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Chapter 10 – B. F. Skinner, John Dollard, and Neal Miller

While psychodynamic theory was developing in Europe, American psychology was largely under the influence of behaviorism.  The American psychologist John B. Watson (of “Little Albert” fame) is considered to be the father of behaviorism.  Although he is not known for addressing issues of personality development, he did feel it was important for behaviorists to do so.  His approach involved reducing personality to smaller and smaller units of behavior referred to as habit systems, suggesting that personality was very consistent.  Nonetheless, through further conditioning the personality of an individual could change, leading Watson to make the bold statement that if he was given a dozen healthy infants he could take any one at random and train him or her for any career, including “doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and yes, even beggar-man and thief” (cited in Stagner, 1988; see also Lundin, 1979).

As the scientific study of behavior continued, it became common to try determining behavior on the basis of mathematical models.  This work led to an era of grand learning theories, which culminated in the highly complex models of behavior proposed by Clark Hull (see Bower & Hilgard, 1981).  This research took the behavioral study of personality in a very different direction than psychodynamic theory.  The direction in which B. F. Skinner took personality theory, however, was so different that it became known as “radical behaviorism.”  Skinner rejected anything he could not directly observe, so concepts such as consciousness, thought, reasoning, and the “mind,” were all considered irrelevant to the study of individuals.  Only the specific behaviors performed by the individual were open to being examined in Skinner’s form of behaviorism.

In contrast, John Dollard and Neal Miller tried to find some common ground between psychodynamic theory and learning theory.  Dollard was a true generalist, with interests in anthropology and sociology in addition to psychology.  Miller studied with two renowned learning theorists, Edwin Guthrie and Clark Hull, and was psychoanalyzed by Heinz Hartman in Vienna, while studying in Europe in the 1930s.  Together, Dollard and Miller tried to develop a theory that would encompass psychodynamic theory, learning theory, and the influence of sociocultural factors.  Their effort to develop what might be called a unified theory of personality stands in stark contrast to the constraints of radical behaviorism.  Most importantly, they set the stage for the social learning theorists who followed.

B. F. Skinner and the Behavioral Analysis of Personality Development

Many psychology students find it difficult to apply the strict principles of radical behaviorism to personality development.  And yet, psychologists generally consider our discipline to be objective and scientific.  Thus, it would seem essential that we acknowledge those psychologists who apply a strict scientific approach to the study of behavior.  Skinner represents the extreme conditions under which some psychologists control the study of behavior, and his contributions to understanding the basic underlying principles of reward and punishment, and their consequences, rank him among the most influential psychologists of all time.

A Brief Biography of B. F. Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on March 20, 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.  He lived there for 18 years, and graduated from the same high school as his mother and father.  By his own account he had a happy childhood, though it was somewhat chaotic in the rough and tumble coal town that was Susquehanna.  Skinner roamed the hillsides, invented and built all sorts of gadgets, and developed a love for the wide variety of experiences that life has to offer a child living in a “warm and stable” home.  He constantly satisfied his curiosity and imagination:

I was always building things.  I built roller-skate scooters, steerable wagons, sleds, and rafts…I made seesaws, merry-go-rounds, and slides.  I made slingshots, bows and arrows, blow guns and water pistols…and from a discarded water boiler a steam cannon with which I could shoot plugs of potato and carrot over the houses of our neighbors.  (Skinner, 1970)

Skinner’s father, a lawyer, bought many books and maintained a large library in their home.  Skinner enjoyed school and, under the guidance of an influential teacher named Mary Graves, eventually chose to major in English Literature in college and then to pursue a career in writing.  While still at home, Skinner played the piano and the saxophone, and during high school he played in a jazz band.  He also became quite interested in spirituality, particularly under the conflicting views of Miss Graves and his grandmother Skinner.  Miss Graves was a devout Christian, who had taught Skinner’s Sunday school class, but held fairly liberal views on the Bible.  Grandmother Skinner took a more fire-and-brimstone approach, showing Skinner the burning coals in the stove to make sure he understand the dangers of Hell!  Ultimately Skinner came to his own perspective, and from that point forward he no longer believed in God (Bjork, 1997; Skinner, 1970, 1976).

Skinner attended Hamilton College, where he majored in English and minored in Romance languages.  He felt that he never quite fit in at college, largely because he was no good at sports and because Hamilton College required students to attend daily chapel.  By his senior year, he and his friends became involved in some serious pranks, ultimately being threatened with not being allowed to graduate.  He did graduate, however, and began a brief attempt at a career as an author.  A professor with whom Skinner had taken a summer course introduced him to the renowned poet Robert Frost.  Frost offered to review some of Skinner’s stories, and he sent a favorable reply that greatly encouraged Skinner (the letter is reprinted in Skinner, 1976).  However, Skinner had only one success as an author.  His father had always hoped Skinner would practice law with him, and together they published a private book on legal decisions in the ongoing battles between the coal companies and the unions.  Skinner then spent 6 months living a bohemian lifestyle in New York’s Greenwich Village, followed by some time in Paris, France.  Ultimately, however, he gave up his career as an author because he simply “had nothing important to say” (Bjork, 1997; Skinner, 1970, 1976).

As a child, Skinner had always been interested in the behavior of animals and kept many wild pets.  In high school he was very interested in philosophy, and in college a professor had introduced him to comparative psychology and Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning.  He began reading Pavlov and Watson while living in Greenwich Village, and eventually went to Harvard University to study psychology.  At Harvard Skinner developed the rigorous work schedule that was to become one of his personal hallmarks.  After leaving Harvard he taught at the University of Minnesota, where, during World War II, he conducted research on using pigeons as the guidance system for missiles.  He then moved on for a brief period as the chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University.  In 1948 he was asked to return to Harvard, where he worked for the remainder of his career (Bjork, 1997; Skinner, 1970).

Throughout the rest of his career, Skinner attempted to apply aspects of his radical behaviorism to a variety of issues, including child care, education, and the very nature of society itself.  His influence has been substantial, particularly with regard for his emphasis on psychology as a science.  However, his views on scientific methodology and other fields of psychology have been controversial.  For example:

…I suppose it was only my extraordinary luck which kept me from becoming a Gestalt or (so help me) a cognitive psychologist.  (pg. 8; Skinner, 1970)

The Freudian mental apparatus doesn’t make much sense to me…I don’t believe that he devised a useful conceptual system…  (pp. 5-7; Evans, 1968)

Dreaming…is almost always weak behavior and hence determined by trivia.  (pg. 193; Epstein, 1980)

New, deep, real, growth, harmony, understanding potential, unfoldment – an opiate soothing syrup for humanistic psychologists, hashish for the searchers for identity.  (an informal review of a new journal for transpersonal psychology; pg. 291; Epstein, 1980)

I’m not at all impressed by the model builders, the information theory analysts, the systems analysts, and so on.  They still haven’t shown me that they can do anything important.  (pg. 82; Evans, 1968)

In general, scientific methodology is not an accurate reflection of what the scientist really does…it doesn’t reflect the actual behavior of the scientist.  Fortunately for science, scientific method and statistics weren’t formulated until the middle of the nineteenth century.  (pg. 89; Evans, 1968)

In Skinner’s defense, however, he often felt that his position was misunderstood.  One of the most important approaches to the study of behavior that he emphasized was to focus on individuals, not on average measures of behavior that show “none of the characteristic individuality of the organism you’re studying” (pg. 92; Evans, 1968).  Despite harsh criticism, Skinner did not take attacks on his scientific perspectives personally.  As he described it, he simply reported the facts that arose from his research, and chose not to debate those who disagreed.  One exception, however, was Carl Rogers.  On several occasions he debated Rogers, whom he described as a friend, about the dignity of man and the control of men (Bjork, 1997; Evans, 1968).  He also sent a letter to E. L. Thorndike, who described the Law of Effect after studying cats escaping from puzzle-boxes well before Skinner was born (published in 1898; see Bower & Hilgard, 1981), apologizing for perhaps having failed to give Thorndike proper recognition for establishing the basic concepts that led to the study of operant conditioning.  Thorndike replied that he was more honored to have been of service to new scientists than if he were to have received credit for founding a new “school” of psychology (Skinner, 1970).

In 1970, American Psychologist listed Skinner second only to Freud in his influence on twentieth-century psychology, and in 1989 Skinner seemed to express some pride in being cited more often than Freud (Bjork, 1997).  Near the end of 1989, however, Skinner was diagnosed with leukemia.  He continued to work as best he could, and expressed no anxiety about his approaching death.  In August, 1990 he spoke for 20 minutes to a standing-room only audience at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.  Eight days later he died (Bjork, 1997).

