B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal

Jim Farmelant
Book Title: 
B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal
Book Author: 
Marc N. Richelle

Richelle agrees with Skinner that a challenge to the notions of autonomous man and mentalism is necessary if we are to make social progress.

(Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Publishers: Hove, East Sussex, UK. 1993.)

Marc Richelle is a Belgian psychologist who studied in Geneva where, not surprisingly, he came under the influence of Piaget. However, as he began to read B.F. Skinner's work his viewpoint shifted towards radical behaviorism while still retaining a great respect for Piaget. His book, B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal, is written as an evaluation of Skinner from the standpoint of a European psychologist, and he relates Skinner's work with that of such prominent European psychologists as Pavlov, Freud, Lorenz, Piaget, and Vygotsky. Richelle provides an overview of Skinner's career and how his views evolved over time. For those who are familiar with Skinner's work much of this should be familiar, but they still might learn a good deal from Richelle’s comparison of Skinner to his European contemporaries. Richelle's evaluation of Skinner in reference to European psychology makes his book unique among the studies of Skinner's work.

Richelle sketches out Skinner’s contributions to experimental methodology in psychology, including the invention of the Skinner box and the development of a research methodology based on single-organism experiments, as opposed to the traditional method of comparing experimental groups with control groups. He reviews Skinner's challenge to traditional S-R models of behavior, those psychologies that Skinner labeled methodological behaviorisms. Such psychologies include the behaviorisms of John B. Watson and Clark Hull as well as the cognitive school of psychology. For all these schools, psychology is in one way or another the science which attempts to understand behavior in terms of stimulus-response pairings. This is true even for the cognitivists, who differ only in that they posit intervening cognitive mechanisms between stimulus and response. Against these schools, Skinner posited his own radical behaviorism which centered around his conception of operant conditioning (a conception that owed much to the work of Thorndike on the Law of Effect). In his elaboration of operant mechanisms, Skinner proposed to understand the development of behavior in Darwinian terms - that is, the selection of responses by the organism's environment.

Richelle devotes one chapter to exploring Skinner's debt to Pavlov, which was certainly very large. Skinner borrowed much of his scientific vocabulary from Pavlov as well some of his methodology. However, contrary to Pavlov, Skinner contended that there were two types of conditioning rather than one: traditional Pavlovian conditioning (which he called respondent conditioning) and operant conditioning. Although both kinds of conditioning followed similar laws, there were also significant differences which required the use of different experimental methodologies. Skinner argued that the two types of conditioning had different neuroanatomical roots, with Pavlovian conditioning rooted in the autonomic nervous system and operant conditioning rooted in the somatic nervous system. This thesis was eventually refuted by Neal Miller in 1968 when he showed that, contrary to Skinner, autonomic responses could be operantly conditioned. 1 Concerning the influence of Pavlov on Skinner, Richelle concludes that, while large, it has been overstated by many commentators.

Richelle devotes a chapter to Freud in Skinner's writings. He notes that while Skinner was highly critical of Freud's mentalism, he had many kind things to say about Freud's work. Skinner admired Freud for being a determinist, for being an astute observer of human behavior, and for having discarded consciousness and introspection as tools for understanding mental processes. Freud was praised by Skinner for having shown that mental activity does not require consciousness and that many of the most important aspects of mental activity occur beyond its ken. Skinner saw much value in the concepts of Freudian defense mechanisms (i.e., repression, sublimation, projection, rationalization) which in Science and Human Behavior and Verbal Behavior he sought to show could be translated into the language of behaviorism.

Skinner also argued that Freud's modeling of human personality in terms of id, ego, and superego could be restated in terms of the various sorts of contingencies of reinforcement that control human behaviors. Thus the Freudian id was seen as corresponding to biologically based reinforcers and was responsible for behaviors that were ultimately reinforced by food, water, sexual contact and other primary biological reinforcers. The superego - the "conscience" of Judeo-Christian theology - was in turn responsible for the behaviors that control the id, using techniques of self-control that are acquired from the group. Id and superego inevitably clash, and their conflicts are in turn mediated by the ego, which besides attempting to reach a compromise between the id and superego also deals with the practical exigencies of the environment.

