Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Favorite Albums of the Last 17 Years

I've been toying with an idea to see what I can come up with as my favorite songs for every year, going back fifty years, to 1967.  It's somewhat daunting.  You can't pick just one, of course.  Or can you?  Different genres mean different things.

Different songs have different resonances.  It's one thing to take a song on its own, by its own merits.  It's another to add one's own response, which then must incorporate space and time, one's own history.  When I heard Corey Hart talk about wearing his sunglasses at night, I felt some serious emotions at the age of 8.  There were certainly many more interesting things going on in 1986.  I say now.

But I'll get my feet wet here.  A friend recently lamented that nothing good is being made anymore.  Now, that's just cranky.  So I figured I'd make him a list.

My favorite albums since 2000.  With a favorite track from each.

1. Split: Rumah Sakit - Self-TitledFaraquet - The View From This Tower (2000)
The first, well, what happens when your favorite people make your favorite music?  And you are way too picky about both? ... The second, Ryan Jones turned me on to this.  I still swear the singer is channeling someone.  But I can't figure out who.  Maybe firehose, but that can't be it.  Math + emotion doesn't happen often enough.  runners-up: Radiohead - Kid A; PJ Harvey - Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea


2. Pinback - Blue Screen Life (2001)
I first heard Pinback on John Baez' answering machine.  It doesn't get any more pop than that.  runner-up: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - No More Shall We Part; Califone - Roomsound
 3. Hella - Hold Your Horse Is (2002)
OK, I'll admit that I didn't like Hella when I first heard them.  It was through Ryan Jones' (again) tinny computer speakers and sounded like some kind of malfunction.  But when it clicks, and you realize there's method to the madness, your head kind of explodes.  Seeing them live with Quasi at the Khyber Pass in Philadelphia was a highlight of that particular misadventure in residential planning. runners-up: Mum - Finally We Are No One; Baxter Dury - Len Parrot's Memorial Lift; +/-: Self-Titled Long-Playing Debut Album; Dilute - Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape; Howard Hello - Self-Titled

4. The Notwist - Neon Golden (2003)
When I first put this on I was put off by the unabashed electronic instrumentation.  But it quickly grew on me, bowling me over with hook after hook, as well as the rich, earnest German accented vocals.  runner-up: Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of the Great Highway; Frog Eyes - The Golden River; Jaylib -Champion Sound; A Perfect Circle - Thirteenth Step; TV On the Radio - Young Liars

5. John Vanderslice - Cellar Door (2004)
There are a lot of interesting touchstones in this album.  Overwrought narratives somehow hang around like overstayed guests who just won't leave, but somehow possess key information.  Runner-up Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat; Madvillain - Madvillainy; Arcade Fire - Funeral; Joanna Newsom - Milk-Eyed Mender; Mastodon - Leviathan




6. Sleater Kinney - The Woods (2005)
The weird thing about that record is that, despite not really liking much at all of the band's previous or subsequent work, this album stuns from start to finish.  The constant clipping is beastly, a bold move that only puts the whole thing over the edge as epic.  runners-up: The Walkmen - Bows + Arrows; Bloc Party - Silent Alarm; Wilderness - Self-Titled; 

7. Mew - And the Glass Handed Kites (2006)
Umm, I'm not sure I even want to listen to their latest album.  Which is really too bad, because this may be the greatest album ever recorded.  It's complex, sublime, bizarre, cheesy, sentimental, and pushes about the most ambitious hooks I've ever heard.  The melodic choices are consistently odd and inventive, but completely directional. runner-up: Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies; Beirut - Gulag Orkestar; Tool - 10,000 Days; Lavender Diamond - Imagine Our Love


8.  Shugo Takemaru - Exit (2007)
A post-punk Legend of Zelda.  Your welcome.  runners-up: St. Vincent - Marry Me; Band of Horses - Cease to Begin; Deerhunter - Cryptograms; Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond; PJ Harvey - White Chalk

 9. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Modern Life (2008)
Somehow I manage to embrace the constipated Fear-core vocals as the guitars slowly build their sweet machinery.  This is an example of synthesizers being our friend. runners up: Atlas Sound - Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel; Crystal Castles - Self-Titled; Frightened Rabbit - Midnight Organ Flight; Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

 10.  The Joy Formidable - A Balloon Called Moaning (2009)
More math in service of sweet tension and release.  Many of these songs were redone on their following release, but it was kind of downhill from there.  A brilliant moment in time though, methinks.  So much delicious noise.  Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest; Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca; St. Vincent - Actor; Real Estate - Self-Titled; Beirut - March of the Zopotec/Realpeople Holland; BLK JKS - After Robots

 13. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today (2010)
So, maybe don't go and see this band.  Some things might be better behind the veil.  But that said, imagine if you took Karen and Richard Carpenter, sent them to a seance with Bootsy Collins, and had them all channel Lou Reed.  runners-up: Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz; Twin Shadow - Forget; Wild Nothing - Gemini; Baths - Curulean

 12.  The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong (2011)
OK, my Smashing Pumpkins weakness is showing here.  It isn't done as well, but that's also part of what makes it so good.  If you know what I mean. runners up - runners-up: Cut Copy - Zonoscope; Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow

 13. Beach House - Bloom (2012)
Something weird to note about the LP: it's 2 discs and played at 45rpm, which is totally annoying.  But also totally worth it because everything about this album is honey.  Victoria Legrand finally decides she isn't fucking around. runners-up: Frankie Rose - Interstellar; Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action at A Distance; Grizzly Bear - Shields; Joyce Manor - Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired
14. These New Puritans - Field of Reeds (2013)
Fun fact, the drummer is a former (?) male model.  Which makes perfect sense somehow.  When you listen to the record, you'll have no idea what I mean.  But then you will.  This is the kind of music that needs to get made.  Neither fancy rock, nor dorky classical.  Just good, tasteful, serious music.  runners up - Bombino - Nomad;

 15. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else (2014)
The nice thing about punk rock is just how good it can be, how much it can do with so little.  runners-up: Real Estate - Atlas; TV On the Radio - Seeds

 16. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Style (2015)
This is still new to me.  In time, things may change.  There's just so much music, and I'll admit I probably haven't listened to this enough.  But it's one of those things where you can just tell.  runners-up: Mew + -; Angel Olsen - My Woman; Tame Impala - Currents


17. Mitsky - Puberty 2 (2016)
There's something about this kind of woman that frightens me.  In a good way.  It's probably some kind of weird statement about my male ego.  But PJ Harvey and Cat Power would I think also agree that I need to just shut up and listen.  runners-up: Blood Orange - Freetown Sound; Case/Lang/Veirs - Self-Titled
Well, until next time.  I'm going to see if I can add some runners-up.  And look for my more ambitious 50 year list of songs.  It isn't fair, of course.  But why not?


Oh yeah, then there's my little album from 2016. I have to say it's my favorite, but I'm biased. It exists secretly on my tiny planet. Eli Rector - Summer


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Confirmation Bias as Ratio Strain

A Witch Surfing on A Sieve (Turner ,1807)
I wonder how much the notion of confirmation bias can be thought of in terms of what in behaviorism is called "Ratio Strain".

A reduction in the rate of a target behavior and an increase in emotional behavior resulting from an increase in the ratio of behavior to reinforcement.
In order to understand ratio strain, it is important to understand a basic principle of behavior, the Matching Law.

A description of a phenomenon according to which  organisms tend proportionally to match their responses during choice situations to the rates of reinforcement for each choice (i.e., if a behavior is reinforced about 60% of the time in one situation and 40% in another, that behavior tends to occur about 60% of the time in the first situation, and 40% in the second)
Behaviorists talk about how we all live in something you might call a "sea of reinforcement and punishment". That is, our behavior is a product of a countless number of contingencies that have and are currently operating on us, either reinforcing (increasing) or punishing (decreasing) our behavior.

At this moment, for example, I am experiencing various reinforcements, a "schedule" if you will, in my environment. There is a constant ebb and flow, or push and pull between reinforcement and punishment. Every time I sip my coffee, that behavior is reinforced - it will be more likely to occur. However, as my bladder is filled, drinking is being punished.

As I type, when I come up with a good, satisfying sentence, my typing is reinforced - I will continue. But if I struggle, I will encounter less reinforcement.

My chair is comfortable at first, which is reinforcing, but after a while it might become punishing, and I will get up, which removes the stiffness, and is reinforcing (next time I will "know" to get up. I put "know" in quotes because usually I won't even be conscious of it, and thus "unknowing").

The Pink Floyd song playing makes me feel good, and so is reinforcing. I will put it on again! But not too frequently, as like food, I become satiated, and so engage in the behavior of eating and listening according to my biological needs - whether dietary or sonory.

So, back to what is called "confirmation bias".
The seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations or a hypothesis at hand.

It occurred to me this morning that confirmation bias could be explained in terms of ratio strain: the reduction of behavior according to a ratio of decrease in reinforcement. I had been reading a comment thread. Someone posted an argument I disagreed with. Someone else then posted a response which I agreed with. The original poster then rebutted... and I realized that I was skimming - barely reading - the response. I didn't feel like reading it. Reading it seemed a chore.

The behavior of reading verbal behavior we agree with is much "easier", as it involves relations that have already been reinforced. However, verbal behavior that challenges us in some way, is much more aversive. It requires engaging in behaviors (types of thinking - recalling, classifying, comparing, interpreting, etc.) that can be quite effortful. Not do these behaviors require work, but the greater the ratio strain, the more likely are they to evoke "emotional behavior", that is, uncomfortable feelings such as anger, fear, etc. And that is aside from the content! If, as we further understand the content of an argument we disagree with, it may challenge our preconceptions - our expectations of the world, which had been reinforced. The fact that they are suddenly no longer being reinforced - a process referred to in behaviorism as "extinction" - can produce uncomfortable side-effects.

Findings from basic and applied research suggest that treatment with operant extinction may produce adverse side effects; two of these commonly noted are an increase in the frequency of the target response (extinction burst) and an increase in aggression (extinction-induced aggression).

Noticing this, much of our tendency towards "group-think" and ideological rigidity would seem to be explained. It is simply easier and more enjoyable to read what has been previously reinforcing. Encountering contradictory views is more effortful, fundamentally less reinforcing, and possibly uncomfortable and anger-inducing.

Now, the nice thing about behavior is that we can change it by altering the contingencies in our environment. We can learn to tolerate delays our reinforcement, as well as create rules to help us along the way, as sort of mental prompts. We can learn to find enjoyment in difference, and even come to be reinforced by the process of having our beliefs changed and enjoying the benefits of expanded knowledge and, ultimately, closer synchronicity with reality.