Placing B. F. Skinner in Context:  Radical Behaviorism

B. F. Skinner shares at least one thing in common with Sigmund Freud: he provided a target for the behavioral and cognitive theorists who followed him. Freud, of course, was a target for everyone in psychiatry and psychology, including Skinner.  Although some might say that Skinner established the experimental analysis of behavior, as far as personality is concerned, Freud also thought that he was being very scientific in his studies of human behavior and the human mind.  In order to absolutely define his understanding of behavioral principles, Skinner rejected anything he could not observe.  Although this allowed him to claim a level of precision never before possible in the study of behavior, it disallowed the study of the mind, consciousness, thinking, emotion, the very things that most people consider to be the domain of psychology!  It also disallowed doing many types of research on humans, and so Skinner, his students, and his colleagues focused much of their effort on studying rats and pigeons.

Like Freud before him, Skinner faced his critics and defended his theories.  He certainly had solid scientific data to support his position, but when he went so far as to propose that he could solve the problems of society (in his novel Walden Two), perhaps he was asking for criticism.  Nonetheless, in psychology today, behavioral and cognitive approaches to understanding mental illness and conducting psychotherapy are popular and effective.  Although behavioral and cognitive theorists incorporate the very things Skinner rejected (emotions, thought, etc.), they have built upon the unquestioned behavioral principles studied first by Skinner.  In addition, the application of many of Skinner’s theories, such as reinforcement and punishment, has had a major influence on child rearing and education, or at least in our understanding of those processes.

Although Skinner was not the first behaviorist, that honor goes primarily to John B. Watson (since Pavlov was first and foremost a physiologist), his name is typically the first that comes to mind when recognizing behaviorism as one of three great forces in psychology (the others being psychodynamic and humanistic psychology).  Thus, Skinner stands with Freud and with Rogers and Maslow as a giant in the history of psychology.

Scientific Analysis of Behavior and Personality

Late in Skinner’s life (in 1988 to be exact), his former graduate student A. Charles Catania had this to say:

Of all contemporary psychologists, B. F. Skinner is perhaps the most honored and the most maligned, the most widely recognized and the most misrepresented, the most cited and the most misunderstood.  (pg. 3; Catania & Harnad, 1988)

Skinner emphasized, above all else, approaching human behavior scientifically.  However, he acknowledged that human behavior is complex, and that our familiarity with it makes it difficult for us to be truly objective.  In addition, he recognized that many people find it offensive to suggest that human behavior can be understood and predicted in terms of environmental stimuli and their consequences.  Still, Skinner took the scientific approach very seriously, and he knew that science is about more than just determining a set of facts or principles.  In Science and Human Behavior (Skinner, 1953), Skinner wrote that:

Science is concerned with the general, but the behavior of the individual is necessarily unique.  The “case history” has a richness and flavor which are in decided contrast with general principles…A prediction of what the average individual will do is often of little or no value in dealing with a particular individual…The extraordinary complexity of behavior is sometimes held to be an added source of difficulty.  Even though behavior may be lawful, it may be too complex to be dealt with in terms of law.  (pp. 20-21; Skinner, 1953)

Given this complexity, Skinner focused on “cause” and “effect” relationships in behavior.  In common use, these terms have come to carry a meaning far beyond the original intention.  For Skinner, a cause is a change in an independent variable, whereas an effect is a change in a dependent variable.  Skinner argued that the terms cause and effect say nothing about how a cause leads to an effect, but rather, only that there is a specific relationship in specific order.  If we can discover and analyze the causes, we can predict behavior; if we can manipulate the causes, then we can control behavior (Skinner, 1953).  By focusing entirely on observable behavior, Skinner felt that psychologists have an advantage, in that they will not waste time and effort pursuing either inner psychic forces or external social forces that may not even exist.  Focusing on actual behavior is simply more direct and practical.  Before examining some of the larger implications of this approach, however, let’s review the basic principles of operant conditioning as defined by Skinner.

Discussion Question:  Skinner emphasized a scientific approach to the study of behavior, in part, because individual behavior is so unique.  Understanding what the average person might do may tell us nothing about a certain individual.  However, a science of personality that treats everyone as unique seems to become hopelessly complex, because we must study everyone individually.  Does this really seem like a scientific approach, and whether it is or not, can it really help us to understand other people?

Principles of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning begins with a response, known as an operant, which has some effect in the organism’s environment.  These responses have consequences that determine whether or not the probability of the response will increase or decrease in the future.  Reinforcers increase the probability of a given response that precedes them, whereas punishers decrease the probability of a response that precedes them.  In common terms we might say that good consequences increase behaviors, or that the behavior is rewarded.  However, Skinner avoids words like reward due to their psychological implications, preferring instead to use the technical term reinforcer (Holland & Skinner, 1961; Skinner, 1953).

Both reinforcement and punishment come in two forms:  positive and negative.  Positive reinforcement involves the application, or administration, of a favorable consequence to a response.  For example, when a child cleans their room, they receive some money as an allowance.  The response of cleaning the room results in the application of a tangible reinforcer:  money.  Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an aversive or noxious stimulus.  We are commonly told not to scratch itchy bug bites, because we might get them infected.  However, an itch is a very noxious stimulus, and it is not easy to ignore them.  When we finally give in and scratch, the itching goes away (at least for a while).  The response of scratching is negatively reinforced by the removal of the noxious stimulus (no more itching).  In both of these examples, the response (the operant of room cleaning or scratching) is followed by a consequence (reinforcement) that increases the likelihood that we will clean our room or scratch our itchy bug bite.

Punishment can also be positive or negative.  If a child misbehaves and is spanked, that is a positive punishment.  In other words, an aversive consequence is applied (the spanking) as a result of the misbehavior.  With negative punishment, favorable stimuli are withdrawn.  For example, a child who misbehaves receives a time-out, thus removing them from toys, playmates, snacks, etc.  Other common examples of a negative punishment are being grounded or losing privileges (such as television or video games).  Once again, in positive punishment the response (misbehavior) results in the application of an aversive stimulus (a spanking), whereas in negative punishment the response misbehaving results in the removal of favorable consequences (loss of privileges).  One of the most common mistakes that psychology students make is to confuse negative reinforcement with punishment.  This is understandable, because of the use of the word “negative.”  So it is essential to determine first whether a consequence is a reinforcer or a punisher.  Then determine whether the reinforcer is positive or negative, or whether the punisher is positive or negative.  It is also generally accepted that punishment is not as effective as reinforcement, and it is more difficult to precisely control the cause-effect relationship (Skinner, 1953, 1974, 1987).  This is partly due to discriminative stimuli, which signal the contingencies that may be in effect at a given time.  In other words, the presence or absence of a parent (a discriminative stimulus) may determine whether one will be punished for a given response (if the cat’s away, the mice will play).  In addition, the possibility always exists that punishment can cross the line into abuse (physical and/or emotional).  As Skinner noted, science is not just about the facts, there is always something more.  In theory punishment may seem equivalent to reinforcement, but in practical matters, such as raising children, every situation may require a more detailed analysis.

In order to reliably measure the behavior of animals (typically rats or pigeons) in his laboratory, Skinner built a special piece of equipment commonly known as a Skinner box (though its technical name is an operant conditioning chamber).  This apparatus allowed for the precise measurement of how subjects responded over time under varying conditions, and produced a special measure of behavior known as a cumulative record.  Although continuous reinforcement is certainly effective for increasing behavior, in most situations we are not reinforced every time we engage in a certain behavior.  Skinner identified four basic schedules of reinforcement, based on variations in the number of responses necessary for reinforcement, so-called ratio schedules, or the time intervals between making reinforcers available, so-called interval schedules.  Both ratio and interval schedules can be either fixed or variable.

a picture of a rat * a picture of a pigeon

By using rats and pigeons as his subjects, Skinner was able to conduct extensive
and precisely controlled experiments on operant behavior and its consequences.
[Rat image by Kira Hoffman; Pigeon image by George Hodan]

Although the principles of reinforcement may seem relatively straightforward, they can lead to either complex or odd behavior.  Complex behavior can be developed with operant conditioning through the process of shaping.  Shaping involves reinforcing chains of behavior in a specific sequence, with each change being relatively small and, therefore, relatively simple.  As a result, complex behavior can be explained in terms of shaping a series of simple changes in behavior.  As Skinner describes it:

Operant conditioning shapes behavior as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay.  Although at some point the sculptor seems to have produced an entirely novel object, we can always follow the process back to the original undifferentiated lump, and we can make the successive stages by which we return to this condition as small as we wish.  At no point does anything emerge which is very different from what preceded it.  (pg. 91, Skinner, 1953)

Sometimes, however, this process goes awry.  When an individual accidentally associates a consequence with a response, even though no actual relationship existed, superstitious behavior can result.  For example, if you provide a few seconds of access to food for a hungry pigeon every 20 seconds, regardless of what the pigeon is doing at the time, the pigeon will develop some form of food-getting ritual.  Since the food is delivered regardless of what the pigeon does, the ritual that develops is superstitious.  The development of superstition in humans is believed to follow the same principles (Skinner, 1953, 1987).  For a straightforward description of the principles of operant conditioning, and the prime example of how Skinner believed these principles might be applied to education, see the programmed instruction book entitled The Analysis of Behavior by Holland and Skinner (1961).

