Operant Behavior and Cultural Evolution

Operant Behavior and Cultural Evolution

B. F. Skinner is often credited with being the greatest psychologist of the 20th Century.

In my judgment, and that of countless others, Skinner deserves this special honor  because his prodigious research and writings gave birth to the psychological science of Behavior Analysis. Furthermore, his work also led to the development of the science and technology of Applied Behavior Analysis. Skinner’s efforts and that of his legions of followers has culminated in, and continues to yield, the world’s most powerful and practical applications of psychology to ameliorate human behavior problems. But, even better, the wise use of this behavior technology could lead to the prevention of human behavior problems!

One old saying is: “An Ounce Of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure”. This rule  could be one important the key to sociocultural longevity, if humans can be helped to care for such future outcomes.

Societies that do not teach their children and young adults about science-based findings about the environmental forces that shape human behavior patterns, as well as an effective moral code to their populations, fail to do so at their own great peril. The dramatically increasing behavior problems in America’s society, and others, provide stark support for this conclusion.

Some of B. F. Skinner’s prophetic words were published in 1971 in his powerful little book,  Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Please read the following samples of his writing with care and you may begin to understand one great source of America’s citizen’s behavior problems.

Then get the entire book and learn some essential information that relatively few citizens know.

Sample 1.

Twenty-five hundred years ago it might have been said that man understood himself as well as any other part of his world. Today he is the thing he understands least (Kindle Loc. 64).

In other words, as we have advanced our understanding in all other areas of science and technology, we have remained woefully ignorant of the psychological science and technology that shapes our own behavior patterns. Skinner also wrote about the fact that the health and longevity of all cultures rest upon the understanding and benevolent use of this science and technology of human behavior.

Sample 2.

In trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us in the world today, we naturally turn to the things we do best. We play from strength, and our strength is science and technology. To contain a population explosion we look for better methods of birth control. Threatened by a nuclear holocaust, we build bigger deterrent forces and anti-ballistic-missile systems. We try to stave off world famine with new foods and better ways of growing them. Improved sanitation and medicine will, we hope, control disease, better housing and transportation will solve the problems of the ghettos, and new ways of reducing or disposing of waste will stop the pollution of the environment. We can point to remarkable achievements in all these fields, and it is not surprising that we should try to extend them. But things grow steadily worse, and it is disheartening to find that technology itself is increasingly at fault. Sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute, war has acquired a new horror with the invention of nuclear weapons, and the affluent pursuit of happiness is largely responsible for pollution. As Darlington has said, ‘Every new source from which man has increased his power on the earth has been used to diminish the prospects of his successors. All his progress has been made at the expense of damage to his environment which he cannot repair and could not foresee’.

Whether or not he could have foreseen the damage, man must repair it or all is lost. And he can do so if he will recognize the nature of the difficulty. The application of the physical and biological sciences alone will not solve our problems because the solutions lie in another field. Better contraceptives will control population only if people use them. New weapons may offset new defenses and vice versa, but a nuclear holocaust can be prevented only if the conditions under which nations make war can be changed. New methods of agriculture and medicine will not help if they are not practiced, and housing is a matter not only of buildings and cities but of how people live. Overcrowding can be corrected only by inducing people not to crowd, and the environment will continue to deteriorate until polluting practices are abandoned.

In short, we need to make vast changes in human behavior, and we cannot make them with the help of nothing more than physics or biology, no matter how hard we try (Kindle Loc. 31-50).

The powerful truth that B. F. Skinner has tried to explain to us is that our most enduring and damaging problems are a result of the ignorant management of our own individual and collective behavior. Furthermore, our ignorance can be remediated only if we will study the right available information and convert this knowledge into practice.

I have taught my psychological subject matter as a professor for 36 years and also taught and applied it within my a private practice for a similar duration. Over this time I have watched as America has all but destroyed itself, largely through the gross misapplication of these very elemental psychological principles.

I believe that certain sociopolitical and economic philosophies are compatible with, and naturally catalytic to, the societal integration of these elementary principles of psychology…and that is why they have consistently succeed.

It is clear to me that other sociopolitical and economic philosophies are naturally antithetical to these elementary principles of psychology and this is why they have consistently failed.

In my judgement, many important elementary principles of psychology are inherent in  conservative political and economic philosophies and practices. Although the resulting behavioral and cultural outcomes are never perfect, history demonstrates conservative principles are superior to those of other sociocultural designs. I judge that B. F. Skinner would not have agreed with many of my political/economic conclusions on this last matter and I am certain many of his followers do not.

On the other hand, the natural elemental principles of psychology, as implemented by progressive/socialist political and economic philosophies consistently damage motivation and most often lead to increased rates of maladaptive and self-destructive behavior among its citizens and leaders. These tragedies are are illustrated by the fact that socialist leaders normally gather the lions-share of power and material gains, at the great expense of their citizens….including the imprisonment and even death of over one hundred of million of them by starvation and execution. The arrested development, if not the horrific decline, of entire socialist/communist societies is clearly documented by history.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., 4/8/18

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Indiana University South Bend

President and Clinical Director, Behavioral Psychological Family Services




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