In the early 20thCentury the field of psychology was struggling with whether or not it constituted a proper science. One of the main people credited with enabling the field to establish a proper scientific foundation was B.F. Skinner. Prior to Skinner, when a psychologist wanted to explain an animal behavior they would describe some set of circumstances as inputs and then say that some mysterious unobservable processes, like thoughts and/or emotions, would occur within the hidden recesses of the mind of that animal and result in some behavior. Skinner asserted that psychology must conform to the basic scientific tenet of objective observation in order to act like a proper science. Therefore, it was not scientific to explain an animal's behavior with reference to any mysterious unobservable event that could occur in the “black box” of the mind. The resulting scientific enterprise has been impressively productive. And, like other well-grounded sciences, it produces reliable results.
The central premise of behaviorism is that behaviors that are reinforced increase in frequency. Behaviors that are not reinforced decrease in frequency. Reinforcement is created by setting up a contingency which boils down to if you do this then you get that or if you do this then you avoid that. The science is concerned with the details of how and when this kind of contingency situation works to get or prevent all kinds of behavior. This generalization covers only the central premise, there are numerous caveats and nuances that complicate the full scientific understanding.
An interesting thing about what constitutes a reinforcement is that it can be a very individual thing. When I was in second grade I went over to a friend's house for pizza. In the American culture of my childhood pizza was assumed to be universally liked by kids. Later in the evening I got sick to my stomach and most of that pizza came back up in a veryunpleasant way. For the next ten years I was prone to becoming nauseated whenever I smelled cheese and for most of that time I did not even consider eating anything I knew had cheese in it. So, for a kid in that era I had a very un-American attitude towards pizza. During that decade of my life, offering me a pizza to reinforce a behavior would have deterred me from the behavior instead of attracting me to it. In fact, I am still sensitive to certain cheeses. Today pizza is only enjoyable for me if it does NOT have parmesan, feta, or similarly strong cheese flavors. These days I usually enjoy it because the usual cheeses on pizza are mild.
The majority of behavioral research has relied on food as a reinforcer. Much of the research is done in “Skinner Boxes.” A Skinner Box is a device in which the typical contingency is that when a rat or a pigeon in the box presses a lever or pecks a button, it gets a pellet of food. We can all understand why food works as a reinforcer. If you get hungry enough then you will do almost anything to get food. But remember my decade of hating pizza. Since you probably like pizza, consider whether you would enjoy eating an insect. Eating bugs is repulsive unless you grew up in a culture in which bugs are food. So my point is that just because you, and maybe even a majority of people, consider something to be a positive reinforcer does not mean it will be so for everyone all the time. Saying that “food is a reinforcer” is true in a general sense, but as they say, the devil is in the details. If by “food” you mean bugs or pizza then you have to be mindful about which direction the reinforcement takes each person and even that won't matter if they are not hungry.
In 1973 a trio of researchers named Mark Lepper, David Greene, and Richard Nesbitt decided to find out what would happen if you reinforce 3- to 5-year-old children for something they normally do on their own without any apparent form of reinforcement, such as drawing with crayons. What do you think the prediction from behaviorist theory would have been? There are only three logical possibilities: the drawing behaviors must either increase, decrease, or stay the same. Think about the basic tenet of behaviorism and the possible effects of adding reinforcement to a behavior that appears spontaneously without it. Take a moment now to think about what the prediction would have been, consider what each possible outcome would mean for the theory, and continue after you have answers.
So the question is: what did they observe after they reinforced kids for drawing? Behaviorist theory predicts that they should draw more with reinforcements, though there could be a plateau effect that makes further increases in reinforcement ineffective (beyond whatever it was that got them to draw in the first place) and that makes staying the same a plausible outcome. Finding a decrease would present a challenge to the theory. What they found, in fact, was that the children drew less after being reinforced. The experiment was widely replicated with all sorts of reinforcers and with a variety of activities other than drawing that children were observed to do spontaneously (or not). The results reveal that there is something else besides reinforcement contingencies in the environment that determine the frequency of a child's behavior.
So where does that leave the theory? Does this experiment mean that the central tenet of behaviorism is wrong? That is what some people thought, but that's not true. These experimental results are only truly a problem if you insist that allhuman behavior mustbe explained entirelyby directlyobservable conditions in the environment. We should respect Skinner for his caution against filling the black box with inexplicable mysteries, but it is perfectly reasonable to posit the existence of at least one thing within the black boxes of human minds as long as we can explain that one thing in non-mysterious theoretical terms with solid experimental evidence to support our explanation.
Taking these results to be an indicator that there is something going on in the black boxes of human minds, then we simply have to do more studies to carefully discern what it is that is going on in those black boxes that changes how reinforcement contingencies work. In fact that is what hundreds of researchers led by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have been doing ever since the 1970's. That research helped kick off what is now known as the cognitive revolution in psychology. Deci and Ryan formulated the leading theory of human motivation in psychology, Self-Determination Theory (the primary basis of my work).
The experimental evidence on the role of external reinforcers on human behavior shows that when the tasks being reinforced are ones that are not intrinsically interesting and/or do not require much creativity, then external reinforcers, like giving small children food and stickers, work pretty well. So the basic behavioral paradigm is applicable under certain circumstances, but we need a more nuanced conception in order to explain most of human behavior.