Discussion Question:  It has become commonly accepted, at least in psychology, that children should never receive positive punishment (e.g., a spanking).  Instead, parents should use negative punishment (e.g., a timeout) and then redirect their child’s behavior in positive ways.  How does this compare to how you were punished, and do you agree that this is always true?

Personality Development

Based upon the principles of operant conditioning, Skinner proceeded to address the full range of human behavior, including personality development, education, language, mental illness and psychotherapy, and even the nature of society itself.

Skinner believed that the terms “self” and “personality” are simply ways in which we describe the characteristic patterns of behavior engaged in by an individual.  Skinner also referred to the self as “a functionally unified system of responses” (Skinner, 1953), or “at best a repertoire of behavior imparted by an organized set of contingencies” (Skinner, 1974).  Skinner acknowledges that critics of the science of behavior claim that behaviorists neglect the person or the self.  However, Skinner claims that the only thing neglected is a vestige of animism, which in its crudest form attributes behavior to spirits.  If behavior is disruptive, the spirit is a demon; if behavior is creative, the spirit is a muse or guiding genius (Skinner, 1974).  Indeed, Skinner’s arguments describing the self sound quite similar to the Buddhist perspective we will examine later in this book:

When a man jams his hands into his pockets to keep himself from biting his nails, who is controlling whom?  When he discovers that a sudden mood must be due to a glimpse of an unpleasant person, who discovers whose mood to be due to whose visual response?  Is the self which works to facilitate the recall of a name the same as the self which recalls it?  When a thinker teases out an idea, is it the teaser who also eventually has the idea?  (pg. 283; Skinner, 1953)

If the self, or the personality, does not exist, but is instead simply a collection of behavioral attributes and functions, then it is an irrelevant concept that needs to be discarded.  Skinner did not discount the value of Freud’s explanation of human behavior, since Skinner acknowledged that many sciences take time to develop.  But now that behavioral science was advancing, according to Skinner, it became time to discard Freudian concepts of an unconscious mind and mental functioning.  Curiously, this is very similar to the way in which Freud addressed religion:  as something that had served its purpose in the course of human development, but which should now be discarded in favor of the science of psychoanalysis.

Since no two people have exactly the same experiences (not even identical twins, who do share an identical genetic make-up), each individual is truly unique.  When any one of us seems to have an experience of identity, a feeling of self, it always exists within the unique circumstances of our experiential contingencies, the reinforcers, punishers, discriminative stimuli, etc. that have determined our behavioral patterns.  Thus, Skinner argues that we do have a unique individuality, but we are not an originating agent, not a self that decides to act a certain way.  Instead, we are a locus, a point of convergence for genetic and environmental conditions which have come together and that will determine our next act (Skinner, 1974).


Skinner’s theories have direct applications to education, particularly with regard to controlling classroom behavior and motivating students to learn.  Indeed, when looking at the big picture, the challenges facing educators that Skinner wrote about in the 1970s sound very much like the challenges in education today (Skinner, 1978).  Teachers are being asked to do more, to address new and different material in their classrooms, and schools face dwindling budgets and rising costs.  A reasonable solution:  make education more efficient.

Skinner’s approach to increasing the efficiency of teaching was to rely on programmed instruction, either through teaching machines (see, e.g., Skinner, 1959) or specially designed books (e.g., Holland & Skinner, 1961).  When I was a teaching assistant at Wayne State University in Detroit, we used The Analysis of Behavior by Holland and Skinner for laboratory sections of the learning course.  It proved to be both efficient and effective.  Unfortunately, however, programmed instruction is just that, a systematic program, and it takes up time that might otherwise allow for meaningful and stimulating relationships between professors and students.  Interestingly, one of the strongest trends in higher education today is to shift from lecture-based classes to learner-centered education.  But this is done with the intent of increasing the active participation of students within the classroom, not to isolate them in programmed instruction.

In defense of Skinner’s approach, it is true that his simple teaching machines and books were only a start.  Today we have access to marvelous educational programs on computer, and most of them are anything but boring.  Some of the educational programs available for children are fascinating and fun games, and that may be wonderful for children.  But is the same approach appropriate for college-level students?  In time, perhaps, technology will bring us yet other innovative approaches that combine the best of programmed instruction and human interaction.

Discussion Question:  Skinner proposed that education could be made more efficient and effective through the use of programmed learning and teaching machines.  Have you ever experienced either of these approaches?  Did you feel that you were getting the most out of your education in these situations?


One of the most controversial areas to which Skinner applied his behavioral theories was that of language.  It took Skinner over 20 years to write Verbal Behavior (Skinner, 1957), but in the end he presented an analysis of language in which he argued that even our most complex verbal behavior could be understood in terms of simple behavioral contingencies.  Skinner began by considering whether there is any difference between speech and any other behavior.  For example, what is the difference between using the word water when asking for a glass of water and using the arm to reach for that glass of water?  In looking at the beginnings of verbal behavior in childhood, Skinner emphasized the simplicity of a young child’s early use of single words to convey meaning far beyond the particular word.  For example, when a 2-year old says “cookie,” they are asking for, and expecting to receive, a cookie that they cannot get for themselves.  Skinner referred to such simple one word utterances as a mand, which he said was short for several related concepts:  command, demand, countermand, etc.  When the child says “cookie,” they will then receive one (reinforcement) or they will not.  If it is too close to dinner, or if the child has already been told no, the child may receive a loud “No!” (punishment).  To make a long story short, all complex verbal behavior develops from this simple beginning, taking its more complex variations from the process of shaping, just like any other behavior.

Perhaps even more controversial, Skinner assigned “thought” to the role of subaudible speech.  In other words, thinking was nothing more than talking to one’s self, or behaving in the roles of both the speaker and the listener, but doing so without making any sounds out loud.  As strange as it may sound to consider thought as nothing more than another behavior subject to reinforcement or punishment, if one is willing to accept Skinner’s theory on verbal behavior in the first place, he then makes a compelling argument:

…speech is only a special case of behavior and subaudible speech a further subdivision.  The range of verbal behavior is roughly suggested, in descending order of energy, by shouting, loud talking, quiet talking, whispering, muttering “under one’s breath,” subaudible speech with detectable muscular action, subaudible speech of unclear dimensions, and perhaps even the “unconscious thinking” sometimes inferred in instances of problem solving.  There is no point at which it is profitable to draw a line distinguishing thinking from acting on this continuum.  (pg. 438; Skinner, 1957)

There are those, of course, who do not accept Skinner’s theory on verbal behavior.  The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky published critical reviews of both Verbal Behavior and, later, Beyond Freedom & Dignity (Skinner, 1971).  Bower and Hilgard (1981) consider Chomsky’s critiques to be perhaps the most effective in challenging Skinner’s viewpoint.  Chomsky argued that our knowledge of a series of input-output relationships tells us nothing of behavior in general, but rather we should be examining the internal structure, states, and organization of the organism that produced these unique input-output relationships (the very concepts that Skinner rejected).  Most importantly, rather than accepting that Skinner had taken an appropriate scientific approach, Chomsky felt that Skinner had placed unnecessary fetters on the scientific process.  Chomsky also adopted the cognitive perspective that addresses whether a stimulus in the environment really exists in isolation from the individual.  In other words, is the nature of a stimulus affected by the perception of the individual (e.g., how might a paranoid person react to a friendly greeting)?  Attempts at supporting Skinner’s view and answering Chomsky’s critique have, according to Bower and Hilgard, simply failed to be effective or persuasive.  And so, experimental psycholinguistics has remained with the general disciplines of linguistics and cognitive psychology, rather than becoming a branch of behavioral learning theory (Bower & Hilgard, 1981).

Old Age and Walden Two

Although much of our conditioning takes place during the early years of life, Skinner did not neglect the later years.  However, he addressed issues of aging in a decidedly unscientific way, mostly by describing ways in which he had personally dealt with the intellectual challenges of aging.  Skinner wrote about a variety of techniques he had found useful in dealing with forgetfulness, fatigue, and a lack of motivation (see Skinner, 1987).  More importantly, however, was the need to prepare for old age when young.  By preparing for old age, we can meet its challenges in the best possible health and frame of mind.  In Enjoy Old Age, co-authored with Dr. Margaret Vaughan, one finds the following advice:

Nevertheless, it is probably easier to be happy when you are young…We do not live in order to be old, and for young people to expect that “the best is yet to be” would be a great mistake.  But what comes can be enjoyed if we simply take a little extra thought.  (pg. 28; Skinner & Vaughan, 1983)

In this relatively brief book, Skinner and Vaughan recommend a series of practical steps that one might take:  do something about old age, keep in touch with the world, keep in touch with the past, think clearly, keep busy, have a good day, get along with people, feel better, recognize death as a necessary end, and play the role of old age with dignity.  An important part of the latter step is to have a sense of humor.  The realities of old age can be frustrating, but when you can laugh at the lighter side of these challenges, then everyone around you has the chance to feel better too (Skinner & Vaughan, 1983).