How to go about doing this, of course, isn't simple or easy. In this post, I'm merely laying out a behavioral case for noticing the process. Who knows, maybe it will allow me to more easily notice (or "tact" as behaviorists call it), and become aware of a trap I might be falling into, and to this make choices that might be more rewarding in the long run.

Maybe I'll go back to that comment thread and spend more time reading that comment with an open mind....

A related paper:
A Behavioral Analytical Account of Cognitive BIas in Clinical Populations







Sunday, May 28, 2017

Whose Property?

Samir Chopra, professor of philosophy at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, reminds us that property is a social and legal construct.

Property is not discovered; it is made, not by the act of mixing labor with supposedly ‘fallow land,’ as Locke would have had it, but by the scaffolding provided by the surrounding legal system.

So an agreement, designed according to what makes sense.  Of course, this "sense" gets rather complicated.

The simple story is that property should be fair, distributed according to one's desert.  However, how to establish desert?  If I inherit a million dollars, I certainly did nothing to deserve it, in that I played no part in its creation.  But maybe it is fair to respect the wishes of the deceased.  But what if they inherited it, and so on?

Let me toss another piece of wood into the fire: as a behaviorist, I can make a rather solid case that all of our actions in life are in a sense "inherited", in that they are entirely a function of our genes and our environment.  As such, any action we take to create wealth is inherited.

This may seem a fanciful stretch, even if you accept the premise that our actions are not our own.  Surely we must act as if they are.  As a practical matter, maybe this is true.  However, we certainly don't act this way at a societal level.  In criminal justice, people are judged to be responsible for their actions, and thus deserving of a range of punitive measures.  In our economic system, people are assumed to have "earned" their fortunes - or lack thereof.  As such, property is hardly given a second thought as the direct result of personal action.

If our actions are inherited, then all forms of property inequality (not to mention other forms of capital) are injust.  As a practical matter, remedying this injustice in a complex society is obviously no easy task.  History is riddled with horrific results of experimentations in equality.  However, it is also filled with examples of successes (public schools, libraries, parks, social security, medicaid, etc.).

Many of our political arguments are over the practical effects of social responses to equality - whether or not they would work, whether we can afford them, whether they have secondary negative effects and so on.  Yet, first we must establish whether or not there is a moral imperative, a problem to address.  And at this point, a good-as majority of the country simply disagrees with the premise that we inherit our actions, much less that social interventions might be effective.

(A strange irony is that many of these very same people view social interventions as having negative effects on motivation, which is a completely behavioral analysis, and would as such seem to agree with the premise they deny in the first place!)

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Couple of Bold Ideas for Education Reform

Unite States Housing Authority poster, 1940
Keith Humphreys has an important piece in the WaPo today highlighting the nuance of poor black communities with regard to violence and incarceration.
In his new book, Locking Up Our Own, Yale University Law School Professor James Forman Jr. points out that in national surveys conducted over the past 40 years, African Americans have consistently described the criminal justice system as too lenient. Even in the 2000s, after a large and sustained drop in the crime rate and hundreds of thousands of African Americans being imprisoned, almost two-thirds of African Americans maintained that courts were “not harsh enough” with criminals.....Through a compelling mixture of personal stories and wonky data analysis, Fortner and Forman document how African Americans have grappled with an anguished choice. On the one hand they want to protect themselves from crime, on the other hand they know that the more active and powerful the criminal justice system grows, the more African Americans will be caught up in it, some of whom will be subjected to grossly racist treatment.
As for Forman's policy recommendations - "expanded employment opportunities, improved housing options and better schools" - I'm not sure how far they will get into the problem.  Even if you had all of these things, the black community would still have a lot of difficult contingencies to reckon with.

Education always seems most meaningful to me, as you're getting kids while they're young.  But without a solid home, you're going to be spending a ton of money chasing maladaptive behaviors.  A lot of the so-called innovation we see in creating "good schools" is really about selectivity, as the parents who go the extra mile for their kids are exactly *not* the problem.  Instead, we want to target the overworked, stressed, dead-beat, angry, confused, overwhelmed, etc. parents.  These parents are not in a position to make good choices, they are barely able to keep it together as it is.  They won't be signing up for special charters, enforcing homework, looking out for their children.  And these kids are the ones who are the dirty little secret behind "bad" schools.

Traditional schools continue to fail them, with neither the funding nor comprehensive strategy to deal with them.  Charters just plain avoid them.

But they are the result of a larger economic system which segregates by property value.  Middle class neighborhoods populate schools with children of middle class parents and all the stability that represents.  Poor neighborhoods populate schools with children of poor parents and all the lack of stability that represents.

I have two ideas for intervention.  The first is to simply implement economic integration.  Each school must have a certain percentage from different socio-economic levels.  If you really wanted to get creative, you could create an SES scale that goes beyond mere income, and takes into account things like education, health, family support, issues, etc. (all of the the contingencies that go into supporting the development of a child).  Families would be assigned a score based on filling out a new card each year.  This would require a certain level of busing, which has its downsides.  But it would "spread the hardship" across our neighborhood schools.  There would likely be some downwards pressure from these struggling kids on the rest of the student body.  But there would likewise be upwards pressure from the rest of the students.  However, with this method, you're still not directly addressing the particular need of the student.  With a 30:1 ratio, and few other interventions, stressed out kids in stressed families who don't do their homework or get read to at night will still be highly at-risk.  The other way of going at this would be to incentivize economic desegregation by offering tax rewards to poor families who move out of poor communities and wealthier families who move in.  This brings up a gentrification worries for many, as ethnicity is so tied to income.  Personally, I wonder if actual economic desegregation wouldn't make the notion of gentrification irrelevant though.

