Behaviorism vs Intelligent Choice  - by Roger Hild

I have always been tolerant of differing points of view and believe in each person's freedom to choose their own set of beliefs and values.  It was only after I began to notice a "Loss of Habitat," metaphorically speaking, that I decided to say something.  The habitat of which I speak, is 'that place' where dogs and the people who enjoy living and working with them, come together.

It seems that numerous missionaries, claiming to come from the land of Academia, began arriving at 'that place' (the place of which I speak) and began to loudly proclaim their version of the behaviorist message.  The young evangelicals among them seemed to have a mission to enlighten and convert the good folk of this land.  Even as they were being welcomed into our midst, they were attempting to carve out large sections of territory around which they planned to erect fences.  Once they had the fences built it was their plan to post signs stating, "None but behaviorists may enter here."  The more evangelical among them had, as their creed, "We are the way, the truth and the light - no one may enter or train dogs but through us."

It is not my intention to try to change anyone's mind, I have merely decided to "speak" my own.  Those who have a behaviorist point of view will, in all likelihood, keep that point of view.  What I am attempting to show is that behaviorism does indeed have it’s flaws, that there are many who deal quite successfully with behavior and are not (nor do they need to be) a behaviorist and sometimes, quite frankly, “the emperor has no clothes.”  I am perfectly capable and comfortable with using some behaviorist principles while rejecting others - for me it does not have to be an either/or situation.  Behaviorism is like going to a distant relative’s house - “it’s a nice place to visit but I don’t want to live there.”

While I know the difference between a dog and a person, I’m not so sure a behaviorist sees much difference.  In behaviorism only one thing matters, stimulus->response.  Because it frames their approach to life regardless of the issue at hand, there are many within the behaviorist movement that would apply the same philosophy regardless of whether it’s teaching a rat to run a maze, a child to do his time-tables or a dog to hold a sit stay.

Quoting Skinner (considered the "father of 'Operant Coditioning'"):
"A person is first of all an organism, a member of a species and a subspecies, possessing a genetic endowment of anatomical and physiological characteristics, which are the product of the contingencies of survival to which the species has been exposed in the process of evolution. The organism becomes a person [i.e., a unique individual] as it acquires a repertoire of behavior under the contingencies of reinforcement to which it is exposed in its lifetime. The behavior it exhibits at any moment is under the control of a current setting. It is able to acquire such a repertoire because of processes of conditioning, to which it is susceptible because of its genetic endowment." (From Skinner, "About Behaviorism," 1974, p. 213). 

The following is from Pamela J. Reid:
"The acceptance of behaviorism went hand in hand with the rejection of the study of the mind.  B. F. Skinner believed that we could understand behavior by studying the things that happen to animals.  There was no need to study what was happening inside the animal's head. Understanding the laws of behavior and how events affect an animal's behavior do not necessitate understanding the mind.  In fact Skinner's form of "radical behaviorism" even rejected the notion that thoughts, feelings, and emotions could cause behavior."  (Pamela J. Reid, "Excel-erated Learning" pg.15).

She does go on to acknowledge that psychology (not behaviorism) has undergone a major shift in focus over the past 20 plus years toward a "Cognitive revolution."  However, while psychology is undergoing shifts in focus, behaviorism remains fixed on stimulus-response and thus has been relegated to the academic ghettos of its own creation while the rest of the discipline moves forward.

Some will say that since behaviorism addresses behavior very nicely, it is very useful for dog training.  A frequent comment I get is, "regardless of species, regardless of who is applying the rules, if you follow R+, P+, R- and P-....they work."  This is very wrong-headed and dangerous thinking. 

First off, using various kinds of reinforcements and corrections, applying or removing various kinds of pressure does not make one a follower of behaviorist dogma.  Those so-called principles have been a part of various teaching techniques for many eons of time.  If I reject behaviorism, it does not mean I can no longer use a reward for instance.  If, however, I treat every training goal as a "conditioning process," then I am no longer open to other possibilities, as to either what is going on or what needs to be done.

Associative Learning (of which Operant Conditioning is a part) is something I do use at times and find it to be useful on occasion.  It is, however, only one form of learning, a small piece of the puzzle.  I see evidence all the time of automatic behavior and reflex-type behavior but I also see more complex behavior where there is clearly some forms of "mental process" involved - behavior where choice (or some kind of decision making) is obviously involved.  Sometimes the "stimulus-response" model is sufficient but more often I see the process (and thus the premise from which I work) as "stimulus-choice-response" and it is that choice that I can confirm/acknowledge or correct.  Dogs have good memory and the ability to form intention - both can be used to great advantage in any training sequence.  Memory comes into play in that "mental process" and is part of the choice.  Once the dog is clear on what he is being directed to do and is able to remember his "job," he can then be held accountable for that sequence of behavior. 