Having addressed the full range of human life, Skinner also addressed the very nature of society itself.  Actually, it was rather early in Skinner’s career that he wrote the controversial novel Walden Two (Skinner, 1948).  And yes, this book was a novel, not a scientific study, though it certainly addresses Skinner’s scientific endeavors.  Walden Two is about a utopia, a society based entirely on behavioral principles.  Similar to the challenges Skinner faced in his failed attempt at a career as an author, Walden Two was rejected by two publishers, and it was accepted by Macmillan only when Skinner agreed to also write an introductory textbook for them.  Few critics were impressed by the book, and it failed to sell for a dozen years.  But eventually it did sell, and became a well known, if still controversial, book (Skinner, 1978).  Skinner himself has written interesting reflections on Walden Two and its implications, including a fictional conversation between one of the characters and the late George Orwell (author of 1984; Skinner, 1978, 1987).

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Skinner’s behavioral, utopian society is that it has not remained fictional.  At least two communities have been established based on the ideas presented in Walden Two.  The first, established in 1967, is the Twin Oaks Intentional Community, located in rural Virginia (www.twinoaks.org).  The second, established in 1973, is Los Horcones, located in Sonora, Mexico (www.loshorcones.org.mx).  Los Horcones has, among its many interesting programs, developed special education programs for developmentally delayed children, particularly those suffering from autism.  Although both communities have been successful, they have found it difficult to expand.

Mental Illness and Behavior Therapy

Although the topics of mental illness and behavior therapy are better left to a course in abnormal psychology, let’s take a brief look at some of the more dramatic applications of Skinner’s theories to this important topic.  Today, an important trend in psychology is community mental health, in which it is common for a team of mental health practitioners, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health nurses, to come together and combine their unique specialties in the treatment of a variety of mental health issues.  Following two conferences in 1953 and 1954, on the development and causes of mental disease, Skinner wrote that it is important for psychology to maintain a narrow focus, not an interdisciplinary one.

Specifically, Skinner believed that psychologists should focus on the significant properties of “mental disease.”  He describes the organism (or person) as being under the influence of hereditary and environmental influences, and engaging in behaviors.  How we define these variables depends on our perspective.  We can refer to genetic influences as instincts or, in humans, as traits and abilities.  We can refer to environmental variables, both past and present, as memories, needs, emotions, perception, etc.  But we do not have to interpret those factors we cannot observe, and Skinner felt it was not useful to do so (Skinner, 1959).

Skinner did not actually reject the possibility of the existence of a mental apparatus, as described by Freud, but he did consider it outside the realm of psychological science.  And as with complex verbal behavior, Skinner believed that if we could sufficiently break down the behavioral contingencies that underlie psychotic behavior, then we would be able to describe its significant properties in behavioral terms.  This analysis may someday involve a more detailed understanding of what happens in the nervous system (and in the brain), but that analysis may appropriately belong in psychiatry and/or neurology, not in psychology (Skinner, 1959).

Skinner felt that mental illness centered on issues of control, and the development of abnormal contingencies in the control of behavior.  Most people fear control, and Skinner posed the somewhat amusing question:  How often do psychotics have delusions about benevolent controllers? (pg. 234; Epstein, 1980).  When faced with being controlled, under excessive conditions, individuals may attempt to escape, revolt, or resist passively.  Given the complexity of human life, these behaviors can take many forms and can result in many emotional by-products, such as fear, anxiety, anger or rage, or depression (Skinner, 1953).  When these conditions become maladaptive or dangerous, a need for psychotherapy arises.  Skinner viewed psychotherapy as yet another form of control, but one in which the therapist creates a non-punishing situation that allows the patient to address problematic behaviors.  The therapist and the patient can then work out programs that reduce occasions of punishment and increase occasions of reinforcement in the patient’s life.  As such, Skinner considered psychotherapy to be somewhat the opposite of religion and governmental agencies, both of which tend to rely on punitive measures to control the behavior of people (Skinner, 1953).

Through it all, Skinner was optimistic about the future of humanity, and he felt that behaviorism would help people to achieve their full potential.  In this regard, he was similar to Freud, who felt that psychoanalysis was a fully scientific endeavor, which would also help to advance the development of humanity.  The difference between these two great scientists of human behavior lies in how this might come about:

An experimental analysis shifts the determination of behavior from autonomous man to the environment – an environment responsible both for the evolution of the species and for the repertoire acquired by each member…but we must remember that it is an environment largely of his own making.  The evolution of a culture is a gigantic exercise in self-control…But no theory changes what it is a theory about; man remains what he has always been.  And a new theory may change what can be done with its subject matter.  A scientific view of man offers exciting possibilities.  We have not yet seen what man can make of man.  (pp. 214-215; Skinner, 1971)

Connections Across Cultures:  Personality within Society

John Dollard was one of three theorists whom we will cover in this book who made significant contributions to studying racial issues and minority groups.  However, unlike Erik Erikson (see Chapter 7) and Gordon Allport (see Chapter 13), both of whom addressed these issues later in their careers, Dollard (trained in sociology and anthropology) began these studies before he made his significant contributions to psychology.  This fact had an important influence on his later approach to how personality is learned, and the use he and Miller made of cross-cultural examples in the books they published together.  Indeed, as something of a prelude to his work with Miller, Dollard ends the book Caste and Class in a Southern Town (Dollard, 1937) with the following passage:

…It is one of the urgent needs of social psychology to see the life-history problem against the background of class structure and to get life records from persons who are also described from the sociological standpoint.  (pg. 459; Dollard, 1937)

Dollard made an important distinction between class and caste, as it applies to Blacks and Whites living in the Southern United States in the 1930s.  Class generally refers to a group of people of similar economic and political status, such as lower (or working) class, middle class or upper class.  A caste is a group defined by some social and/or hereditary factor, such as being ethnically Black or White.  There are lower class Blacks and Whites, and there are middle class Blacks and Whites.  However, in our society it has been the Blacks who were most dramatically oppressed, through the institution of slavery.  Thus, Blacks have been relegated to a lower caste, regardless of whether their economic success qualifies them for middle class status, or even whether they are wealthy.  This has had a detrimental influence on family structure in the Black community, and with it an important influence of personality development:

Personality formation must be intelligible in terms of patterns in the family.  The study of the family as a formal unit has been slighted in this research, but some things are known.  One is that the lower-class Negro family differs from the middle-class white family and seems by comparison to be “disorganized.”  This is undoubtedly a result of the fact that during slavery days it was impossible for Negroes to approximate white family structure.  (pp. 413-414; Dollard, 1937)

Dollard discusses a variety of ways in which White plantation owners worked to eliminate all trace of the African family structure and culture among their slaves, not the least of which was the dramatic removal of them from Africa to America.  In many ways the slave owners encouraged pleasure-seeking, lack of discipline, and independence from family.  These values helped to keep male slaves somewhat satisfied in spite of their conditions, and they encouraged the independence of children so that they might begin working at a young age (Dollard, 1937).  These values slowly established a new culture for Blacks in America, often with negative consequences.  After the Civil War, some Blacks also began to adopt the values of the White culture, but they were not accepted by many people in America.  This conflict is what ultimately led the Supreme Court of the United States, in the 1954 ruling Brown v. Board Education, to declare that separate is not equal.

Dollard also co-authored Children of Bondage, with a social anthropologist named Allison Davis (Davis & Dollard, 1940).  Davis was one of the first Black professors to receive tenure at a university that was not an historically Black institution (the University of Chicago).  He successfully challenged the racial bias in IQ tests of the past, helping to eliminate their use in the school systems of many cities, and he was recognized by the U. S. government with a postage stamp in a series that included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson.  In their work together, Davis and Dollard focus on describing the personalities and socialization of eight adolescent Blacks in the deep south.  They emphasize the demands placed on these youth by both their particular caste position and the social class into which they were born.  Individuals may attempt to rebel against their feelings of inferiority with regard to class, and class mobility is possible, but not so with one’s racial identity:

In studying the status controls operating upon an individual one finds that most persons in our society are disposed to conceal, even from themselves, any inferiority in their social rank…Refusal to acknowledge one’s inferior status, and the building of defenses to decrease anxiety on this score are especially complex with regard to class status…Color caste, however, is so clearly and so rigidly defined that persons in the lower-caste society (as well as the general American reader of this book) will exhibit much less psychological resistance to the fact of caste status than to that of class position.  (pg. 17; Davis & Dollard, 1940)

It was within this context, recognizing caste and class as socializing factors influencing personality development, that Dollard went on to study learning theories related to personality development:

“But what,” one may ask, “is the practical use of studying these class patterns of behavior?”…what good is such knowledge to the student of human nature, and to our society?…is it a valuable tool which will help us to predict behavior in any given situation and in the end to change it?