A second option would be to forget busing, and focus on interventions at the local level instead.  Poor schools would get 10x the funds, the ability to cut class sizes by a half or even two-thirds.  Instruction and support would be much more differentiated to the needs of the individual student.  Similar to the IEP model for students with physical disabilities, every child would get an academic, "wrap-around" team to monitor performance both at school - and as would be central in this case - home.  On the television show The Wire, a so-called "Hamsterdam" experiment was invented, in which the police created a decriminalization block where drug users could freely use and pushers to sell their wares.  The idea was to end the violence of the trade, and allow the users to come out of the shadows where they would be able to be targeted by social service workers.  While poor, struggling families aren't quite drug addicts, I'm struck by the similarities, as well as our social response to their plight - which is a muddled mix of disdain, pity and victim-blaming.  Rather, these are fellow humans who need all of our help.  The bonus being, of course, eradication of a major source of social ill.


Both of these ideas are radical, but in my view more directly align with our values, and support fundamental notions of fairness in public education.  If we must have economic segregation in our capitalist economic system, then we must also reckon with the fact that we are going to be creating segregated economic ghettos, defined by their lack of resources and societal capital.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Revisiting Societal Capital


An article in the Root today on White Privilege put me in mind to revisit my thoughts on what in the past I have termed "societal capital".
I like to think of privilege as a form of capital, and capital as: that which can be leveraged to gain advantage in society. There are many forms of capital - financial (cash), emotional (regulation), cognitive (learning, vocabulary), neighborhood (safety, networking), educational (classmates, teachers), community (stores, libraries, services, parks), parental (this one is huge, maybe most important as it affects all others: family dynamics, stress, relational development, cognitive enrichment, vocabulary spoken), racial/ethnic (treatment and assumptions in society).

These are all interwoven and dynamically linked, interacting in non-linear ways. In combination they open up new avenues of privilege. However, when subtracted and de-linked, they do the opposite. They cut off avenues of opportunity and actively place in the individual at risk for further devaluation of capital. For instance, having a car opens up new job opportunities. But living in a poor neighborhood and having a car stolen can make traveling to work more difficult, which increases stress, increases costs if car payments are still due, limits family engagement, lowers status, etc.

Friday, April 14, 2017

How Conservatism Breeds Racist Thought

Years ago on this blog I made the argument that conservative ideology actually promotes racism.  Because of its assumption of free will, it sees disproportionate dysfunctional behavior among certain minorities as a function of inner, intrinsic qualities, as opposed to external, structural forces.

New results from the General Social Survey (GSS) from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago seem to confirm my argument.  As reported in the Washington Post:
"The biggest yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans is on the issue of motivation and will power. The GSS asks whether African Americans are worse off economically “because most just don't have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?”
A majority — 55 percent — of white Republicans agreed with this statement, compared to 26 percent of white Democrats. That's the biggest gap since the question was first asked in 1977 — though the gap was similar (60-32) in 2010."
An interesting question, not asked in the survey, might be whether conservative Republicans would also say that economically disadvantaged whites lack motivation and willpower.  A charitable view would hold they would, assuming no racial animus and instead following the logic of their dualistic view of human nature.

Yet how then, with this individualistic worldview, do you make sense of the fact that certain minorities are economically worse-off?  If they are "making the choice" to be worse off, and there is no appeal structural disadvantage, a racialized view begins to make more sense.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

Captain Trump

The Black Spot. Illustration
by 
N. C. Wyeth for Treasure Island1911
I stopped listening to conservative radio years ago - just couldn't take it any more. But with Trump they've finally gotten "their guy". So after hearing how Limbaugh praised the press conference performance, I went to his site and read the transcripts of his commentary.
The perspective is that in which only he can see what is really going on, that he (and the audience) have some special insight into a level of reality that "they" don't understand. It belies a level of partisan paranoia and lack of good faith in the political dialogue that I had forgotten was so robust. There's a real sense of brotherhood (shared victimhood) within the group. Trump was obviously speaking directly to them.
I'm reminded of Carpenter's They Live, in which donning special sunglasses allows one to see the lizard people. Trump, Limbaugh and the fandom are all wearing the glasses and no one else "gets" them.

Bizarrely to outsiders, is how unreasonable they are. You can't listen to conservative radio if you know the first thing about logical fallacies and cognitive bias. It is unlistenable for all the flawed thinking immediately on display. And yet, of course, they believe it is everyone *else* who doesn't understand.
There are perfectly reasonable arguments for all of the conservative ideas they believe in. But they are not making them. Instead, it's a crazy, anarchic pirate ship, unmoored from patience, nuance, evidence and expertise, sailing wildly into the partisan night, engaged in relentless orgy of intellectual debauchery and group masturbation. Captain Trump has now led them ashore, and drunk with power they giggle goggley-eyed at the locals - with their stuffy adherence to reason, honesty and institutional restraint.





