Monday, March 20, 2006

B F Skinner at 102

Hero
Today (March 20,2006) is the 102nd anniversary of B. F. Skinner's birth. He is probably the most-misunderstood psychologist of the 20th century, and that's saying something.

He gave psychology the term reinforcement, which is among its most-misused terms. This is especially true in the phrase positive reinforcement, which is so widely misused that its incorrect meaning has gained authoritative recognition. Oh well.

I first stumbled onto Steve Hayes's acceptance and commitment therapy a couple years ago when I Googled for depression "b f skinner" . I was looking for some way to think about clinical depression that made good sense from a Skinnerian, radical behaviorist point of view. I wanted that because behaviorism can bring amazing clarity to muddied situations. It has often seemed to me like “universal acid”, which Daniel Dennett said Dariwinian thiking is for him.

Depression is a terribly muddy subject. It is simply not well understood. But Skinnerian “accounts” (to use a Skinnerian word) of it have not gotten very far, either.

It's been suggested (I have no reference at the moment, but I've read it, trust me) that when person is depressed, things that were “reinforcing” for her in the past just aren't anymore. Well, that's probably true, but that's a misuse of the term. The fact is that the depressed person just doesn't do any of the things we'd normally expect her to do, so those actions can't possibly be reinforced by anything because they don't occur! (Get it?)

So the failure of the reinforcers, technically speaking, must've happened earlier, before she got depressed. Because if they'd been effective reinforcers, she be engaging in the reinforced actions now. Presumably.

Mostly, I wanted to note Skinner's birthday. I don't really have anything to say. I'm too depressed.

(That is, of course, a very NON-Skinnerian attribution of behavior to an emotional state, but oh well.)

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