The writers’ studies of the class conditioning of Negro children have convinced them…that when properly understood the sanctions of the class position, as enforced by the family, the clique, and the larger class environment, are among the most important controls in the formation of human habits.  In order to understand the powerful grip of this class behavior, we must first examine the social environment in which Negro children learn their habits and the specific methods by which this learning is reinforced.  (pg. 259; Davis & Dollard, 1940)

John Dollard and Neal Miller:  Psychodynamic Learning Theory

Sigmund Freud felt that only his approach to psychodynamic theory and psychoanalysis would allow for an understanding of human behavior.  B. F. Skinner felt the same way about radical behaviorism.  But very few psychologists have felt so strongly about one, and only one, approach to psychology.  John Dollard and Neal Miller attempted to blend psychodynamic theory with learning theory, and the results were quite successful.  Their theories on the relationship between frustration and aggression, social learning (developed more fully by Bandura, Rotter, and Mischel, whom we will cover in the next chapter), and conflict are standard topics in introductory psychology textbooks.

Brief Biographies of John Dollard and Neal Miller

John Dollard (1900-1980) and Neal Miller (1909-2002) were born just a few years and a few miles apart in Wisconsin, though Miller’s family soon moved to Washington.  Dollard was a generalist, with interests in psychology, anthropology, and sociology, who conducted important research on racial discrimination in the American south.  Miller was particularly interested in physiological psychology, and his pioneering work on biofeedback is as famous as anything we will discuss in this chapter.  Though pursuing very different careers, their paths crossed at Yale University’s Institute of Human Relations.

Dollard received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1922, and then went to the University of Chicago, where he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology in 1931.  His interests at the time were primarily in sociology and anthropology, and he accepted an assistant professorship in anthropology at Yale University.  A year later he became an assistant professor of sociology at Yale’s newly formed Institute of Human Relations.  Dollard remained at Yale throughout his career, earning the status of professor emeritus in 1969.  In addition to his work with Miller, Dollard studied the effects of racial segregation and discrimination in the southern United States, resulting in two landmark books.  Dollard also traveled to Germany between completing graduate school and beginning his position at Yale.  While there, he studied psychoanalysis and was psychoanalyzed at the Berlin Institute.

Miller received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in 1931, where he studied with the well-known learning theorist Edwin Guthrie.  He received an M.A. from Stanford University, and his Ph.D. from Yale in 1935.  While a graduate student at Yale he studied with Clark Hull, one of the most influential learning theorists.  Like Dollard, Miller traveled to Europe after graduate school, and was psychoanalyzed at the Vienna Institute for Psychoanalysis (reportedly he could not afford to be analyzed by Freud himself).  Upon returning, Miller joined the faculty at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations.  He remained there from 1936 to 1941, and it was during these years that worked closely with Dollard.

During World War II Miller conducted psychological research for the Army Air Force, while Dollard remained at Yale and studied the effects of combat on fear.  Miller returned to Yale as a professor of psychology, and remained there until 1966.  He then left Yale to establish the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at Rockefeller University, where he retired as professor emeritus.  Among his many honors, Miller served as president of the American Psychological Association, he received an award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology from APA, and he received a National Medal of Science from President Johnson in 1964.

Placing Dollard and Miller in Context:  Learning Theory in Moderation

Dollard and Miller brought important perspectives into the study of learning and personality.  Dollard was a sociologist with strong interests in anthropology.  Miller was trained as a learning theorist with a future in physiological psychology.  Although two such men might seem an unlikely pairing, their combined perspective opened the door for eclectic approaches to psychology.  Both Dollard and Miller had also studied psychoanalysis.  This combination of psychoanalysis, sociology, and learning led to some of the most famous theories in psychology:  the frustration-aggression hypothesis, social learning, and a theoretical basis for understanding behavior in conflict situations.  These studies laid the foundation for social learning and cognitive personality theorists.

In addition, Dollard studied cultural effects on personality development, particularly under oppressive conditions.  Once again, his work laid the foundation for an appreciation of cross-cultural studies in psychology.  However, despite occasional studies by noted theorists, such as Erik Erikson and Gordon Allport, the field of psychology has only recently begun to make a concerted effort to study cross-cultural issues (Sue, 1999).  Thus, in some ways, the fulfillment of Dollard and Miller’s legacy remains to be realized.

Learning Theory and the Influence of Clark Hull

As mentioned above, Miller was a student of Clark Hull, one of the most influential learning theorists.  As an example of just how influential Hull was, five theorists who advanced his ideas (including Miller, Orval Mowrer [a co-author on Dollard and Miller’s first book together], and Ernest Hilgard [whose learning theories text, co-authored with Gordon Bower, is cited in this chapter]) went on to the presidency of the American Psychological Association and also received distinguished scientific contribution awards from APA (Stagner, 1988).  Hull’s theory is not easy to understand, as it is a complex mathematical model of the variables impinging upon an organism’s behavior.  Unlike Skinner, Hull focused on the organism that exists between the input and output that were the sole focus of radical behaviorists.

According to Hull, the strength of a response (net response strength; E), or its probability of occurring, is determined by the strength of an internal drive (D) and the strength of relevant habits (H), all within the context of conditioned inhibition (extinction; sIr) and the organisms overall level of response inhibition (e.g., fatigue; Ir).  Hull expressed this relationship by using a formula:

E = (H x D) – (sIr + Ir).

Hull later modified his theory to take into account non-learning factors, such as the effectiveness of an evoking stimulus (V) and the incentive motivation of stimuli (K), resulting in the modified formula:

E = H x D x V x K.

For a more detailed discussion of learning theory see Theories of Learning by Bower and Hilgard (1981).  Clearly, Hull’s consideration of psychological factors, such as the quality of stimuli, their value as motivators, internal drives and habits, all of which influence the nature of input-output relationships stands in stark contrast to Skinner’s theories.  It was within this context that Dollard and Miller attempted to blend learning theory with psychodynamic phenomena.

Discussion Question:  Clark Hull proposed a mathematical formula for understanding behavior, based in part on habit and the incentive of rewards.  Look at the formula E = H x D x V x K, and consider whether you agree that human behavior can be reduced to mathematics.

Dollard and Miller’s Psychodynamic Learning Perspective:  Frustration-Aggression; Social Learning and Imitation; Conflict

Dollard and Miller collaborated on three books, in which they attempted to apply Hull’s principles of learning theory to Freudian psychoanalysis:  Frustration and Aggression (Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939), Social Learning & Imitation (Miller & Dollard, 1941), and Personality and Psychotherapy (Dollard & Miller, 1950).  Like Hull before them, Dollard and Miller emphasized drives and habits.  They also addressed theoretical differences in the strength of reinforcers and punishers, and they equated Freud’s concept of displacement to the behavioral concept of generalization.  Rather than considering psychoanalysis and behaviorism as fundamentally opposed, as Skinner had, Dollard and Miller allowed for a synthesis of these two major schools of psychology.  Their vision led to influential and popular perspectives (Bower & Hilgard, 1981; Lundin, 1979; Stagner, 1988).

Dollard, Miller, and their colleagues believed that the relationship between frustration and aggression is absolute.  In other words, aggression is always the result of frustration.  Equally true, but not always as obvious, is the fact that frustration always leads to some form of aggression.  While it may appear that some people very quickly accept situations in which they do not get their own way (i.e., they are frustrated), it is also true that we learn early in life to restrain our aggressive impulses.  Although we may appear to be successful in not responding to frustration with aggression, this restraint is most likely only temporary.  We may then aggressively respond after some delay, or toward some other target, but there will eventually be an aggressive response as a result of the initial frustration (Dollard et al., 1939).  In addition, such aggression does not have to involve active responses, since passive-aggressive behavior is all too common.  Indeed, a passive-aggressive personality disorder (identified by Theodore Millon as the negativistic personality disorder [Millon, 1996; Millon and Grossman, 2005]; see the Appendix) was included in the DSM-IV-TR for further study, although it did not make it into the DSM-V (American Psychiatric Association, 2000, 2013).  This is an essential contrast to the view of Skinner.  Radical behaviorism does not do a very satisfying job of relating responses and stimuli following long delays, not does it easily address the displacement of aggression.  However, by accepting internal psychological processes, more flexible learning theories can incorporate factors such as memory, reasoning, emotion, etc. into the relationships between us and our environments.