Saturday, January 21, 2017

Unconscious Bias and Humility

Daniel Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State.  He is a frequent video-blogger on Bloggingheads, and I enjoy his conversations.  After a wonderful recent conversation he had with David Ottlinger on the philosophical roots of classical liberalism, he provided me with this link to a piece he wrote on liberalism and the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, which he argues is vague and only helpful as cannon-fodder for the PC police (I'm paraphrasing).

I agree with him that the test itself is of limited utility in that it can't possibly give you much detail into what, why, how or where specifically your biases lie, beyond a general score that you might have some. But it is scientific in that it measure responses to  certain stimuli.  It is logical that you would be able to measure unconscious bias. In behaviorism, we would look at it in terms of stimulus control, where certain stimuli have been paired with behaviors (either thoughts or actions) which have then been reinforced. In my practice I do a lot of desensitization with children who have very heightened emotional responses to various environmental stimuli.
I do agree that the test could be misused, its results overblown with some kind of moralistic, shaming agenda. But personally, I found it fascinating. I readily expect myself to have all kinds of biases against gays, blacks, women, fat people - you name it. I found it a simple confirmation of what I already know to be the case.
My stance has always been that we need to remove the shame and stigma from bias - to accept that it is simply part of living in our society , and in many ways a natural human process coming out of how we learn. It is in many ways a helpful heuristic, but it has its downsides, and we can take steps to correct for it. For instance, the more I know about stereotypes, I can then notice them coming into my mind and I can recognize them.
My favorite example of this is the tendency of some people to become upset about "black english". I've seen facebooks memes arguing that you should say "ask", not "axe". However, this is is highly selective and racially biased. I've never once seen such memes directed towards colloquial english spoken by ethnic whites, who constantly speak in "poor english". We say "ummana" "instead of I'm going to", or "whataya" instead of "what are you".
If you are a hyper-grammar partisan, OK, maybe. But I think this is a case of ethnic stereotyping and shaming. I think the vast majority of bigotry is simply an extra sensitivity to the foibles of out-groups; you have a lower tolerance of it because it is easier to spot and an easy target of ire when your grumpy, afraid, stirred-up, etc. But it's totally human, and helpfully remedied with reflection.
I wish more PC-minded liberals would be more forgiving and lighten up. I wish more anti-PC people would be more forgiving and a little self-reflective. This combative stance is unhelpful I think in light of the fact that we are all subject to unconscious bias, and we can just try to be better people. Lord knows we all are constantly trying to be kinder, nicer, more forgiving, etc. in other areas of life.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Struggling with Radical Behaviorism: Ideological Barriers to Mainstream Acceptance

I used to be more interested in consciousness.  The question of what it was and how it happened seemed fundamental to understanding why humans do what we do.  The "problem" of consciousness was key to the question of free will, which all broader questions of social politics seemed to hinge on. 
It was a decades-long, rambling trip which ultimately - quite by chance - led me to behaviorism, the actual science of behavior, which generally puts this question to bed.  Or at least tucks it in nicely. Not that the explanation is complete, but there is plenty of basic science from which to derive a solid foundation on the matter.

Of course, this understanding is far from mainstream, for a variety of reasons.  In the main, it is an unintuitive understanding: "I" plainly choose my behavior, do I not?  Free will seems self-evident. But as is often the case with "common-sense" intuition, this evidence is a cultural construct.  We live in a world in which the individual is assumed to be the master of his own destiny.  In the majority of Judeo-Christian religions, common interpretation views man as a free actor in a morality play, choosing between the temptations of the devil and religious teaching, each moment the crux of an epic, metaphysical struggle.  Our legal system follows suit, as it has tended to since its founding.  The "guilty" is he who could have acted differently but chose not to.  Our economic system also follows, assuming the profit of man's economic actions to be his own responsibility - whether leaving him destitute or in gilded chambers.

The intuition-based concept of the Free man is thusly reinforced everywhere through social institutions at every level. But the meat of the intuition, fundamental to these larger structures, is a philosophical game we have all learned to play.  Behaviorists call it "mentalism", and it is as essential to our early formation as the milk in our baby bottles.  In his paper Behavior Analysis, Mentalism, and the Path to Social Justice(2003), Jay Moore writes:

...Mentalism may be defined as an approach to the study of behavior which assumes that a mental or "inner" dimension exists that differs from a behavioral dimension. This dimension is ordinarily referred to in terms of its neural, psychic, spiritual, subjective, conceptual, or hypothetical properties. Mentalism further assumes that phenomena in this dimension either directly cause or at least mediate some forms of behavior, if not all.

Examples of mentalism are rife in our language.  People get in fights because they are "angry".  People don't do their work because they are "lazy".  People do great things because they are "driven".  The list of adjectives supposedly describing causative inner states is endless.  People act because they are: smart, dumb, ambitious, shy, calculating, cruel, evil, compassionate, kind, generous, stingy, clever, funny, quiet, rambunctious, etc.

Yet what are these words actually describing?  People certainly behave in ways that have these characteristics.  However, this is not an explanation but rather a description of past behavior, and an educated guess as to how they might behave in the future given similar circumstances.  The problem with mentalisms is that they can easily become circular:  a person acts a certain way, is described with a mentalistic term, and the term is then purported to be the cause of the behavior.

