Finding The Truth In Psychology From The Works Of B.f. Skinner

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There are many underlying theories as to what contributes to human decisions and behaviors. While some may state that it is nature and our genetics that determines our personalities, other credible psychologists and experiments have suggested it is the way in which we are brought up that determines the human beings we develop into. Somewhat in alignment with the idea that who we become and what we choose to do is in response to the environment we were raised in, is B.F. Skinner’s theory of behaviorism.

According to Skinner, when we are born our minds are ‘tabula rasa,’ a blank slate. Skinner attests that it is not until we have experiences and respond to our environment that we learn behaviors. He believed that we have no genetically inherited behaviors. While some may believe Skinner to have made major breakthroughs in relation modern day psychology, others have found his theories to be incomplete and certainly not universal. The following paper will discuss Skinner’s perceived contributions to the field of psychology from three sources.

The first source examined is the textbook paired with this course, Psychology, by Wade, Tarvis and Garry, the 12th edition (2014). The textbook was used as a reference as it will ideally provide a baseline, unbiased perspective on the contributions of B.F. Skinner to psychology. The text book discusses Skinner’s Operant Conditioning which is the method of learning that occurs as a result of rewards and punishments (Wade, Tarvis, & Garry, 2014). The book identifies that psychologists such as Skinner came after the idea of classical conditioning; learning through association and conditioning (Wade, Tarvis, & Garry, 2014). Skinner believed that classical conditioning was much too simplistic. Skinner found through his studies that rewards increased the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring, and the faster the reward was delivered the sooner the behavior would be repeated (Wade, Tarvis, & Garry, 2014). Similarly, the book states that Skinner attested that punishment weakened behavior, however punished behavior is only suppressed not forgotten, therefore behavior that was punished could return once the punishment was gone (Wade, Tarvis, & Garry, 2014).

Furthermore, the book notes that Skinner’s findings in relation to punishment, or negative reinforcement, show that punishment does not teach an individual what to do it, it only teaches them what not to do (Wade, Tarvis, & Garry, 2014). Being that this source is reflective of a textbook, it merely provides information regarding Skinner and his contributions to psychology, as opposed to stating how valid or invalid his findings were. This source is a credible textbook, however as a textbook it is meant to inform and not critique. Therefore, while the textbook credibly supplies information regarding the findings of Skinner, it does not investigate how valid or invalid such findings are as this is beyond the scope of the book.

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The second source, a case study, examines the hypothesis that “individuals have characteristic ways of looking at the world that are revealed not only in their life story but also in their professional work” (Demorest & Siegel, 1996, p.243). The case study examines this theory in reference to B.F. Skinner and his life’s work. The case study examined on a personal level B.F. Skinners psychological approach to life, created “scripts” and coders from this material, and then compared the “scripts” created from Skinner’s work with the “scripts” derived from his personal characteristics (Demorest & Siegel, 1996). The study examined different articles and Skinner’s autobiography in order to create the scripts and employed independent interpreters to establish the scripts in order to avoid any bias from the researchers themselves (Demorest & Siegel, 1996). The scripts created after examining B.F. Skinners’ work found “both primary coders inferred a wish for freedom or independence” (Demorest & Siegel, 1996, p. 254). “Both scripts discovered a pattern of movement away from one's origins: The individual leaves his origins, a problem is met that leads him to return, and he regroups to successfully leave” (Demorest & Siegel, 1996, p.254). These themes were identified in the scripts as a reflection of Skinner’s struggles and personal and intellectual confinement up until graduating college, and his freedom thereafter (Demorest & Siegel, 1996). The case study then identified ways in which Skinner’s experiments and their findings are reflective of this theme of being confined and constrained and then receiving freedom. The case study does not discredit the work of B.F. Skinner, but rather seeks to identify the bias and influence ones personal life can have on their work and the fruits of their labor. This is a credible source as it is a peer-reviewed case study that was reviewed by an Institutional Review Board. However, some may question the validity of this study as it is human beings, who are fallible, examining the journal entries of another fallible human being, and the examiners may have had bias of their own.