Aggression comes in many forms, and Dollard, Miller, and their colleagues addressed a wide variety of social factors, including child and adolescent development, criminality, differences between democracy, fascism, and communism, and the nature of aggression amongst the Ashanti.  The Ashanti are a West African tribe of people who were considered powerful and warlike.  Their fierceness in intertribal battle was said to strike terror into their enemies.  Based on anthropological records (primarily the writings of a Captain Rattray), Dollard, Miller, et al. (1939) described a variety of aspects of the Ashanti culture within the framework of the frustration-aggression hypothesis.  For example, being captured during war was considered treason, and treason was punishable by death.  Thus, it was expected that a warrior would never surrender, but rather would fight to the death.  However, a warrior’s primary goal during war was to win, and then return home to the family and way of life they were fighting for.  If it became clear to a warrior that he was going to lose, his desire to survive should be foremost in his mind.  However, surrendering was punishable by death, so it was not an option.  This created profound frustration!  The response might then be an aggressive rejection of the culture that demanded his death, and he might go ahead and surrender (as often happened).  Another shocking example involved the claiming of infants.  In Ashanti culture children were cherished.  For the first eight days after birth, an infant was kept in very simple conditions, hidden from any outside observers.  Then, after the 8 days, the parents would claim the child in a public ceremony.  The child would be named, dressed in fine clothes, given a special sleeping mat, and brought out into the community.  If the child died during those first 8 days, while the family was making its preparations for the celebration, the result was a very painful frustration.  Consequently, the custom was to violently abuse the body, whipping and mutilating it, and finally burying it in the women’s latrine!  As shocking as this may seem, it represents an extreme example of the frustration-aggression hypothesis in a culture where aggression plays an important role.

a frustrated person about to hit a computer with a hammer

According to Dollard and Miller, frustration leads to aggression.
Many people are frustrated by the computers that were designed to make life
more convenient. 
[Image by fluffster (Jeanie)]

In a study relating Freud’s defense mechanism of displacement to the behavioral concept of generalization, Miller conducted a study in which rats were trained to strike each other (see Lundin, 1979).  Very simply, a mild electrical shock was applied to the floor of a cage containing two rats, and as soon as the rats bumped into each other the shock was turned off.  The rats quickly learned to strike each other as soon as the electrical current was turned on.  A white, plastic doll was then added to the cage, and when the electrical current was turned on the rats quickly struck each other.  Then, when one of the rats was placed in the cage alone, and the electrical current was turned on, the rat struck the doll.  Whether this is displacement or generalization depends simply on whether it is defined by a Freudian or a behaviorist, respectively.  Although Dollard, Miller, et al. defined the frustration-aggression hypothesis as we know it today, they credit Freud with “the most systematic and extensive use of the frustration-aggression hypothesis,” which led to Freud’s proposal of the death instinct and its underlying aggressive energy (Dollard, et al., 1939).

In their second book together, Social Learning & Imitation (Miller & Dollard, 1941), Miller and Dollard addressed the roles of culture and society in the learning process:

…To understand thoroughly any item of human behavior – either in the social group or in the individual life – one must know the psychological principles involved in its learning and the social conditions under which this learning took place.  It is not enough to know either principles or conditions of learning; in order to predict behavior both must be known.  The field of psychology describes learning principles, while the various social science disciplines describe the conditions.  (pg. 1; Miller & Dollard, 1941)

Given Dollard’s background in sociology and anthropology, it should not be surprising that they gave such emphasis to the social conditions surrounding learning.  Indeed, in the preface to this book they discuss the difficulty they had communicating with one another, since they each brought very different backgrounds into this combined effort.  They then defined learning theory as the study of the circumstances under which responses and cue stimuli become connected, and they focused their studies on imitation and copying.

According to Miller and Dollard (1941), there are four essential factors involved in learning:  the cue, the response, drive, and reward.  In simple terms, in the presence of an appropriate signal (the cue), the person responds with a particular behavior, if there is an adequate reward (based on learning).  The entire process will not take place, however, if the individual does not want a reward (drive).  The normal order, after learning has taken place, would then be:  drive → cue → response → reward; when we want something, and we see a signal that it is available, we try to get it, and are rewarded for our actions.  Another important aspect of social learning is that both drives and rewards can be acquired.  For example, food choices are highly cultural.  Would you enjoy a dinner of grubs, whale blubber, and sheep entrails, followed by a few crunchy grasshoppers for dessert?  And yet, each of these items is commonly eaten in some cultures, so they must be reinforcers for hungry people there.

As an additional example of the importance of social learning, Dollard and Miller once again turned to the anthropological literature.  The Semang people of the Malay Peninsula are quite different than the Ashanti described above.  The Semang are known as excessively shy and timid people.  When faced with hostility they never respond in kind.  Instead, they just retreat farther into the jungle.  Dollard and Miller questioned whether this behavior was due to some personality trait or to learning.  The Semang often dealt with the more powerful Malay tribe.  The Malay often cheated the Semang, stole their land, and enslaved some of their people.  When the Semang resisted, they were severely punished by the Malay.  As a result, escape behavior among the Semang was rewarded, whereas aggression was severely punished.  As this became engrained within the culture of the Semang, it was no longer necessary for each generation to re-learn these contingencies, withdrawal and escape became the cultural norm for the Semang people (Dollard & Miller, 1941).  To put it in the terms used above, there is a drive for survival.  In the presence of aggressive Malays (a cue), escape (the response) is rewarded with safety (drive → cue → response → reward).

In perhaps their most influential book, Personality and Psychotherapy, Dollard and Miller (1950) advocated an eclectic approach to psychology.  They believed that the “ultimate goal is to combine the vitality of psychoanalysis, the rigor of the natural-science laboratory, and the facts of culture” (Dollard & Miller, 1950).  They also felt it was important for all psychologists, even experimental psychologists, to understand psychotherapy, since it provides a window to higher mental life.  They proposed that psychiatric clinics are full of patients showing three common signs:  misery, stupidity (in some ways), and neurotic symptoms.  Basically, Dollard and Miller believed that conflict produces the misery, that repression produces the stupidity (perhaps we should say “unconsciousness” or “unaware”), and that neurotic symptoms reduce conflict.  However, neurotic symptoms do not solve conflicts, they only mitigate the conflict.  In order to better understand these conflicts, Dollard and Miller presented a detailed analysis of conflict, which became the best-known portion of their final book together (Dollard & Miller, 1950).

Psychotherapy may take place in a therapist’s office, but misery and conflict can only be relieved in real life.  Dollard and Miller give credit to Freud for making this observation, but there is a distinct difference between how Freud viewed conflict, as something primarily intrapsychic (between the id, ego, and superego), and how Dollard and Miller viewed conflict, as a choice between opposing options.  Conflict arises when we must make a choice.  Some stimuli are rewarding, some are punishing, and some can be both.  We tend to approach a rewarding stimulus, and that tendency grows stronger as we get closer to it.  Likewise, we tend to move away from a punishing stimulus, and our tendency to move away is stronger if we are close to it.  Two other important differences, according to Dollard and Miller (1950), are that the strength of avoidance increases more rapidly as we get closer to punishing stimuli than does the strength of approaching a rewarding stimulus, and the strength of both varies with their associated drives.  These relationships are easier to understand when viewed graphically.

Three types of conflict are most commonly discussed.  In approach-approach conflicts, the individual must make a choice between two rewarding stimuli, such as having ice cream or cookies for dessert.  This type of conflict is easily resolved, since one reward is likely to be more inviting (perhaps you haven’t had ice cream for a while).  A much more difficult situation is an approach-avoidance conflict.  In this situation, from a distance the rewarding aspect of the stimulus is stronger, so we approach the stimulus.  As we approach, however, the drive to avoid the stimulus grows rapidly, until we move away.  For example, when an abusive parent tries to comfort a child (something an abused child cannot trust), there is a drive to move toward the parent for comfort (approach) as well as a drive to avoid further abuse (avoidance).  Thus, the child may begin to approach the parent, but as they move closer they become more fearful and anxious, so they back away.  This type of conflict can clearly create the sort of misery that Dollard and Miller were writing about.  Finally, we have avoidance-avoidance conflicts, where both of our choices will result in punishment.  For example, if a child has misbehaved, and their parent is going to punish them, the natural response is to run away.  With young children this situation can be very easy to observe.  However, many parents will then yell:  “Don’t you dare run away from me!”  Now the child must choose between being punished (avoidance) or running away and being punished worse (avoidance).  In this situation, the typical response is to freeze, and make no choice at all.  The child may still be punished, but they will not have chosen the punishment.

Addressing the nature of an individual patient and their levels of approach and avoidance in conflicting situations is critical.  According to Dollard and Miller, neurotic patients generally have high levels of avoidance.  The key here is that these people have become patients.  Many people suffer, and are urged by their friends to work on improving their situation.  When those individuals have relatively low levels of avoidance motivation, they may well be successful in taking care of their problems.  It is the ones who cannot overcome their avoidance issues who end up in therapy.  Thus, if the therapist attempts to encourage the patient to approach their feared goals, the therapist will only increase the patient’s fear and conflict, and the resulting misery will drive the patient out of therapy (Dollard & Miller, 1950).  Instead, the therapist must focus on reducing the fears that motivated the patient’s avoidance in the first place.

