15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

B.F. (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He argued that people can be manipulated to exhibit or inhibit a behavior based on these consequences.

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. HE INVENTED THE "OPERANT CONDITIONING" OR "SKINNER" BOX.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. HE BELIEVED ALL BEHAVIOR WAS AFFECTED BY ONE OF THREE "OPERANTS."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. HE'S RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TERM "POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT."

Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner Box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. SOME CRITICS FELT THIS APPROACH AMOUNTED TO BRIBERY.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcing of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. "NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT" ISN'T WHAT YOU THINK.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. SKINNER TAUGHT PIGEONS TO PLAY PING-PONG.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. HIS FIRST BOOK, THE BEHAVIOR OF ORGANISMS, BROKE NEW GROUND.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut tome made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. HE CREATED "THE BABY TENDER."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on popularly.

9. HE ALSO DEVELOPED HIS OWN "TEACHING MACHINE."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. SKINNER IMAGINED AN IDEAL SOCIETY BASED ON HIS THEORIES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. HE WROTE A UTOPIAN NOVEL, WALDEN TWO.

Alex from Ithaca, NY, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. SOME FELT HIS IDEAS WERE REDUCTIONIST …

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. … OR WORSE. HIS ACADEMIC COLLEAGUES WERE HORRIFIED BY WALDEN TWO.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup's reaction is a good example of their take on his idealized world. Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. HE IMPLIED THAT HUMANS HAD NO FREE WILL OR INDIVIDUAL CONSCIOUSNESS.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: This was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. HE DIED CONVINCED THAT THE FATE OF HUMANITY LAY IN APPLYING HIS METHODS OF BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE TO SOCIETY.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

Being Surrounded By Greenery Can Be Good for Your Heart

iStock.com/Givaga
iStock.com/Givaga

Living in a place with a little greenery is good for your health in more ways than one. Recent research has found that people perceive their health status as significantly better if they live around trees, and for good reason—in addition to helping you chill out, exposure to lots of green vegetation may be good for your cardiovascular health, as Cardiovascular Business reports.

A new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that living in green areas is correlated with certain biomarkers for cardiovascular health. Scientists analyzed blood and urine samples from 408 people at a cardiology clinic, then compared the results to satellite-derived data on the levels of greenery around those patients’ homes (using 820-foot and half-mile radiuses).

Adjusting for age, sex, race, smoking status, “neighborhood deprivation” and other factors known to be linked heart disease rates, the researchers found that living in a green area was correlated with several markers of a healthy heart. Blood and urine samples from those participants who lived in green neighborhoods showed lower levels of sympathetic activation—the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response, which raises the heart rate and is involved in heart failure. Those participants also had reduced oxidative stress—an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can cause tissue damage and is linked to chronic disease. And they had higher angiogenic capacity, which refers to the body’s ability to form new blood vessels.

All this suggests that being around trees is somehow linked to having a healthier heart, though these are just biomarkers, not rates of heart disease or major cardiac events. But while scientists have yet to prove directly that being around trees causes your heart to be healthier, it’s not the first study to suggest a link. In 2015, a study of American women found that rates of heart disease went up in certain areas after a beetle invasion killed off a significant number of trees. Other studies have suggested that being around trees can reduce stress, which in itself may affect your risk of heart disease. Luckily, whether it qualifies as heart medicine or not, spending more time hanging out under trees couldn’t hurt.

[h/t Cardiovascular Business]

14 Facts About Feet

iStock/pepifoto
iStock/pepifoto

The foot is one of the most overworked, under-appreciated parts of the human body. Think about it: In a single day, the average person takes 8000 to 10,000 steps. That works out to be four trips around the world over a lifetime, putting a lot of wear and tear on your intricate foot bones. The foot may be humble, but its design is essential to how we walk upright, and hoofing it on two feet is a defining feature of humanity. Here are some fun—and a few funky—facts about the human foot.

1. FOOT BONES MAKE UP ABOUT A QUARTER OF ALL THE BONES IN OUR BODIES.

There are 26 foot bones in each of your feet—one less than in each hand. When we’re born, those foot bones are mostly cartilage. They only completely harden around age 21.

2. HUMANS HAVE WORN SHOES FOR A VERY LONG TIME.

When did humans begin wearing shoes, anyway? About 40,000 years ago, according to research from Washington University in St. Louis that analyzed foot bones from Neanderthals and early humans. Older specimens had thicker, stronger toes, likely from gripping the ground as they walked barefoot. That’s around the same time that the archaeological record shows a burst of artistic and technological advancements among early humans, including the first stone tools, which may have aided in the production of shoes. The oldest preserved shoe, incidentally, is 5500 years old and was found in an Armenian cave, buried in sheep dung.

