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I was trained in “Experimental Psychologist” in the late 1960’s. Today, my program would likely be called “Cognitive Psychology.” The change is more than simply moving to a more fashionable (or opaque?) terminology. Skinner and other behavioral psychologists held sway over much of the experimental work in psychology and particularly in America. 

One of my classmates at Michigan had attended Harvard as an undergrad and described an honors dinner he had attended as a Freshman. He had gotten to sit next to B.F. Skinner at the banquet and Skinner, was not only a smart student (having gotten his own Ph.D. in two years), and a brilliant experimentalist; he was also a tireless promotor of his view of psychology. Even at a dinner for Freshman, he began to wax elegant about his particular approach. 

“Now you see,” said Skinner, “I am holding a fork and I move it to my mouth and I get food. Some of my colleagues would say that I believe that I will satisfy my hunger if I move the fork to my mouth. But why? There’s no need for belief! It is simply that when I grab my fork and move the food to my mouth, I am reinforced by the food and thus I keep doing it! There’s no need to introduce any belief!”

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My classmate, in awe of the great doctor Skinner said, “Wow! That’s amazing Professor Skinner and you truly believe that, right?” 

“Of course I believe it! I mean — no, of course not. I don’t believe. I’ve simply been reinforced for saying it so many times that now it is my behavior!” 

This is a recounting filtered through two sets of memory, but in essence, I believe it is correct. I no longer think of the word “believe” as a useless and unnecessary construct. As an undergraduate, I studied a lot of behavioral psychology, and worked as a laboratory assistant in a behavioral psych lab. At the same time, I had another part-time job working as a child care worker in the children’s floor of a psychiatric hospital. At the hospital, the approach the psychiatrists took was strictly Freudian. Thankfully, the patients spent the vast majority of their time interacting with much more practical and reasonable souls such as myself, my fellow child care workers, and many wonderful nurses. 

I had been fascinated by Freud whom I first read about around age 13. I came to believe there was much truth in his approach. I interpreted dreams and “slips” and his approach resonated with my lived experience. But my allegiance is to truth, not to an individual. Empirical research began to demonstrate that however intuitive his approach might seem, it was not particularly effective compared with behavior therapy or, later, cognitive behavioral therapy. 

When I had a first hand look at the “Freudian” approach applied to a kid’s psych ward, I saw for myself how it could be misapplied and mishandled. Here are two examples. One of the kids K had spent an hour or so building a plastic model of a car. No sooner had he finished and began to show off his cool accomplishment than a much younger kid D ran over and stepped on it, pretty well smashing it to bits. K began yelling and screaming. A nurse — one of the few I worked with who happily drank the Freudian Kool-Aid asked K what he was so upset about. K said, “D smashed my car!”

Nurse: “Well, K what are you really upset about?”

K: “I told you! D smashed my car!” 

Nurse: “You’re going to the quiet room until you can tell me what you’re really upset about.” 

I am not claiming this is “appropriate” use of Freudian therapy. But it does illustrate how easily it can be turned to something absurd and cruel.

This absurdity was not limited to nurses who “after all” didn’t have the years of training it takes to become a Freudian psychoanalyst. But here’s an example from one of those highly trained psychoanalysts. Another patient, M, had been on the ward for about three years and during this time had become close friends to one of the nurses, N. These nurses, you have to understand, did not spend time simply administering meds and sitting in the nursing station. They were on the floor interacting with kids during 90-95% of their shift. So she had spent many hours interacting with M. I observed them together and it was clear that there was a real bond of friendship. At some point, N had a job offer from Raleigh and told M that she’d be leaving. M was sad — appropriately so, in my estimation.

As is typical in hospitals, there were three shifts per day. There is overlap of shifts so that shift N can find out what happened during shift N-1. We took turns reading the “Nursing Notes” and “Psychiatrist Reports” during the handover meeting. The psychiatrist who was seeing M “explained” that he had told M that he, the psychiatrist, was going on a vacation for a week and so “obviously” the sadness expressed by M because he’d be losing his friend who saw him every week for three years was actually a reaction to the fact that M’s psychoanalyst would be on vacation for a week. Right. 

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I loved working with the kids. And, I enjoyed my colleagues on the ward as well. However, I got completely turned off to the psychoanalytic approach as practiced. I still believe there are some important truths to Freud’s approach, but also some absurdities, particularly when it comes to his misunderstandings of women. We’ll save that for another time. The point here is just to show why I was looking for another approach to psychology and behaviorism fit the bill. 

For a time. 

It is impressive to train a rat and to see with your own eyes how reinforcement, shaping, thinning the schedule, extinction, generalization, chaining, all work. I was able to train a rat to do a “chain” (i.e., sequence) of four unnatural behaviors. It took patience and it takes clear observation — a kind of empathy really. You have to know when the rat is “getting closer” to the desired behavior. This observational skill is also useful in training a puppy.

That brings us to the game of “chase the dragon, bring it to me, and fight over possession.” Our new puppy Sadie, being smart, learned to chase, fetch, and fight for control very quickly. What I find more interesting is how her behavior also evolved over the course of a week to grab the dragon by the neck a very high proportion of the time. From the standpoint of fetching and fighting me for possession, she has many choices: head, neck, left forearm, right forearm, left leg, right leg, left wing, right wing, tail, belly, or crotch. So, why is she focusing so heavily now on the neck? 