A few other problems with the behaviorists model include, but are not limited to, the following:  by Dave Paulsen

“This phenomenon of the complete breakdown of conditioning theory was called "instinctive drift" by Breland and Breland (p.684.) It seems that conditioned behaviors that are close to instinctive behaviors cannot take a long term hold on an animals behavior, and are "a demonstration that there are definite weaknesses in the philosophy underlying these techniques. . . . When behaviorism tossed out instinct, it is our feeling that some of its power of prediction and control were lost with it." (p.684.)” 

“In addition to instinctive drift, it seems just as likely that boredom was setting in due to lack of novelty or loss of purpose in what had basically become an impoverished environment, or that they were witnessing the onset of neurosis by keeping animals in a forced, unnatural environment. This would seem to be in keeping with Konrad Lorenz's view on the possible total conditioning of humans when he says, "I strongly doubt whether you can condition man so that he does not become nervous and neurotic when he is crowded." (Evans, 1974.) Breland and Breland then conclude ". . . that the behavior of any species cannot be adequately understood, predicted, or controlled without knowledge of its instinctive patterns, evolutionary history, and ecological niche." (p.684.)”

“When it was discovered that control was possible, and could be generalized and manipulated with a fairly high repeatability, it was a major triumph of empiricism in the science of psychology. However, everything this new psychology of behaviorism was based on was then thrown out the window as no longer relevant. By then denying the pertinent information that can be derived from, and the effects of, cognitively caused and/or transformed behavior, and biologically innate behaviors and patterns, radical behaviorism looses its ability to predict and control with the accuracy and completeness necessary to assume law-like status or to become the epistemology of the science of psychology.” 

“When we try to reduce behavior to the strict one-to-one functions of the stimulus-response paradigm, we forget the warning of the cognitive scientists ". . . that any theory of mind that fails to talk about the intervening mental processes that link these stimuli and responses will be unacceptably incomplete." (Flanagan, 1991, p.177.) As E. C. Tolman pointed out, incoming stimuli are "worked over and elaborated . . . into a tentative cognitivelike map of the environment. And it is this tentative map, indicating routes and paths and environmental relationships, which finally determines what responses, if any, the animal will finally release." (Tolman, 1948.)”

Quoting from Heather Houlahan:
"However, to the extent that behaviorism as a theory *does* explicitly negate not only internal life, but the self, personal agency, choice, it's perfectly valid to force the proponents of 'pop' behaviorism to confront those negations and defend them. What one usually finds when one does that is that these proponents, unlike the academic behaviorists, will not or cannot 'handle the truth' about the theory they claim as their own -- much as so-called 'animal rights' proponents do not understand the philosophical position called Utilitarianism that underlies their movement."

"Arthur Koestler summed up the wrong turn that behaviorism took from this perfectly sound ground:
'For the anthropomorphic view of the rat, American psychology substituted a rattomorphic view of man.'"

"But Koestler was not quite there yet. Because beneath it all, the behaviorists got it fundamentally wrong about rats (and pigeons and cats and dogs, and for all I can tell, flatworms)."

"The better minds in the field of human psychology have wasted a good part of the past fifty years refuting behaviorism as a model. The most devastating refutations have come from 'the field' -- not only from the simple mechanistic ideology's failure to resonant with ordinary experience and common sense, but its failure to produce results as advertised when 'applied' by its true believers for over half a century. Alfie Kohn: 'One wonders how long it is possible to continue accounting for the lack of meaningful results by insisting that a basically sound approach is poorly implemented in every case.'"

"Earnest attempts to redefine the criteria of success by the true believers eventually came smacking into the demands of living as a human being in a society.  Many of the claims behaviorists made for public consumption were designed to resonate with progressive-thinking people -- that their methods were more humane, first and foremost, that they were 'modern' and 'scientific' -- and implied or explicit, that other methods are inhumane, antiquated, unscientific.  Sound familiar?"

Further on in her piece Heather says:
"How long have the pop behaviorists been plying their wares for dogs?  Do trainers need to spend the next forty years in refutation?  Is it our obligation as the on-the-ground experts to do so?  Is the act of refutation itself a surrender, since we allow them to define the ground of debate?  I think that's what is happening when an effective trainer who uses a variety of methods 'defends the use of negative reinforcement.'  But then, what would happen if we ignore them?"

When the Canadian association, to which I belong, suggests we head down the same road to certification that our cousins in the APDT are taking, I become alarmed.  When they propose we might simply start with testing trainers knowledge of "Learning theory" (substitute Operant Conditioning Theory), I become outraged.  If I wanted to become a CAPPDT "certified trainer" why should I have to *take* such a test?  (Even though I have absolutely no doubt that I could pass it).  Why in the world should I be required to be tested on, and appear to support, a philosophy I do not subscribe to?  To me the two biggest challenges for behaviorists can be summed up in two simple phrases, "Prove it," and "Show me."  To know and not to do is not to know.