Overall, Dollard and Miller emphasized that psychotherapists must be well-trained, open-minded, stable individuals who put the interests of their patients first.

We have emphasized the precautions important to psychologists who work as psychotherapists.  In the same connection we stress that the ability to treat organic disease does not automatically carry with it a skill at psychotherapy.  Nor does the possession of any degree such as Ph.D. or M.D. routinely confer such skill.  Only the knowledge of theory, the kind of character, and the supervised training discussed here can make a man a psychotherapist.  Anyone who undertakes psychotherapy without such training is exposing his patient to real danger and committing a moral, if not yet a legal, fraud.  (pg. 422; Dollard & Miller, 1950)

Discussion Question:  Dollard and Miller described how the Semang culture seems to lack aggression, as a result of their learning the danger of challenging the Malay.  Can you recognize examples in your own life where a certain group seems to act in a predictable way as the result of how another group acts?  If yes, how has one group reinforced or punished the behavior of the other in consistent ways, in keeping with the predictable behavioral outcomes?

Psychoanalysis, Behavior Therapy, and Relational Models

Paul Wachtel has continued studying the relationship between psychoanalysis and behavior therapy, following in the footsteps of Dollard and Miller, and he has also extended this comparison into the “relational world” (Wachtel, 1977, 1997).  Wachtel emphasized that psychotherapy should be understood in terms of the theory that guides it, and that the practice of therapy provides the true test of any psychological theory related to personality and/or mental illness.  Behavior therapy is appealing in terms of being direct and practical, but Wachtel feels that it can gain in several ways from being blended with psychoanalysis.  He questions whether pure behavior therapists can really assess psychological conditions, whether they achieve narrow gains at the expense of broader psychological change, and he addresses the ethical implications of being involved in specifically changing another person’s behavior.  He also addresses several problems that behaviorists see for psychoanalysis, such as the focus on internal states that cannot be observed, whether underlying causes are really treated instead of symptoms, and the application of the medical model to psychological processes.

It is my general premise that psychodynamic and behavioral approaches to psychotherapy, and to the understanding of personality, are far more compatible than is generally recognized, and that an integration of the concepts and observations accumulated by these two approaches can greatly enrich our clinical work and our understanding of human behavior…It is my experience that workers guided by either of these two broad frames of reference tend to have only a rather superficial knowledge (and sometimes none at all) of the important regularities observed by those guided by the other viewpoint.  (pg. 5; Wachtel, 1977)

In Psychoanalysis, Behavior Therapy, and the Relational World, Wachtel (1997) discusses advances in the recognition of object relations theory in American psychology, and how object relations theory fits into connections between traditional psychodynamic perspectives and learning theory.  Although it was not necessarily the intent of object relations theorists, object relations theory has shifted the focus of psychoanalysis from internal psychological conflicts to relationships with other people.  Thus, there has been a shift from an internal focus to an external focus, which is more compatible with learning theory (and the input-output contingencies that are essential to learning).  Wachtel also considers this shift as favorable for connections between psychoanalysis and family systems approaches to therapy.  Surprisingly, Wachtel makes no mention of relational-cultural theory and the work of the Stone Center Group, which seems ideally suited to the integration of approaches proposed by Wachtel.  Regardless of the nature and extent to which these various approaches might be integrated, it remains of the utmost importance that the focus of the therapist remains on helping the patient (Wachtel, 1997).

Cultural Effects on Learning

As shown above, Dollard and Miller regularly incorporated interesting cultural examples in their work relating learning theory to psychodynamic processes.  Though it may not be obvious, Skinner’s radical behaviorism is as intercultural as any theory.  A detailed analysis of environmental influences on behavior, including past contingencies and present cues, must incorporate an examination of the unique cultural factors that are part and parcel of those contingencies in different cultural groups.  In addition, of course, some psychologists today continue to study relationships between culture and learning.

Tweed and Lehman (2002) compared Western and Chinese learning styles by using two extraordinary teachers from ancient times as examples of these potentially different styles:  Confucius and Socrates.  Their article begins with an attempt to address the likely controversy that accompanies such a study.  They carefully and thoughtfully point out that one can easily misunderstand any contrast between cultures that are difficult to define.  For example, what does “Western” mean?  Does it really mean European-Americans, or does that leave out Canadians, Australians, and non-European Westerners?  So, Tweed and Lehman prefer the terms culturally Western and culturally Chinese, openly admitting that another important issue is that some Western people may be culturally Chinese and vice versa.  They also point out their study was meant to be descriptive, not judgmental.  Having presented such caveats, they proceeded with their study, and yet received some criticism nonetheless (Gurung, 2003; Li, 2003; see also the response to these critiques by Tweed & Lehman, 2003).

Tweed and Lehman offer the following generalizations about culturally Western and culturally Chinese learning:  culturally Western learning focuses on overt and private questioning, expressing personal hypotheses, and a desire for self-directed tasks, whereas culturally Chinese learning emphasizes effort-focused learning, pragmatic orientations, and acceptance of behavior reform as an academic goal (Tweed & Lehman, 2002).  In keeping with their non-judgmental attitude, they suggest that these disparate approaches both have their place in education, and that the ideal situation for students would be one that is academically bicultural, an environment that offers the opportunity for the strengths of each approach to learning to come out:

…These students would be in a sense academically bicultural and could operate adaptively within environments requiring Confucian or Socratic approaches…Educators…would encourage both thoughtful acquisition (Confucian) and inquiry (Socratic) such that students acquire knowledge and thinking skills that become fully understood, active, and elicited in many domains beyond the academic context. (pg. 97; Tweed & Lehman, 2002)

One of the individuals who commented on Tweed and Lehman’s article, Jin Li, has focused more directly on how cultural factors influence learning itself.  As essential difference between culturally Western and culturally Chinese learning is that Socrates proposed that the best learners develop and use their minds to inquire into the world, whereas the great Chinese tutor Mencius taught that becoming a better, more virtuous person is the most essential quality for a learner (Li, 2005).  This perspective is reminiscent of Wober’s study on intelligence amongst the Baganda people in Africa.  They consider intelligence to be something closer to what we would call wisdom, and their educational system is focused on an individual’s ability to succeed by conforming to the expectations of society, rather than on the ability to solve new and independent problems (Wober, 1974).  Since cultural attitudes and beliefs develop early in life (Ferraro, 2006a; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004), a valuable educational objective would be to emphasize the strengths of each approach to learning as early as possible in the school years (or even during the preschool years).

In addition to broad-based effects of culture on learning in general, culture also comes into play for many of the aspects of learning we have examined in this chapter.  Henrich et al. (2006) recently demonstrated that a wide variety of societies are willing to participate in costly punishment in order to encourage cooperation among groups.  In other words, each party to an agreement is motivated to abide by the agreement because the consequences of breaking it are severe.  This study involved fifteen different cultural groups from Africa, North America, South America, Asia, and Oceania, suggesting that willingness to cooperate as a function of severe punishment is universal.  Language, which Skinner believed is learned just like any other behavior, appears to be essential for the development of autobiographical memory, which serves primarily social and cultural functions and is intimately related to social and cultural development (Fivush & Nelson, 2004).  Presenting an interesting perspective on conflict, Eidelson and Eidelson (2003) have identified five belief domains that propel groups toward conflict.  When individuals experience feelings of superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust, or helplessness, there is a good chance they will feel frustrated.  When their individual-level core beliefs parallel the group-level worldview, the situation may trigger or constrain conflict or, possibly, trigger violent struggle (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003).  In such situations, the worldview of the larger group may be serving as a discriminative stimulus that it is acceptable to act out on one’s individual frustration, since the society in which one lives is likely to reinforce any subsequent aggression (since they share the individual’s frustration).  In the next two chapters, we take a closer look at how the social environment and cognitive processes contribute to the development of our personality.

Personality Theory in Real Life:  Positive Reinforcement Keeps Us Behaving!

The presence of positive reinforcement in our lives can be seen in a multitude of ways.  We use it to encourage our children and train our pets, it is quite common in education, from the earliest grades through college, and it enters into our lives as adults in many ways.  Often the application of reinforcement is not intentional, we give it out of habit, and partly because it leads to reinforcement for us as well.  Although learning theorists may disagree about the nature of reinforcement, no one can deny it.

