I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I
am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach
that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.
As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life
miserable or joyous…”
Epanchin, Townsend, and Stoddard
DOES THE MIND CONTROL ATTENTION?
“We can listen to a particular instrument… in
part by suppressing our responses to the other instruments and we
are said to do so with various mental mechanisms… [The mind is
considered] a kind of gatekeeper – a loyal servant who admits wanted
stimuli and defends his master against unwanted… We have not
explained anything, of course, until we have explained the behavior
of the gatekeeper… [Behavior analysis explains attention by] the
contingencies underlying the process of discrimination. We pay
attention or fail to pay attention to a lecturer or a traffic sign
depending upon what has happened in the past under similar
circumstances. Discrimination is a behavioral process: the
contingencies, not the mind, make discriminations”
LETTING A CHILD STRUGGLE
People learn well by experiencing
contingencies directly, and healthy development involves allowing
children to make contact with natural reinforcers and mild (not
dangerous) punishers. Letting an infant struggle to get from place
to place by crawling or toddling permits the child to obtain a
reinforcer – the item the infant is trying to get – and will enhance
the child’s mobility and independence. (In fact, blocking an
organism’s ability to influence the environment can lead to a
condition called “learned helplessness”. Allowing a child to taste a
spicy food will be a more powerful learning experience for him than
any words of advice you could offer.
Sulzer-Azaroff and Mayer
The use of retreat, or easing back when the
desired behavior occurs, is an important aspect of most of the
so-called “horse whisperer” techniques. In most of these methods the
trainer works with a loose horse in a confined area and proceeds in
a relatively short time to transform a horse in flight to a horse
calmly accepting a human. The horse, once perhaps completely wild,
becomes so calm, even accepting a saddle and rider, that the total
effect is magical.
Trainers who use these techniques often have
superstitious explanations for what is happening; and while many
have formed the habit of making some sound or motion that functions
as the marker signal or the conditioned reinforcer, few are
consciously aware of doing so. Nevertheless, it is not magic at
work; it is the laws of operant conditioning.
According to the behavioral model,
environmental factors play a major role in determining how we
behave. If you interpret this statement as your “being controlled by
the environment,” then you will view it as limiting your options.
However, just the opposite is true. There are reciprocal or
give-and-take relationships among the environment, overt behavior,
and covert behavior. Each of these factors influences and is
influenced by the two other factors, which is to say that they are
reciprocally determined. As an example, consider how the
environment, covert behaviors, and overt behaviors might
reciprocally influence one another in the case of writing a paper.
The concept of reciprocal determinism has important implications for
personal freedom. How we behave is not rigidly determined by
external forces. We can alter or create the factors that influence
our behaviors. For instance, a woman who rarely exercises can join a
health club, which will increase the chances that she will exercise
regularly. Likewise, a man who thinks poorly of himself because he
is unsuccessful in his work can select a job at which he can
succeed, which, in turn, will influence his thoughts about himself.
A key to personal freedom lies in understanding the factors that
influence our behaviors and accepting responsibility for controlling
- Spiegler and
The transfiguration of behavior analysis with
respect to values, language, and politics does not require us to
abandon our scientific principles, our love of empiricism, or our
dedication to evolving effective technologies. What is required is
that we see beyond our intimidating jargon to discover our link with
higher values, and the necessity of communication technological
achievement to society in a language that reflects those values.
Then, at last, we may be able to influence the politics of social
decision making. For over three decades we have been smart. Now is
the time for us to become wise.