The so-called "cognitive revolution" in the social sciences, heralded in by Noam Chomksy's (1959) famously vicious critique of Skinner's landmark work, Verbal Behavior, was predicated on the notion that mental events are indeed causative.  To this day, cognitivists use the architectural language of the personal computer to seek out causation, hypothesizing mental events using computational terms like memory, processing and algorithms.  However to Skinner, all of this is merely further description.  Even if one were to develop a precise cataloguing of every possible rotation of the smallest molecular particle involved in the process of say, my daydreaming about fishing for trout, it would still have nothing to say about what actually causes my thinking behavior.

Here, the behaviorist has the advantage of being informed by science, more specifically the science of behavior.  A core principle of radical behaviorism is that a a science of behavior is possible.  That is, behavior is a deterministic process which can be understood without appealing to non-physical events.  In short, to quote William Baum (1994), "A science of human behavior is possible". To the behaviorist, the structure of the moving parts - while certainly an honorable and interesting subject phenomenologically - are secondary to the larger truth of causation: that behavior is a product of an environment acting upon the genetic make-up of an organism over time.  Behaviorists design experiments to manipulate environmental variables, in order to find controlling relationships with variables in the organism that are dependent on the manipulation.

However, society is still firmly in the camp of the structuralist.  While I realize there is an element of simplicity to the notion that to completely understand a thing is to account for all of it's parts, I've long been suspicious that the zealous embrace of Chomsky's attack on Skinner was ultimately more about a cultural zeitgeist than anything else (In 1971, Chomsky showed his cards a bit when he wrote a statement so absurd it offers a clue to his sense of deep ideological resentment: "At the moment we have virtually no scientific evidence and not even the germs of an interesting hypothesis about how human behavior is determined").

America was entering the 1960's, and libertarian rebellion was fomenting against the strictures of the past.   Nothing less than a quasi-religious awakening was occurring, which sought to bust the shackles of old institutional dogma and paint a road to enlightenment upon the canvas of the expanding mind.  In the eyes of the many on the left, institutional knowledge had brought us the atom bomb, Vietnam, sexism, racism, and the suit and tie.  To many on the right, scientific knowledge was less suspect, but to the extent that it encroached upon the established order of institutions such as the church, marriage, and capitalism (communism was an existential threat almost nothing ought not be sacrificed to prevent), it was dangerous for different reasons.

Skinner's Verbal Behavior could not have come at a worse time.  In it, he laid out the most detailed and cogent argument yet for a radical behaviorism in which all of human behavior - including thought itself - was under the control of physical contingencies.  In his suit and tie, with his cumulative records and operant chambers, he represented everything the left despised.  As Camille Paglia (2003) argued in her essay Cults and Cosmic Conscousness: Religious Visions in the 1960's, the 1960's was a time of "spiritual awakening" and "rebellious liberalization", just one of many religious revivals in American history.  She likens the period to Hellenistic Rome, in which "mystery religions" rose up in response to an oppressive institutional order.  Dionysianistic practice emphasized "a worshipper's powerful identification with and emotional connection" to God.  She goes on to note the context in which a certain long-haired man in sandals rose to prominence:
The American sixties, I submit, had a climate of spiritual crisis and political unrest similar to that of ancient Palestine, then under Roman occupation.
In the 20th century, the culture moment was projected through popular media icons such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Jim Morrison and the Beatles: each embodied the generation's desire for personal emotional liberation and sexual independence.  Describing a strange episode in which rumors circulated of Paul McCartney's premature death:

The hapless McCartney had become Adonis, the dying god of fertility myth who was the epicene prototype for the deified Antinous: after Antinous drowned in the Nile in 130 ad, the grief-stricken Hadrian had him memorialized in shrines all over the Mediterranean, where ravishing cult statues often showed the pensive youth crowned with the grapes and vines of Dionysus.

Burrhus Frederick Skinner, with his measured demeanor and supremely rationalistic style of communication, was the very opposite of Adonis.

On the right, his argument was often viewed as nothing less than paving the way for godless totalitarianism.  Indeed, in his 1971 Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he writes:

A free economy does not mean the absence of economic control, because no economy is free as long as goods and money remain reinforcing.  When we refuse to impose controls over wages, prices, and the use of natural resources in order to not interfere with individual initiative, we leave the individual under the control of unplanned economic contingencies. (emphasis added)

The critique, whether or not its fear that radical behaviorism leads to a state controlled economy is quite irrelevant to Skinner's point: if human behavior is controlled by contingencies, then they will be in effect no matter what type of economic system one chooses.

On campuses across America (Europe had never quite embraced behaviorism to begin with), young students (future professors) of psychology took up the banner of cognitivism and never looked back.  Never mind that most of them likely never bothered to read Verbal Behavior.  Granted, it is a difficult book.  Radical behaviorism is a concept which requires a good degree of open-mindedness, and courage to go where the evidence takes you, rather than relying upon the safety of old cultural intuitions.  It no more paves the way to totalitarianism than does Darwin's theory of evolution pave the way for eugenics.  But like evolution, radical behaviorism is rather unintuitive.  Both are selectionist.   In evolution, the organism is the product of a biological shaping process extending back through time, with each generation.  There is nothing in the structure of the organism per-say, that "is" evolution.  The only way to understand evolution is by examining the relationships between organisms - which have been selected -  over long periods of time.  Similarly, radical behaviorism says there is no thing in the organism that "is" behavior.  Rather, the behavior is selected for over the course of the organism's lifespan.

