“Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!” Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, spoken almost 50 years ago, still inspire me today. But what if freedom couldn’t ring anywhere? What if freedom simply didn’t exist, at least not in the sense that King meant it or that we envision it?
For B.F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, the word “freedom” is unobservable and therefore a pretty much useless concept. “Freedom,” along with the word is “mentalistic,” existing in the mind, subjective, and lacking scientific merit. Skinner argued that there is no “true” freedom. “No true freedom!” you scoff, “blasphemy! Freedom is the foundation of our lives, of our state, and of our government!” But the guy’s got a pretty convincing case against freedom. In order to understand why freedom is an illusion, however, you have to understand Skinner’s theory of behavioral analysis.
Everything we do, according to Skinner, is a product of our environment shaping and conditioning us. Skinner himself said, “I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is.” We experience both classical conditioning (think Pavlov and his salivating dogs) and operant conditioning. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus multiple times. In Pavlov’s case, Pavlov rang a bell in front of his dogs. This bell was the neutral stimulus, because the dogs did not have an instinctive response to the bell. As he rang the bell, he exposed the dogs to meat. The meat served as the unconditioned stimulus, because the dogs naturally salivated at the smell. Eventually, after numerous pairings of the neutral stimulus (the bell) with the unconditioned stimulus (the meat), the neutral stimulus alone was able to cause the dogs to salivate (which was previously an unconditioned response but is now a conditioned response). Scarily, classical conditioning is effective for more animals than just dogs. In 1920, pioneer behavioral psychologists John Watson and Rosalie Rayner classically conditioned a 9 month-old dubbed “Little Albert.” They conditioned the young child to be scared of a white rat by continually pairing the rabbit with a loud and disturbing sound that frightened the boy. Eventually, Little Albert would cry and crawl away after only seeing the rat, even when no sound occurred. His fear generalized to other furry objects—a dog, a fur coat, and some wool—as well.
Though classical conditioning is important and can certainly affect humans, as in Little Albert’s case, Skinner believed that operant conditioning is the source of most human behaviors. Operant conditioning involves the immediate reinforcement of a response. Reinforcements do not cause actual behaviors, but, true to their name, they reinforce the behavior by increasing the probability of the behavior reoccurring. Last year, I took Introduction to Psychology with Tomi Ann, my current professor in Personality. Intro was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that I decided to become a psychology major. Anyways, in Intro, we were all responsible for training a rat. When I first held my rat, Nimh, I knew he was something special. But still, the task of training a rat to roll a marble down a track and out of a hole, press a lever, and eat a treat (in three and a half weeks, too!) was rather daunting. Operant conditioning, however, enabled my partner and me to train Nimh in a mere seven days.
We started by “shaping” Nimh. As in most cases of operant conditioning, the desired behavior (rolling the marble, pressing the lever, and eating a treat) was too complex to occur all at once, which is why shaping became a necessity. Shaping is when a behavior that is at all similar to the desired final action is rewarded. To shape Nimh, we first gave him cereal every time he came close to the lever he was eventually supposed to press. Then, we only gave him cereal when he actually touched the lever. Finally, we only rewarded him when he pressed the lever all the way down. And just like that, he had learned part one of his task, all thanks to shaping and operant conditioning.
Ok, so now that I’ve provided a brief overview of classical and operant conditioning (major tenants of Skinner’s theory), let’s get back to this freedom business. A class handout aptly states what we actually mean, according to Skinner, when we say we desire freedom: “Usually we mean we don’t want to be in a society that punishes us for doing what we want to do. Hence, if we pick the right reinforcers, we will feel free, because we will be doing what we feel we want!” We are not free; instead, the environment (which includes other humans) shapes everything we do. Everything. If Skinner were to examine my life, he would easily find reinforcers behind all my behaviors. For instance, he might argue that I am taking Personality because last year, when I picked my classes, older friends told me to take the class while at the same time smiling and nodding at me. If I take the class, I will get more smiles! So I took the class with the anticipation of receiving the reinforcer more times. What else? I went for a run today. Did I personally choose to do so? Don’t be silly. I went running because when I have gone running in the past, I have been rewarded with endorphins and a reduction of stress. Since my behavior of running is generally followed by reinforcing, positive stimuli, I have an increased probability of running in the future. So that’s why I went for a jaunt in the Colorado rain today.
Behavioral analysis can be difficult to accept. We like to believe that we aren’t like the intro to psych rats, easily influenced and manipulated by our environment. We like to think that freedom is real. Skinner’s theory makes us question our own free will and choice by favoring a deterministic stance. You can make up your own mind (or can you, since you’ve probably been repeatedly conditioned to reject determinism and champion free will?) as to the validity of Skinner’s theory, but I leave you with an example of the power of operant conditioning: pigeons playing ping pong!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt0ucxOrPQE (Little Albert—start watching around the one minute mark)