BF Skinner is My Homeboy

Back in grad school, when I was learning to be a special ed teacher, I became versed in behaviorism a la BF Skinner. Skinner has a bad rep, largely related to the infamous Skinner Box (which was really a high-tech crib) and assorted misuses of his theories (like using electrical shocks to punish behavior deemed “unwanted.”) But the basic concept is simple and powerful. ABC.

Antecedent: the stimulus that evokes the behavior

Behavior: the action done in response to the stimulus

Consequence: the direct result of the behavior

Changing behavior involves manipulating A or C or both. Understanding behavior requires analyzing environmental factors and other inputs that may serve as the stimulus and examining the aftermath: what did they get out of that?

This framework is extremely useful in teaching individuals with severe disabilities and in raising children. Toddlers have basic and obvious needs and wants, and managing both the inputs and the consequences can be done by an attentive adult.

With adults, however, a behavioral lens provides little insight. By the time you’re a grown-up, you have patterns of behavior that are so entrenched you could not possibly trace their origins back to the A’s and the C’s. Adult motivations are often difficult to discern and indeed, we may not even know ourselves what drives us. And that is, in large part, why dealing with other people can be so maddening. They don’t make any sense.

I am frequently perplexed by people who say—sometimes even strongly assert—that they want or intend something, but then act in ways that clearly demonstrate the opposite. In some cases people may do that to deliberately deceive. But others, I think, really believe they want what they say they want. Or they think they should want it, even if they don’t, so they claim they do.

It’s maddening.

I have experienced this enough times that I pretty much don’t believe anything anyone says to me. (I know I told you I have trust issues, but just because I have trust issues doesn’t mean y’all aren’t lying through your teeth.) I protect myself by not believing, and I recognize that by doubting your sincerity, I am in some sense being insincere as well.

Is this any way to relate to people? My behaviors, like yours, have been set in stone by long years of experiences you don’t know about and I hardly remember.

What would Skinner do?


6 thoughts on “BF Skinner is My Homeboy

  1. I was just wondering if I relate to this. Do I instinctively disbelieve people? I don’t think I do. On the other hand, I don’t expect much of people, so if they turn out to be lying to me, I am neither surprised nor disappointed. Honestly, I don’t think about other people very much at all. That’s not much of a way to relate to others either, but I don’t know how Skinner would feel about it.

  2. “I am frequently perplexed by people who say—sometimes even strongly assert—that they want or intend something, but then act in ways that clearly demonstrate the opposite. ”

    I wish I understood people well enough to be perplexed by them. So congrats on that.

    You’ve started me thinking on Skinner. Was it Skinner who tortured, I mean tested, the poor little monkey who would choose the furry piece of cloth over the milk bottle? I was thinking of that poor little monkey when I wrote my last post about immaterial necessities.

  3. Stimulus and response are much harder to dissect with as big and complex of a brain as we have. It seems like it would be lonely to never trust anyone, but then again I am not sure how many people I honestly trust beyond myself. I don’t assume people are lying to me, but I assume most people will not follow through on what they have promised me so I may as well just do it myself. Not sure if this is healthy or not, but it certainly leads to fewer disappointments on my part. And some control issues, but WHATEVER, this is about you not me, right!?? (:

  4. I am perplexed by a lot of people. I tend to choose as friends people who don’t perplex me most of the time. Of course my good friends often say one thing and do another, but usually I know them well enough and understand them well enough that I kind of understand why, so it doesn’t bother me. As far as whether I say I want one thing and then act in a way inconsistent with wanting a thing…well, I guess I’d say I tend to want inconsistent things. A LOT of the things I want cannot be reconciled. So I have to compromise, which can be confusing to watch from the outside, I suppose.

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