Just as the genetic configuration is selected for that most suits the organism to its environment, the organism's patterns of behavior are selected for which have been most reinforcing.  Just as the genes for a white coat have been selected for as most beneficial for polar bears hunting in the arctic ice, the behavior of speaking the phrase "Where is the restroom?" has been selected for as most beneficial in English verbal communities.  Once familiar enough with the basic science of evolution, the concept isn't too difficult to grasp.  I think the same can be said for radical behaviorism.

Most people never have to fully grasp the complexities of the science of evolution - radiocarbon dating, genetic drift, sedimentary rock, random mutation, etc - in order to embrace it.  Instead, they can rely upon an environment in which the "settled" science immerses them from grade school to instill in them an intuitive grasp of geologic time and the notion of natural selection.  The science of behaviorism has no such mainstream acceptance.  Therefore concepts such as discriminative stimuli, schedules of reinforcement, the matching law, respondent versus operant, extinction bursts, establishing operations, etc. are not considered "settled" outside of the field and no such intuition is able to be built.

Rather, mentalistic accounts of behavior rule the day with nearly the degree of vigor that they did a hundred or even a thousand years ago.  In this sense, society operates with a basic psychological outlook that could quite easily be considered medieval.  Indeed, one only need look towards subjects such as criminal justice or income disparity to see where such thinking leads - in which "driven" men claim moral right to mansions, and "evil" men are delivered to concrete cells of solitary confinement.

So too in our daily lives do we encounter the suffering and anxiety caused by confusion over the basic principles of behavior.  Intuiting the actions of others as being caused by them, we become resentful and intolerant, blinded to the reality that their actions are the result of the contingencies in their lives.

Further still, we turn this false mentalism upon ourselves, believing falsely that there is something in us that is responsible for our actions, as opposed to the contingencies within which we are shaped.  Just as we develop toxic emotions as a response to others, we develop it in response to our own "self".  We imagine this entity as responsible for actions we would rather not have occur.  This leads us down the fruitless path of "becoming better people", and looking only into our own thoughts and feelings, rather than examining the functional relationships between our environment and our history of reacting within it.  We have been sold on the notion that there is something wrong with how we "process" the environment, rather than our behavior being a perfectly natural, learned response to environmental contingencies.

The cognitive revolution did not represent a shift from a centuries-old deterministic, mechanistic view of behavior in which Free man did not exist, to a new view in which Free man existed as a function of a "self" which processed information and chose to act based upon some emergent, metaphysical system.  Rather, for hundreds or even thousands of years, Free man was commonly assumed to exist as an independent actor responsible for his own lot in life, and it was only for a brief period - a few decades - that behaviorism developed and held sway in psychological study.  Aside from it being a mature, complex field of study with numerous insights into human behavior, to the extent that cognitivism rejects a behavior analytic approach in favor of appeals to mentalism, the cognitive revolution would better be described as a "cognitive reversion" to the old, intuitive conception of "self" that has always been foundational to religious, economic and civic institutions.

However, as fitting for a revolution, cognitivist mentalism indeed led to a widespread purging of behaviorism as a respectable science.  In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Thomas Kuhn writes of this process:

When it repudiates a past paradigm, a scientific community simultaneously renounces, as a fit subject for professional scrutiny, most of the books and articles in which that paradigm had been embodied. Scientific education makes use of no equivalent for the art museum or the library of classics, and the result is a sometimes drastic distortion in the scientist's perception of his discipline's past. More than the practitioners of other creative fields, he comes to see it as leading in a straight line to the discipline's present vantage. In short, he comes to see it as progress. No alternative is available to him while he remains in the field.

To the hapless psychology student, there is simply no point in engaging with behaviorism beyond the most primitive level.  Textbooks routinely dismiss Skinner's work as, while describing an important part of human behavior, antiquated when it comes to dealing with the true complex natural of human behavior.  While is is sometimes suggested that cognitive science hasn't abandoned behaviorism, but rather quietly subsumed it, David Palmer (Behavior Analyst, 2006) argues the contrary:

....Such examples suggest that, instead of building principles of behavior into its foundation, cognitive science has cut itself loose from them. Cognitive psychology textbooks neither exploit nor review reinforcement, discrimination, generalization, blocking, or other behavioral phenomena. By implication, general learning principles are peripheral to an understanding of cognitive phenomena. Even those researchers who have rediscovered the power of reinforcement and stimulus control hasten to distance themselves from Skinner and the behaviorists. For example, the authors of a book that helped to pioneer the era of research on neural networks were embarrassed by the compatibility of their models with behavioral interpretations: “A claim that some people have made is that our models appear to share much in common with behaviorist accounts of behavior … [but they] must be seen as completely antithetical to the radical behaviorist program and strongly committed to the study of representations and process”.

