My eureka moment: Thinking outside the box

Laurie Taylor began his academic career as a devotee of B.F. Skinner, but he escaped the behavioural maze thanks to Noam Chomsky and a tipsy rat

March 11, 2010

It was a fellow teacher at Forest Hill comprehensive school who advised me to study psychology at Birkbeck. "You'll never make headmaster without some sort of degree," he told me one day in the English staff room as we feverishly tried to finish a second cigarette before the bell went for the next class. "You could do English, but that's just reading books you'd read anyway. Psychology helps with women. You can offer to interpret their dreams and all that stuff."

By the time I arrived for my interview at Birkbeck with Cecil Mace, the kindly and wise philosopher who was then in his final year as head of department, I'd developed what I thought was a rather more intellectual rationale. I had, I stuttered, always been interested in people and thought a degree would give me a deeper understanding of their motives and personality. It would help me to know what went on inside their heads. Mace must have enjoyed a good lunch because after tutting a little over my inadequate A levels, he offered me a place.

But within weeks of beginning my studies in 1960, I found myself plunged into a version of psychology that seemed about as relevant to understanding human beings as marine biology. For my arrival at Birkbeck coincided with the rise of behaviourism, the belief that a scientific understanding of human behaviour could be derived from the concentrated study of how rats in cages could be controlled and manipulated by the principles of operant conditioning.

This was not merely a shift in psychological thought, or a new perspective to be accommodated within the existing canon. It was a revolution. Whereas Mace had reserved a special place on his office desk for a bust of Plato, the new incumbent, Arthur Summerfield, selected precisely the same spot for a glass case containing a stuffed Rattus norvegicus. Other psychologists in the department were so captured by the promise of behaviourism, and by the insistence of its high priest, B.F. Skinner, that it promised a new scientific paradise, that they decided to dispense altogether with the old title of psychologist and relabel themselves "behavioural scientists".

It was, I believe, my nervousness about being at university that inclined me to adopt behaviourism and all its tenets with unqualified enthusiasm. It no more occurred to me to bring what I already knew about the world to bear upon what I was being taught than it would occur to a novitiate monk to start questioning the truths of Christianity. I'd joined a special order and my task was to master its precepts.

But I was also impelled towards behaviourism by the evangelical certainty of its adherents. Not all the lecturers at Birkbeck subscribed to the new doctrine, but those who did seemed refreshingly free from the ambiguities and uncertainties of those who lectured us on subjects such as theories of personality and the social psychology of small groups.

One of the most fervent behaviourists specialised in the destruction of any thinking that could be described as mentalistic. Over and over again he told us to forget what went on inside our heads. "Forget all that old-fashioned metaphysical speculation about mind and feelings and purposes and expectancies. Forget what's inside the black box. Behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences."

At least once a fortnight we were taken up to the laboratory on the top floor where we could witness the rats busily laying down the framework for the brave new world. We would watch while the experimenter changed the behaviour of a "food-deprived" rat ("hungry" was considered far too mentalist a term) by altering the number of times it needed to press a small lever in order to obtain a food pellet.

During the second year of my four-year course, we learned we were to receive a visit from the father of behaviourism. B.F. Skinner was coming to lecture at the University of London. Even though I eventually obtained a ticket, I was so overcome by the excitement of the occasion and the crush in the lecture hall that I can now only remember the moment when he told his audience that although freedom had led to many positive advances in the human condition, it was currently getting in the way of the new technology of human behaviour. Now that we knew from animal experimentation how behaviour was directly related to the environment, we could solve pressing human issues such as overpopulation and warfare.

My commitment to the cause was now absolute. Not content with observing the operant conditioning of rats in the Birkbeck laboratory, I applied to have a rat of my own on which to experiment. It was duly named Hamelin and installed on the top shelf of the Welsh dresser in my little flat in Balham. The next step was to construct a small wooden T-maze so that the rat could be trained to run right or left to obtain its reinforcement (a small blob of diluted condensed milk). But it soon became apparent that my rat, contrary to best behaviourist principles, had a mind of its own. Whenever I endeavoured to place it at the beginning of the maze, it resisted by splaying its legs. After a few embarrassing attempts to stuff it into place, I slightly modified the experimental schedule by adding a few drops of neat whisky to its customary blob of condensed milk. This did at least allow me to place it in the maze, but then the effects of the whisky took over and the rat took to waddling down the straight arm of the box and coming to a full, partially comatose, stop at the angle of the T, where it composed its face into something uncomfortably resembling a smirk.

Matters finally came to a head when my partner rose in the middle of the night and went in search of a glass from the second shelf of the dresser. In the dark she accidentally grabbed the extremity of the rat's dangling tail and screamed so loudly that I was finally forced to take heed of her ultimatum. I must, she said, choose between her and the rat.

None of these shenanigans did anything to disturb my faith in behaviourism. It made the world so wonderfully straightforward. It had an answer to every question. No need to worry about the meaning of such complex concepts as intelligence or time. Intelligence could be simply operationalised. It was what intelligence tests measured. And time was straightforward too. It was what clocks measured.

Then came the bombshell. The eureka moment. The day when my friend and fellow student Dennis gave me a copy of a review by Noam Chomsky of Skinner's latest work, Verbal Behaviour. I'd never heard of Chomsky at the time but knew very well about Skinner's attempt to show that the acquisition and employment of language could be explained by exactly the same principles of operant conditioning that governed other forms of human learning.

