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Learning to love Skinner

What I found most remarkable in Karen Pryor's book Reaching the Animal Mind is how seamlessly and matter-of-factly she enlists the insights of behaviorism in a project of creative collaboration between species. Once they are taken out of the laboratory and into the world at large, the conditioning techniques that B. F. Skinner and others developed for scientific purposes become powerful tools for the achievement of warmer, fuzzier ends. They can help elucidate animals' integrity as individuals, and (not coincidentally) foster positive emotional bonds within and across species. Pryor's subtitle-- What Clicker Training Teaches Us About All Animals-- hints at her (sadly radical) proposition that humans can and should be in dialogue with other animals. Trainers may be more strongly inclined to listen (though many are not), but we all have as much to learn as to teach. More.

In order to describe Pryor's neat sleight of hand clearly, I first need to travel back to Behaviorist Psychology 101 for a quick primer in classical and operant conditioning. All conditioning involves the establishment of novel associations, and the two types are not in every situation distinct, but for simplicity's sake let's say that classical conditioning promotes reflexive, involuntary responses to a given stimulus, whereas operant conditioning engages a creature's will.

If I say "Pavlov," does the image of a drooling dog spring immediately to mind? Is it still there if I tell you "Don't think of a drooling dog"? If so, you are well conditioned to associate both "Pavlov" and "dog" with more or less specific representations of domestic canines, though the dog you imagine when I say "Pavlov" may be more slack-jowled and blank of expression than the one that "dog" conjures in another context. My point here is that there exists no intrinsic relationship between the word "Pavlov" or "dog" and any actual dog (or even the category of dogs), but if you are an English speaker with some knowledge of psychology, these unlike things have been paired often enough in your experience that one invokes the other without any deliberate effort on your part. That's a form of classical conditioning.

Operant conditioning asks a little more from you: intent and action. In this case the salient association is created between a behavior and a consequence. If it becomes strong enough (if the consequence follows consistently from the behavior), it takes on the flavor of a causal relationship, though the connection may be an arbitrary one. Pavlov's dog is the icon for classical conditioning; Skinner's lever-pressing rats embody operant conditioning at its most basic. Rat pushes lever, and out pops kibble. Far out. If you want to preserve the association but don't want fat rats, you can add a cue. Green light on, push lever: kibble. Green light off, push lever: nada, niente, SOL. As with the example given for classical conditioning, there's no ready-made relationship between lights, levers, and kibble. It's dreamt up by the scientist and taught to the rat, simply through temporally close, predictable association.

However little we might like to believe that we resemble rats, humans are subject to the same tendency to perceive causal relationships where none may exist. Like all animals, we seek coherence and control in a stubbornly chaotic world. Nothing undermines our well being more disastrously than a sense of helplessness, so we are apt to exaggerate our agency and influence. Sports fans seem especially susceptible to delusions of this kind: when I am watching my beloved San Diego Chargers on television, a thousand or more miles from the field of action, I become temporarily (absurdly) convinced that my shouted "Come on, D!" or my failure to wear my Quentin Jammer jersey could make or break my team's chances at victory. Athletes themselves take superstitious behavior to comical extremes, baseball pitchers to an art. This is where the line between classical and operant conditioning begins to blur: when a stimulus (or set of stimuli) triggers us to act automatically, even compulsively, will and intent disappear from the mix.

photo credit: San Diego Shooter via photopin cc