The third recourse selected is a book review of The Psychology of B.F. Skinner by O'Donohue and Ferguson provided by Clayton (2008). The book review discusses how Skinner was initially influenced by psychologists such as Bacon, Mach, Pavlov, and Watson (Clayton, 2008). In addition to those who influenced Skinner and a brief biography, the book review goes on to discuss Skinner’s most significant contributions to psychology. Some of these contributions include Skinner’s “applied behavior analysis, self-management techniques, and attempts to improve on societal conditions” (Clayton, 2008, p. 320). The second portion of the book review contains criticisms of Skinner’s work; including both criticisms the book authors found to be valid as well as invalid. Some of the valid criticisms identified included Skinner’s warning of the ill effects of punishment consistently being used as a means to influence behavior, whereas the book authors believed that punishment had been used “to great effect when dealing with very difficult behaviors, especially self-injurious ones” (Clayton, 2008, p. 320).

In the book review Clayton also identified that the book authors believed Skinner did not address individual creativeness and complexities enough, by believing all individuals’ behavior could be so heavily controlled by a simple reward and punishment system (Clayton, 2008). Finally, the book also attested that “’the science of behavior cannot be used to adequately understand, predict, or control the behavior of any species ‘without knowledge of its instinctive patterns, evolutionary history, and ecological niche” (Clayton, 2008). This source is credible as it is a peer-reviewed article that is a review of a book. The book, however, should in itself be read and checked for credibility.

All three sources reviewed identify the contributions B.S. Skinner made to the field of psychology. All three sources also discuss Skinner’s findings regarding behavioral conditioning. Furthermore, all three sources reference the influence B.F. Skinner has continued to have on psychology and the world today, particularly his impact on society and social justice. All sources also reference the influence of former psychologists on B.F. Skinner such as Bacon, Pavlov, and Watson. In conclusion, all three sources referenced highlight the impact of B.F. Skinner’s experiments on psychology and society today, as well as their continued importance. It seems apparent from all three sources that Skinner is held in high regard and his findings are considered at least partially valid. The sources differ in that the final two sources discuss deficiencies and invalid aspects of Skinner’s experiments and findings, although the two recourses in which these deficiencies are noted, identify different ways in which Skinner’s findings were invalid.

There are quite a few contrasts that can be identified between the three sources listed above. The first source, the textbook for the course, is primarily an objective description of B.F. Skinner’s commonly known contributions to psychology. The second source, in contrast, examines a major way in which Skinner’s research and research findings may have been biased based up his personal characteristics and personal ambitions in life. This bias causes a there to be some doubt in the authenticity of Skinner’s findings. The third recourse identified, is similar to the second source in that it examines reasons to question the authenticity of Skinner’s work. The third source, however, contrasts the second source in that it identifies different reasons the validity of Skinner’s work should be examined. Such reasons include Skinner’s underestimation of the value of punishment as a negative reinforcement, Skinner’s inability to identify the uniqueness of individuals, and Skinner’s idea that using rewards to reinforce behavior and punishment to suppress behavior would work for every individual (Clayton, 2008). The third source also identified that a species evolutionary history largely predicts behavior, therefore no behavior theory in itself can be used to adequately predict behavior (Clayton, 2008). While all sources are valid and credible in their own ways, they all are also lacking formation or are bias in other ways.

There have been a few named psychologists throughout history who are universally recognized as shaping psychology today as we know it. B.F. Skinner, being one of these well-known psychologists, performed what are now famous experiments on rats to create his theory of Operant Conditioning and the idea that behavior and choices are a result of the rewards and punishments that occur with said behaviors. It is easy as a student to assume that the facts and opinions highlighted in textbooks are universally agreed upon facts. Upon further research, I have found that while there are peer-reviewed well researched articles that identify the strengths of Skinner’s research, some experts have valid reasons for doubting the validity and universality of Skinner’s research. Ultimately even as a student of psychology and while referencing the prescribed text book, we must be vigilant to examine all aspects of theories in order to find what we believe to be true.

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