More importantly, the basic tenet of reinforcement has never actually been undermined. I do not believe that there is any evidence that reinforcement does not work on individuals, but in order to explain why children drew less after being reinforced externally you have to allow for the possibility that there is a process inside the black boxes of human minds that alters the relationship between behavior and how it gets reinforced from the outside.
The particular process that is posited in this theoretical framework is a self-concept that maintains a boundary against other people and forces in the world. Antonio Damasio, a leading neurologist, has written a book called Self Comes To Mind that establishes a detailed case for the self being not only real but multifaceted and vital to human functioning in the world. It has obvious biological precedence in other kinds of boundaries. Taking cell walls as an example, we can see that the maintenance of boundaries is a crucial function throughout all biological systems. And biological boundaries are complex. Cell walls don't just define what's in or out, they have extraordinary molecular mechanisms for keeping some things out, letting some things in, and changing what is kept in or out based on how the cell's situation changes. The self concept is also complex like a cell wall and it has required equally rigorous scientific investigation to figure out how it actually works.
To summarize decades of research, the self concept moderates how energy is applied to the behaviors that occur. In Self-Determination Theory the self/other boundary affects motivation, which is the process for the initiation, maintenance, and persistence of behaviors in the pursuit of a goal. The quality of motivation varies according to where the source of the activity is located between the self and others. I'm going to refer to Suzie and her soccer playing as an example. We are going to pretend that she has just one exclusive source for her soccer playing activities.
When the source of Suzie's soccer activity is located at the center of her self then the activity is intrinsically motivated. She finds that it is inherently enjoyable and will do it without any external contingencies to support the behavior. This is the level at which she will invest the best quality of energy and attention.
When the source is located anywhere away from the center, then it is extrinsically motivated. But extrinsic motivation has four different values depending on how far from the center the source is located; those values are each forms of regulation. And the further out you go the quality of the energy and attention applied to the activity is diminished.
The most internal form of regulation is called integrated. In much of the research this one is barely distinguishable from intrinsic motivation and is sometimes left out altogether. When Suzie recognizes that the activity is fully consistent with who she is, even if it might not be inherently enjoyable, she integrates it into her behavioral repertoire anyway. Doing soccer drills, such as dribbling a soccer ball through a line of cones, is not as interesting as the game, but the connection to it is obvious.
The next step out is identified regulation. When Suzie can justify the activity as being of value to her goals then she willingly invests her efforts and attention. Physical work outs, like weight training, are not soccer, so Suzie may not find them inherently enjoyable. But she will likely understand that being stronger and developing physical endurance would enable her to do more and better soccer playing, so she is likely to work out.
The next level of regulation is introjected. This is where Suzie is clear that some outside force, like her Mom, is at work. Due to the value she places on her relationship with her Mom she is going to behave accordingly. This level of motivation is accompanied by feelings of guilt, anxiety, pride, or other social emotions. If Suzie's Mom is pressuring her to play, then she may do so, but what is at work is Mom's manipulations of how Suzie values her relationship with Mom, not Suzie's desires.
The final form of regulation is external. This is experienced as pure environmental contingencies, popularly known as rewards and punishments. If Suzie is being lavished with gifts or threatened with dire consequences, then her participation is purely driven by the contingencies. If the contingencies disappear, so will the behaviors.
There are a few things to note about complications. There can be multiple sources of motivation and they can each be located differently. The locations of a given source may change over time. Think about the difference between Suzie as a toddler versus a teenager in terms of crossing streets safely. When Suzie was a toddler she was extrinsically driven by her mother to holds hands in order to ensure a safe crossing. Flash forward to her teenage years and if her mother tried to hold her hand as they crossed the street there could be a violent reaction. We would not expect that Suzie, the toddler, is intrinsically motivated to enact safe street-crossing behaviors, but we would expect that Suzie, the teenager, has integrated them into her identity or at least identified them as instrumental to her goals. While she was born without any notion of traffic safety, over time the expected behaviors have become internalized.
The leadership challenge in school and classroom management is not in establishing the right external contingencies, it is establishing a process by which the available activities in the school/ classroom environment can be internalized such that the students and teachers integrate those realities into their self-concepts. It is their attitude towards those activities that will determine their ultimate educational value. No matter how perfect the teacher and their lesson, if the student does not accept them as valuable, then there is no value. And most important, we don't control their motivation. They do. No matter what we do, they have the ultimate control over how they cognitively evaluate the location of the source of every one of their activities in relation to their self concept. And the kicker is that they don't do it consciously. Motivation arises from internal cognitive processes that are entirely outside of conscious awareness. We can each reflect on the results of the process but we don't have direct influence over it or access to how it works.
I contend that behaviorism is a perfectly valid model for humans, even though there is a self in the black box of the human mind that alters the contingencies in the environment. SDT has a plausible and scientifically respectable account of how it works. The challenge is how to use the behavioral paradigm to enable school and classroom leaders to improve their practices. If the methods do not take into account the nature of the self and how it affects internalization, then they are not going to be optimally effective.
Part 3 is called “School-Based Behaviorism.” It is posted here.
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