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My senior year at Case-Western Reserve, I went to college full-time but I was also head of a small family. I was married and we had small baby to take care of. I worked three jobs. One of those jobs was as a teaching assistant in downtown Cleveland at a place called “The Supplementary Educational Center.” The job involved a wide range of activities including putting new walls in, painting them, putting up NASA exhibits, running a planetarium and teaching about space and how airplanes worked. The Supplementary Educational Center bussed in sixth grade students (around 11 years old) from diverse parts of the city to learn about American History and about Space Science. 

Another job grew out of my class on Learning. The Professor in the previous story about operant conditioning without awareness recommended me as a research assistant for another professor who was also a Skinnerian. He was doing studies on operant conditioning. I “programmed” the experiments by literally plugging together components such as timers and relays. I also ran the experiments. By sheer coincidence, the “subjects” for the Professor’s experiments on operant conditioning were also sixth graders. 

The kids would go sit in a chair in front of a screen. On the screen, an image of a red circle would appear from time to time. In front of the kids was a lever. If they pulled that lever when the red circle appeared, a nickel would fall down as a reward. They were completely enclosed in what can be fairly described as a large Skinner Box. After a kid pulled the lever and received their nickel a few times, we began to “thin” the schedule. Now, they had to pull the lever 2 or 3 times before getting a nickel. Then, only every 5-7 times. Then, only once every 10-12 times. (Remember, it only “worked” if they pulled the lever while the red circle was there.) Finally, they were put into a phase where they would never get any more nickels no matter how many times they pulled the lever. 

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At that point, we (or more accurately, the relays we had programmed) stopped showing the red circle and showed other things such as a smaller red circle or a larger red circle or a green circle or a purple circle or a red ellipse. None of these ever paid off. But the instruments recorded their level pulling and we would soon satisfy our curiosity whether they would “generalize more” (i.e., pull the lever more) to a stimulus that varied in color, shape, or size from what they were originally trained on. I cannot recall how that actually turned out. As I look back on it, the notion that we would have a “general ordering” about the relative importance of these dimensions based on this experiment seems rather…naive.

Although the kids were run as subjects one at a time, it often happened that they came with a friend or two. The kids who were not being a subject just then, sat in a nearby waiting room and stared at the floor. I felt sorry for them. There were no magazines, games, books, etc. The room did have a blackboard though, so I picked up the chalk and began “teaching them” about the planets in the solar system. They seemed to enjoy my mini-lecture so I felt pretty good at having spread some enlightenment among the masses. 

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Despite the fact that the Professor was a devout Skinnerian, he still suggested that I debrief every subject — ask them what they thought they had been doing. So I did. What I discovered to my amazement was that some of them thought that my astronomy lecture was an advance organizer for the task in the Skinner box! “Well, first you showed me a picture of Mars many times and then Jupiter came up….”

In my mind, the little mini-lecture and the Skinner box experiment were two entirely different things that were not at all connected to each other, but each of which was connected with a specific job and conducted miles apart. The people I saw in these two roles were different; the hours were different. In this specific instance, I had used a bit of what I knew — and more importantly, what kids that age were interested in — to help them pass the time while waiting their turn. It never occurred to me how the situation appeared from their perspective. 

From their perspective, they go to this strange place on a college campus and meet this college kid (me) who greets them and takes their permission slips and has them take turns at some weird way to earn nickels involving looking at circles and ellipses. And, this same college kid (still me) teaches them about the solar system with circles and ellipses. Of course, they would think they were related.

For me, there were two distinct circles. For the kids, there was one circle. 

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“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!”

—- Robert Burns, To a Louse


First in a series of stories about the mythical Veritas tribe who value truth, love, and cooperation and their struggles against the Cupiditas who value power, greed, and cruelty. Our tale begins as the shaman/leader of the Veritas seeks an eventual successor so she devises a series of trials that mainly test empathy.


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