Chomsky had first published his review in Language back in 1959, but it must have been 1963 when it first turned up at Birkbeck in the form of a Bobbs-Merrill offprint. In the first few paragraphs Chomsky seemed to be treating Skinner with appropriate respect. He noted his "contributions to the study of animal behaviour" and recognised that the present book was the result of research "extending over more than 20 years".

But then slowly, ever so slowly, the demolition began. "Skinner's thesis is that external factors consisting of present stimulation and the history of reinforcement ... are of overwhelming importance ... and that the precise prediction of verbal behaviour involves only a specification of the few external factors that he has isolated experimentally with lower organisms. Careful study of this book ... reveals, however, that these astonishing claims are far from justified."

This, I thought as I read, was nothing short of lese-majesty. Other scholars had issued modest reservations about some of Skinner's grander claims, but for anyone to characterise his magnum opus as a collection of "astonishing claims" seemed dangerously heretical.

But as I soon discovered, Chomsky was only just warming to his task. He told me a sentence later that insights achieved in the laboratories of the reinforcement theorist could be applied to complex human behaviour only "in the most gross and superficial way".

And then came the slow realisation that Chomsky was not only criticising Skinner's account of how language worked, but he was, there is no other phrase, sending it up. He was making it a laughing matter, an object for - again, there was no other word - sarcasm.

What, asked Chomsky, corresponded in language to Skinner's claim that responses were lawfully related to a specific stimulus, so that, for example, "a typical example for Skinner would be the response to a piece of music with the utterance 'Mozart' or to a painting with the response 'Dutch'"? "Suppose", said Chomsky, "instead of saying Dutch we had said clashes with the wallpaper, I thought you liked abstract work, never saw it before, tilted, hanging too low, beautiful, hideous or remember our camping trip last summer?" In these circumstances Skinner could say only that each of these responses was under the control of some other stimulus property of the physical object. But finding this stimulus was an endless task. It meant that the word stimulus had lost its objectivity. We could identify the stimulus only when we heard the response. "We cannot predict verbal behaviour in terms of the stimuli in the speaker's environment, since we do not know what the current stimuli are until he responds."

But the fun was only just beginning. A page later, Chomsky addressed Skinner's argument about the factors indicating the strength of our response. Whereas we can measure the strength of a laboratory rat's response by noting the intensity and frequency with which it presses a bar, in the case of a linguistic response we have to rely on other matters such as the speed and strength of the utterance. So, in Skinner's words, if we are shown a prized work of art and exclaim "beautiful", the speed and energy of the response will not be lost on the owner.

Chomsky wasn't convinced. "It does not appear totally obvious that in this case the way to impress the owner is to shriek 'beautiful' in a loud, high-pitched voice, repeatedly, and with no delay (high response strength). It may be equally effective to look at the picture silently (long delay) and then to murmur 'beautiful' in a soft low-pitched voice (very low response strength)."

Or take another example. Suppose we wish to increase the likelihood of a scientific assertion being confirmed. According to Skinner, this is best done by "generating additional variables to increase its probability" and more generally its strength. Chomsky went for the jugular. "If we take this suggestion quite literally, the degree of confirmation of a scientific assertion can be measured as a simple function of the loudness, pitch, and frequency with which it is proclaimed, and a general procedure for increasing its degree of confirmation would be, for instance, to train machine guns on large crowds of people who have been instructed to shout it."

Chomsky then proceeded to pour similar scorn on Skinner's key idea of reinforcement and his refusal to consider those instances when animal behaviour seems prompted by curiosity and exploration rather than a specific identifiable reward. But, of course, the key part of his argument is that the composition and production of a verbal utterance is not "simply a matter of stringing together a sequence of responses under the control of outside stimulation".

To understand how language works we need to go inside that black box, and we need to consider the mental activities that have to be performed before an utterance can be made. "The fact that all normal children acquire essentially comparable grammars of great complexity with remarkable rapidity suggests that human beings are somehow specially designed to do this, with data handling or 'hypothesis-formulating ability' of unknown character and complexity, " argued Chomsky.

That famous review not only undermined my faith in behaviourism, it also made me dissatisfied with the entire discipline of psychology, which at the time had not yet been informed by what came to be known as "the cognitive revolution". Instead I turned to sociology in my search for an intellectual approach that regarded the contents of human consciousness as fundamental to understanding human action. This meant that my own eventual research on language had little or nothing to do with the theory of generative grammar that Chomsky went on to develop. I endeavoured to build upon C. Wright Mills' ingenious attempt to develop a sociology of motivation by showing that among the motives that informed human behaviour was the availability of an account of the intended action that would be acceptable within the actor's community. But, of course, in this respect it was another endeavour to discover what lay within that "black box" that the behaviourists had tried so passionately to empty.

It was about six months after we'd read Chomsky together that my now equally disillusioned friend Dennis passed me the famous cartoon showing a rat in a Skinner box with the caption "I sure got this psychologist well conditioned. Whenever I press this lever he drops a food pellet into the chute." I was intrigued to see that the rat in the picture wore an expression not dissimilar to the smirk I'd detected behind Hamelin's whiskers.

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