Richelle goes on to discuss Skinner and ethology, especially that of Konrad Lorenz. Skinner was often harshly critical of much of the work of the ethologists, including Lorenz, but he came to perceive value of their work. He agreed with them concerning the necessity of applying a Darwinian standpoint to behavior (which meant understanding it in selectionist terms) but he faulted them for not making a clear distinction between different levels - the biological level, the behavioral level, and in humans the cultural level - to which a Darwinian analysis could be applied. (Interestingly, Skinner faulted the sociobiologists on similar grounds.) Skinner's comments on the three levels of selectionism is relevant to such matters as the debate over directionality in history which Robert Wright defends in his new book Nonzero and which is also defended by Alan Carling from the standpoint of a selectionist Marxism. 2

Concerning Piaget, Richelle says that both Skinner and Piaget were largely ignorant of each other's work, a situation which he finds to have been understandable but somewhat regrettable, since in certain respects their perspectives were more complementary rather than antagonistic. Piaget's constructivism was explicitly developmentalist, an approach that Richelle sees Skinner as having under-emphasized. Also, Piaget's work was concerned with the development of the higher cognitive functions in humans, whereas Skinner's work tended to focus on those aspects of behavior that humans share with other species. But despite the fact that they came out of quite different psychological traditions, there were some underlying similarities, in Richelle's opinion. Both men attempted to take Darwinism seriously, which meant understanding behavior in evolutionist, selectionist terms. Skinner's emphasis on knowledge as action was surprisingly similar to Piaget's views. Richelle at one point compares quotations from Skinner and Piaget. From Skinner's About Behaviorism he quotes:

"Operant behavior is essentially the exercise of a power: it has an effect on the environment."

Likewise, Richelle quotes from Piaget's Adaptation vitale et psychologies de l'intelligence:

"The organism acts upon the environment, rather than being simply submitted to it. As to the highest levels, where behavior plays a non-negligible role, this role is by no means limited to compensate for alterations or aggressions from the environment: it may consist, on the contrary, in conquering actions aimed at extending the environment."

Richelle points out that for both Piaget and Skinner the emphasis in studying behavior was not on the stimulus, nor upon the mind, but rather upon action itself.

Richelle argues that Piaget's work on cognitive development could have benefited from a greater understanding of Skinner's work on operant learning since, like Skinner, he was committed to applying Darwinian analogies to the understanding of behavior. Skinner's analysis of operant conditioning could have helped Piaget to substantiate his thesis that evolution, or selectionism, is applicable to behavior on a multiplicity of levels.

Richelle only very briefly discusses the work of the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky, but he notes some similarities to Skinner, including the fact that both Vygotsky's psychology of activity and Skinner's radical behaviorism shared an emphasis on action as the focus for psychological study. They also shared similar views concerning the social origins of human self-awareness.

Richelle has a useful chapter on the Skinner-Chomsky debate in psycholinguistics. He agrees with Skinner that Chomsky fundamentally misunderstood Skinner’s work, but he also faults Skinner for, among other things, neglecting the developmental dimension which Chomsky emphasized, for failing to respond to Chomsky's attacks, and for failing to engage the psycholinguists generally. However, Richelle discerns a tendency within psycholinguistics to move towards positions reminiscent of Skinner's without generally acknowledging the Skinnerian origins of the views that they are adopting.

The last few chapters of the book engage Skinner's views on education and society. Richelle generally endorses most of them with enthusiasm and he gives a good restatement of the arguments of Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Richelle reiterates Skinner's critique of "autonomous man" and how this notion, along with commonsense mentalistic psychology, performs an important ideological function: persuading people that they are free agents while concealing the existence of behavioral controls. This wouldn't be so bad, Richelle thinks, except that the types of behavioral controls in place have failed to solve our most important social problems. Therefore, Richelle agrees with Skinner that a challenge to the notions of autonomous man and mentalism is necessary if we are to make social progress.

One section of this chapter bears the heading "Mentalism as a Tool of Power," which sums up Richelle's (and Skinner's) point regarding control. Mentalism promotes the idea that the way toward change is to change people's minds or hearts, not the environmental conditions in which they live. This generally suits the dominant political and economic elites, since mentalism turns people's attention inwards, diverting them from perceiving the actual determinants of their lives, especially the more or less hidden behavioral controls. By positing a special freedom, the myth of autonomous man conditions the masses to blame themselves for their fate, and the status quo is thus rendered safe from questioning or modification. No surprise, then, that Skinner, even with Richelle’s advocacy, is unlikely to catch on.

© Jim Farmelant, 3/00


1. Miller's research on the operant conditioning of visceral responses provided the scientific basis for biofeedback research which enjoyed a particular vogue in the 1970s. See:  Miller, N.E. and Banuazizi, A., 1968. Instrumental learning by curarized rats of a specific visceral response, intestinal, or cardiac. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 65: 1-7. See also Miller, N.E. and Dworkin, B.R., 1973. Visceral learning: Recent difficulties with curarized rats and significant programs for human research. In Oberist, P.A. et al. (eds.) Contemporary Trends in Cardiovascular Psychophysiology. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.

2. Carling, Alan, 1993. "Analytical Marxism and Historical Materialism: The Debate on Social Evolution." Science & Society, 57:1 (Spring), 31-65.  Carling, Alan, 1994. "The Strength of Historical Materialism: A Comment." Science & Society, 58:1 (Spring), 60-72.