In my personal experience, I routinely encounter Psychology graduates who possess little more than a rudimentary understanding of behavioral principles.   If the general education teachers I worked with in public schools were consciously applying behavioral principles in their classrooms, they certainly never spoke of it.  In my own training, as an undergraduate in Social Sciences, and as a graduate in Elementary Education, Skinner's work received at most a total of one lecture in an undergraduate course, and a paragraph or two in graduate school.  His work on operant conditioning, while acknowledged as important to understanding learning at rudimentary levels, is quickly passed over in favor of the work of cognitive theorists such as Vygotsky (zone of proximal development, scaffolding), Piajet (schema), Bandura (social learning) and Erickson (psychosocial development), who are commonly viewed as offering something more than would be possible through adherence to behaviorism alone. Their work is commonly viewed as refuting behaviorism, and thought of as taking our understanding of learning further, in ways that would be impossible under a behavioral analytic approach, and thus more critical to learning and social development.  While their insights are indeed valid and useful, to view them as in any way a refutation of behavioral principles would be a serious error.   Each these theorist's work can easily be accounted for via the application of  behavior analytic principles.   Ironically, to the extent that these cognitive theories fail to engage with the scientific, behavioral principles underlying their existence, they are in their own way reductionist; to properly understand the concepts of zones of proximal development or schema without taking into consideration principles such as establishing operations,  generalization, learning histories or schedules of reinforcement is to reduce these phenomena to vague simplifications.  Yet simplification, especially when presented in the context of a compatible reinforcement history, is itself highly reinforcing.  To an individual raised to believe in an all-powerful God who is communicated in an inerrant bible, the notion of divine creation of man in a short period of time is much easier to embrace than a chaotic process of natural selection over hundreds of millions of years.

The first edition of On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, but the theory of evolution wasn't widely accepted until decades later.  Widespread public acceptance wasn't gained until perhaps the 1940's, with the Catholic church eventually allowing that evolution is at least compatible with the bible in 1950.  Still, to this day evolution remains a controversial theory accepted by only 60% of the populations in the U.S. and Latin America, according to Pew Research (2015).  In many respects, the evidence for evolution is more clear-cut, in that developments in multiple areas of science - from biology to geology to particle physics - have played a key ole in its understanding.  The structure of DNA was not even understood until a century later.  In many respects, our understanding of the brain, the most complex object known in the universe, is much less far along.  For behavior skeptics, an emphasis on structuralism combined with mentalistic bias, points toward an almost unfathomable complexity.  Indeed, consciousness has famously been coined as "the hard problem" - an rather mythical designation.  Behaviorists who question whether the problem is all that hard are often labeled as "reductionists" - too easily seduced by a naively simplistic account of a complex phenomena.

But the radical behaviorist does not deny the complexity of the moving parts (environmental stimuli, biological molecules, and past history).  Rather, he merely insists that at its core there is a deterministic, functional relationship at work.  I'm often struck by the similarity with the "Intelligent Design" argument put forth by evolution skeptics.  Biological organisms are claimed to be "irreducibly complex", so as to never have been able to originate without an intelligent designer.  Yet this argument also chooses to misdirect attention to the structure of the organism, to seek an understanding of it removed from the context of history.  And just like evolution can only be understood as a function of geologic time and the interplay between genes and environment, so too can behavior only be understood as the interplay between the phylogeny (genetic history) and ontogeny (environmental, life history) of an organism.

Compared with Darwinian evolution, the rate of acceptance of radical behaviorism over cognitivist mentalism may not be in terrible shape.  Maybe by the 2040's we'll have seen a steady shift towards a behavior analytic approach.  However, I have my doubts.  Evolution's largest direct social implication might have been a sound refutation of biblical literalism.  But that was never so central to our institutions.  Religious freedom, after all, had long been enshrined in our constitution.

The threat from the radical behavioral perspective to the established institutional order is in my view much greater, in that it provides scientific justification for the moral claim that as social products, ultimate accountability lies in the system we build for man, not for man's actions within that system.  How to redraw our institutions so as to align with this truth is the real challenge.  But we must begin with the premise that, to the extent that it is founded in mentalistic notions of human behavior, the current system is not only unjust, but misguided and philosophically corrupt.  There are a great many aspects to the current order that are reinforcing to behavior that preserves it, not the least of which is simple human greed (the tendency to accumulate wealth in a manner that is unjust).  But the opposite of greed is generosity, and generous acts are simple to argue for.  What is more difficult is the untangling of the mentalistic rationale for systems that allow the behaviors of human greed. 


Baum, W. M. (1994). Understanding behaviorism: Science, behavior, and culture. New York: HarperCollins.

Chomsky, N. (1959). ”A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior”. Language, 35, No. 1, 26-58.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Moore, J. (2003). Behavior Analysis, Mentalism, and the Path to Social Justice. The Behavior Analyst. 26 (2), 181. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2731454/pdf/behavan00006-0003.pdf

Chomsky, N. (1971). The Case Against B.F. Skinner. The New York Review of Books. 17(11), 3. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1971/12/30/the-case-against-bf-skinner/

Paglia, C. (2003). Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s. Arian 10 (3), 60-61.  http://www.bu.edu/arion/files/2010/03/paglia_cults-1.pdf

Palmer, D. (2006) On Chomsky’s Appraisal ofSkinner’s Verbal Behavior: A Half Century of Misunderstanding. The Behavior Analyst. 29 (2), 260.

Skinner, B.F. (1957). Verbal Behavior. MA: Copley Publishing Group.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

“Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region.” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (Nov. 13, 2014)http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/chapter-8-religion-and-science/, 07/02/2016.

“US Becoming Less Religious,” Pew Research Center, Washington D.C. (Nov. 3, 2015)









-->