There are many ways in which positive reinforcement is given to children.  Infants respond favorably to attention, and as they coo and smile back, that attention is itself reinforced.  This helps to create an essential bond between the child and its caregivers.  In the case of premature infants, gentle physical contact (massaging or stroking) by the parents is typically reinforced as a result of the babies gaining weight more rapidly and being more active (Field, 1993).  In other words, caring for an at-risk infant is reinforced, and thus the caring behavior continues.  Infant massage is quite popular in many countries around the world, and it is part of the total approach to therapy recommended by Wilhelm Reich (Field, 2000, 2001).

As children grow a little older, secondary reinforcers such as encouraging words (“You can do it!”) or clapping are commonly used to reinforce taking first steps or solving a simple puzzle.  Of course, primary reinforcers (e.g., crackers or juice) remain very popular as well.  Such simple examples of reinforcement are certainly not unique to humans.  Small pieces of food are often used to train dogs, and the reinforced behavior increases as a result, just like it does with children.  While this demonstrates the basic universality of behavioral principles, it does not suggest that dogs have a personality.  However, if you were to ask most pet owners, they will tell you that their animals do have personalities.  And junk yard dogs don’t become vicious as a result of being treated with loving kindness.

In educational settings, positive reinforcement is used quite intentionally, and can be a lot of fun with young children.  Teachers can use a wide variety of stars, smiley face stickers, student of the week awards, and other little treats that children find very rewarding.  Sometimes children receive “good citizen” awards when their teachers observe an occasion of prosocial behavior (such as helping another child who was hurt on the playground).  Each of these reinforcers is intended to increase those behaviors that are viewed favorably in the educational environment (completed assignments, good grades, and good citizenship).  As students get older, the reinforcers come less often (as with schedules of reinforcement).  Grades are given out at the end of a term or semester (reinforcing, of course, only if they are good grades).  Measures such as being Valedictorian, in the top 10 of the class, being on the Dean’s List in college, or graduating summa cum laude are the pinnacles of this positive reinforcement hierarchy, yet they depend on long time intervals (some as long as the typical four years of high school or college).

As adults, our reinforcement often becomes more complicated.  Based on Hull’s formula H x D x V x K, consider the effect of being offered chocolate for dessert.  After eating dinner, our drive for food should decrease, and we should not be likely to eat more.  However, chocolate is a powerful incentive, so we may go ahead and eat it even if we are no longer hungry.  Skinner’s radical behaviorism cannot account for the phenomenon of eating something we really like when we have already eaten our fill.  And yet many of us have experienced that desire to continue eating something we really like, even after we feel uncomfortably stuffed with food!  One might also consider Dollard and Miller’s frustration-aggression hypothesis, and the problem many people face when trying to lose weight.  It is extremely difficult to stay on a low calorie diet, especially if we cannot eat the foods we like.  Very simply, this is frustrating.  According to Dollard and Miller, frustration always leads to aggression.  How might this aggression be manifested?  We return to overeating, even though it is bad for us.  In other words, we are harming ourselves and/or rebelling against a culture that seems to demand being thin in order to be attractive.  Interestingly, many diet programs have responded to this problem (whether or not they understood it this way) by providing either tantalizing recipes or by offering the food itself in prepackaged form.  The hope is that the meals will themselves be reinforcing, thus eliminating the frustration caused by munching endless amounts of celery and rice cakes.  Of course, these days you can buy quite an interesting variety of flavored rice cakes, so even they can be reinforcing for some people!

Review of Key Points

  • Skinner emphasized the experimental analysis of human behavior, despite its complexity. He addressed causes and effects, but was very precise in describing a cause as a change in an independent variable and an effect as a change in a dependent variable.
  • Reinforcers increase the likelihood of behaviors that precede them; punishers decrease the likelihood of behaviors that precede them.
  • Positive reinforcement involves giving a reinforcer, negative reinforcement involves removing an aversive or noxious stimulus.
  • Positive punishment involves applying a punisher, negative punishment involves removing reinforcers.
  • Discriminative stimuli signal the behavioral contingencies in effect at a given time.
  • Skinner automated much of his research, inventing the operant conditioning chamber (aka, the Skinner box). The data were typically collected in the form a cumulative record.
  • The operant conditioning chamber was designed to control the schedule of reinforcement. These schedules could be either fixed or variable, and based on either ratios (number) or intervals (time).
  • Operant conditioning can lead to complex behavior by shaping the behavior in a series of small steps.
  • When a subject accidentally forms an inappropriate association, superstitious behavior can result.
  • Skinner claimed that our typical idea of the person, or the self, is a vestige of animism, the belief that we are inhabited by spirits. Instead, he believed we are simply a locus for the convergence of genetic and environmental conditions.
  • According to Skinner, education can be made more efficient by using programmed instruction and teaching machines.
  • Language, according Skinner, begins with the association of simple word elements known as mands.
  • Skinner believed that behavioral principles could be applied to improve life in old age as well as to improve society itself.
  • In attempting to address mental illness, Skinner did not rule out the possibility of a disordered mind. However, he felt that such a construct served no useful purpose in understanding abnormal behavior.  He also believed that mental illness focused on issues of control.
  • Clark Hull, a major influence on Dollard and Miller, proposed a mathematical model of learning that included the nature of the mind and experience.
  • Dollard and Miller believed that frustration always led to aggression, and that aggression could always be traced back to frustration. They applied their frustration-aggression hypothesis to a variety of cultural groups.
  • Dollard and Miller began the field of social learning, with an emphasis on the learning processes of imitation and copying.
  • When addressing psychological disorders, Dollard and Miller emphasized conflict. They provided a theoretical basis for understanding approach-approach conflicts, approach-avoidance conflicts, and avoidance-avoidance conflicts.
  • By incorporating an appreciation for the contribution of object relations theory, Wachtel has advanced our understanding of how learning theory and psychodynamic theory can be combined in an eclectic approach to psychotherapy.
  • Tweed and Lehman caution against regional stereotypes when examining cultural aspects of learning. They propose using the terms “culturally Western” and, for their particular study, “culturally Chinese.”
  • Since culture is learned early in life, any attempt to incorporate the best aspects of different cultural approaches to education must begin early.

Review of Key Terms

Aggression; animism; approach-approach conflict; approach-avoidance conflict; aversive; avoidance-avoidance conflict; caste; cause; class; conditioned inhibition; conflict; copying; culturally Chinese; culturally Western; cumulative record; discriminative stimuli; drive; effect; extinction; frustration; frustration-aggression hypothesis; habit; imitation; interval schedules; locus; mand; negative punishment; negative reinforcement; negativistic personality disorder; net response strength; noxious; operant conditioning; operant conditioning chamber; passive-aggressive personality disorder; positive punishment; positive reinforcement; primary reinforce; prosocial behavior; punisher; radical behaviorism; ratio schedules; reinforce; schedules of reinforcement; secondary reinforce; Skinner box; shaping; superstitious behavior

Annotated Bibliography

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York, NY: The Free Press.

This is perhaps the most thorough report of Skinner’s work.  It contains many of the basic principles that define operant conditioning, including how they apply to human behavior (as opposed to just rats and pigeons).

Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Skinner, B. F. (1987). Upon further reflection. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

These two books, written late in Skinner’s career, reflect upon his theories and their implications.  Skinner offers both analysis and insight, and he defends his radical behaviorist position.

Holland, J. G. & Skinner, B. F. (1961). The analysis of behavior. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

This book is the classic example of applying Skinner’s theories to education.  It offers a programmed instruction approach to learning the basic principles of operant conditioning and human development.  This book may also be considered the forerunner to today’s educational computer games.

Bjork, D. W. (1997). B. F. Skinner: A life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Bjork presents a thorough biography of Skinner’s life.  Although several autobiographical works have been written by Skinner himself, they tend to be brief and selective.  This biography, however, covers both the entire life and the enduring influence of Skinner.

Dollard, J., Doob, L. W., Miller, N. E., Mowrer, O. H., & Sears, R. R. (1939). Frustration and aggression. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Dollard, J. & Miller, N. E. (1950). Personality and psychotherapy: An analysis in terms of learning, thinking, and culture. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Dollard and Miller’s first book together, Frustration and Aggression, combines classic learning theory and psychodynamic theory in a most interesting way.  Given the violence that exists in the world today, and understanding how frustration leads to aggression is essential to working toward safety and peace.  In their last and perhaps most influential book together, Personality and Psychotherapy, they present their famous theory on conflict.  In all three of their books, Dollard and Miller routinely use fascinating examples from a wide variety of cultures.

Wachtel, P. L. (1997). Psychoanalysis, behavior therapy, and the relational world. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Wachtel has furthered the association between learning theory, behavior therapy, and psychodynamic theory begun by Dollard and Miller.  Although much of the book was published previously, this book includes new material based on advances in American psychology’s appreciation of object relations theory.  Wachtel makes a compelling argument for adopting an eclectic approach to diagnosis and therapy, drawing on the strengths of psychodynamic theory and learning theory.


Multicultural Personality Theory Copyright © by Mark Kelland. All Rights Reserved.

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