One possibility is that I say “Good work, Sadie” more often when she grabs it by the neck. I doubt it, but it’s conceivable. Another possibility is that it’s easier to carry. That also seems unlikely. She occasionally trips over the dragon as she’s bringing it back. But to prevent tripping, it would be best to grab by the belly. Grabbing by the tail, head or neck makes it more likely to trip. In any case, she doesn’t seem to “mind” tripping as much as I would! Another possibility is that she holds on more easily when I struggle with her. But her jaws are strong and she can hold on anywhere and keep me from retrieving it.

I think the most likely explanation (though not the only one) is that grabbing by the neck and shaking (which she also does) is how her ancestors break the necks of small prey. Many people would say this behavior is “instinctive.” But she didn’t exhibit this preference when we began playing “fetch the dragon.” After a week though, she exhibits a strong preference. 

In popular speech as well as in professional psychology, we often tend to dichotomize behavior into “learned” and “innate.” The behavioristic approach focuses on what is “learned.” As a result of that focus, we learned many important things about learned behavior. Some have suggested that the American focus on behaviorism and the importance of learned behavior was partly driven by our political philosophy. Regardless of why it happened, behaviorism “ruled the day” for quite awhile.

It turned out that what might be called “naive” behaviorism doesn’t work completely even for rates. One line of thought was made famous by Chomsky. People cannot learn their natural language merely by being positively reinforced for saying the “right” thing. There are rules that we learn. Children brought up in an English-speaking household, for instance, learn the rule that past tenses are made by adding “-ed” to the end of the present tense form of a verb; e.g.; we have “learn – learned”, “walk – walked”, “type – typed”, “showcase – showcased”, etc. There are thousands of example. But the rules are not “perfect’; there are many exceptions. We have “are – were” and “ran – run.” At a young age, almost all children at some point will say, “I ranned after my puppy” “I eated my dinner.” They have not heard that. They are not learning specific words; they are learning rules. 

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It isn’t only beings as complex as humans who fail to meet the expectations of “naive” behaviorism. A rat can be quickly taught not to “do” something if they are shocked when they do it. On the other hand, making them nauseous, while apparently noxious, does not teach them to avoid doing something. With smells and tastes, though, it is just the opposite. The rat (or human) can learn in one trial to avoid a particular taste or smell if it makes them nauseated. This is sometimes called the “Sauce Bearnaise Effect” — even one bad experience of getting nauseous after tasting a food — especially a novel one — can induce a life-long hatred. 

The point is that some of our responses are predisposed to be paired with certain kinds of stimuli. We are not a “blank slate” but a predisposed slate. This kind of predisposition to fluidity  is also true of genetic traits. We may think of the environment as a force capable of moving the genome equally easily in any direction, much like a billiard ball can roll in any direction equally easily on a pool table. But that is not so. Some kinds of changes are much easier to effect. For instance, in breeding dogs, the “toy” version is essentially a more juvenile form. They, like puppies and human babies, have a head that is disproportionately large for their bodies. 

I recall many years ago reading an article in Science which observed that infant chimps were not afraid of snakes nor of a severed head. But with no specific “training” or “experience” with these stimuli, when they were shown later, the chimps were freaked out both by snakes and by a head with no body. It seems to me to be quite possible that there are behavioral predispositions that are inborn but not manifest without experience — but that the necessary experience is not “learning” in the traditional sense — not, in other words, being punished or reinforced but simply having experience that builds up your model of the world. 

For instance, neither of us has seen a jumping spider as big as a puppy. We’ve never been bitten by one! Since they don’t exist, we haven’t “read” about how venomous they might be. But I’m guessing, if either one of us drove home late in the afternoon, pulled into the driveway and saw a spider in the driveway who jumped onto the hood of the car, we’d be completely terrified. We might “know” intellectually that the spider couldn’t tear the car apart to “get” us. But it would still be terrifying, I think because we would know that our “model” of what is possible in this world is badly defective. Our natural tendency, however, is not to say, “Oh, my God! My model of the world is terrible! I’d better fix it!” No, our tendency is to say, “Oh, my God! That spider is horrible!. We need to kill it!.” Our fear, in this case, is not “learned” nor yet is it exactly “innate.” It is “awakened.” At one time, our mammalian ancestors were so small that a large spider might be proportion to what the puppy spider might be to us? 

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In the case of he puppy chasing after a chewy toy in the shape of a “dragon,” she has “changed” to most often grab it by the throat. It could be learning of a sort, but it seems more like an “awakening” of a pattern already there ready to be activated by relevant experience. That’s not to say, I might not be able to shape her behavior by reinforcement or punishment to only grab it by the tail. This is not science of course. I haven’t been rigorous enough to rule out a more pure “learning” explanation. It’s just a speculation. 

In the last two weeks, she’s also become much more adept at using her paws to “control” her dragon. This too feels more like “awakening” than it does pure maturation or pure learning. She’s grown more coordinated and stronger. It seems as though both maturation and learning are involved, but why should she want to “control” the dragon in the first place? That seems like the “awakening” of an instinctive desire.

What do you think? What is your experience with training puppies or other animals? What is your own experience? Do you think you yourself have had experiences that “awakened” something within? 

My first “real job” was working as a camp counselor at a camp for kids with special needs. The camp counselors loved to play pranks on each other. One favorite was to sneak into another counselor’s cabin, fill the sleeping victim’s hand with shaving cream and then tickle them under the nose. The expected behavior is that the counselor will scratch the tickle while still asleep and thus smear their own face with shaving cream. Apparently, they tried this on me. 

I awoke in the middle of the night and the first thing I saw were my thumbs firmly pressing on a guy’s windpipe. Apparently, instead of groggily smearing my face with shaving cream, I had immediately jumped up and began to choke him to death.



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