Skinner’s scheduled talks in the UK about ‘Beyond Freedom & Dignity’ immediately after its publication were cancelled because of the left-wing demonstrations that had been organized to confront his so-called tyrannical views. At least that was my memory of what happened, but I can find no record of these events or their cancellation. Neither can I find any mention of a left-wing group that I remember being called the “Red Rats” whom I recall (rightly or wrongly) made it their job to disrupt his high-profile presentations. So if anyone has any recall of this group, I would very much appreciate any information they can provide.

Skinner’s views were a philosophy of science – not, as many people think, a mechanistic view of how behaviour works. He was the original evidence-based thinker in psychology, moving psychology from being a discipline dealing with hypothetical, psychic entities to one that dealt with measurable, observable scientific facts. Sadly, I think most people remember him for trying to ‘treat people like they are rats’ (1), but it was all really about the philosophy of explanation. Basically, however we try to explain the behaviour of nonhuman animals, then the same principles of explanation apply to understanding human behaviour. It was never about ‘degrading’ humans to the level of animals nor was it about devaluing the ‘dignity’ or ‘freedom’ of human beings (2, 3). It was about ways of understanding.

(1)       Davey G C L (1981) Animal Learning & Conditioning. Macmillans.
(2)       Koestler A (1967) The Ghost in the Machine. London: Hutchinson.
(3)       Chomsky N (1972) Psychology and ideology. Cognition, 1, 11-46.



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