3. THE BIG TOE USED TO BE A KIND OF FOOT THUMB.

This grasping toe helped our predecessors climb trees and, when young, grip onto their mothers. Thanks to modern science, if you lose your thumb, you can now replace it with a toe: toe-to-thumb transplants are a surprisingly common procedure these days.

4. FOOT BONES HOLD BIG CLUES ABOUT THE EVOLUTION OF BIPEDALISM.

Scientists are studying Homo naledi, a specimen discovered in a South African cave in 2013 that many researchers believe is a new human relative. H. naledi had very human-like feet, but with somewhat curved toe bones that suggest it climbed trees. It could be that H. naledi was beginning to experiment with walking. 

5. THERE WAS A FOOT CHEESE EXHIBITION IN IRELAND.

Warm, sweaty feet make a perfect home for bacteria, which feed on our dead skin cells and produce gases and acids that emit those arresting foot odors. They're apparently also good at cultivating cheese. An exhibition in Dublin in 2013 displayed a variety of cheeses made with bacteria samples obtained from real people’s feet, armpits, and belly buttons. Delicious. (No one actually ate any of the cheeses.)

6. FEET ARE ONE OF THE MOST TICKLISH PARTS OF THE BODY.

There’s a good reason for that: Humans have nearly 8000 nerves in our feet and a large number of nerve endings near the skin. Having ticklish feet can be a good sign: Reduced sensitivity can be an indicator of peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the feet caused by nerve damage). 

7. FOOT NUMBNESS CAN CAUSE BIG PROBLEMS FOR DIABETICS.

Complications of diabetes include poor circulation and foot numbness that can lead to serious skin ulcers, which sometimes require amputation of toes or feet. In 2010 alone, 73,000 lower-limb amputations were performed on diabetics.

8. FOOT SIZES AND WIDTHS IN THE U.S. AND UK ARE INCREASING.

Feet are spreading to support extra weight as our populations pack on the pounds. According to a 2014 study by the College of Podiatry in the UK, the average foot has increased two sizes since the 1970s. As people have grown taller and heavier, feet respond by growing. It appears many people are still in denial about their expanding feet: Though retailers are starting to respond by making larger and roomier shoes, half of women and a third of men reported they buy poorly fitting shoes. Podiatrists say ill-fitting shoes are to blame for a significant portion of foot problems, especially among women.

9. MANY GLAMOROUS CELEBRITIES HAVE BIG FEET.

From the bound feet of female Chinese elites to Cinderella and Barbie, freakishly small feet are often celebrated as more feminine. But plenty of glamorous women both past and present have had larger than average feet, among them Jacqueline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, Uma Thurman, and Audrey Hepburn (size 10, 11, 11, and 10.5, respectively).

10. WOMEN HAVE FOUR TIMES AS MANY FOOT PROBLEMS AS MEN.

That painful fact is often attributed to wearing heels. Ironically, Western women started wearing heels to effect a more masculine look: European men adopted the look from Persian warriors in the 17th century, and women soon followed suit.

11. THE AVERAGE PERSON WALKS ABOUT 100,000 MILES IN A LIFETIME. 

That’s a lot of stress on our feet. It’s not surprising, then, that lower back pain, headaches, indigestion, and spine misalignment are often related to foot problems. Some runners blow way past this mark: They've logged at least 100,000 in running miles alone. One committed runner, Herb Fred, has run a whopping 247,142 miles.

12. FOOT SIZE HAS ZERO TO DO WITH PENIS SIZE.

In a study published in 2015, researchers synthesized data from 17 previous studies that included the penis measurements of more than 15,000 men from around the world. The results: There is little evidence that penis size is linked to height, body mass, or shoe size.

13. THERE'S A REASON GRANDPA'S TOENAILS LOOK LIKE THAT.

Ever heard someone describing their toenails as “horse hooves”? As we get older, our toenails tend to thicken, making them hard to trim. This happens because toenails grow more slowly as we age, causing the nail cells to accumulate. Stubbing toes, bad shoes, and dropping things on your feet can also cause thickening, as can fungal infections and peripheral arterial disease, which narrows arteries and reduces the blood flow to limbs.

14. THERE'S A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD FOR MOST FEET AND ARMPITS SNIFFED.

Odds are you don’t have any job-related tasks nearly as revolting as this one: In the 15 years that Madeline Albrecht worked for an Ohio lab that tests Dr. Scholl products, she sniffed more than 5600 feet and untold numbers of armpits. Albrecht currently holds the Guinness World Record for—yes, this is a category—the number of feet and armpits sniffed.

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