The Chilling Effects of Behaviorism

As someone who has subscribed to the views of Objectivism, I believe in the power of the self. I believe in each person’s unique ability to create, shape, and define their own destiny using their intelligence and their power of reason.

Imagine reading about a viewpoint that negates all of those things.

I am currently reading “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes” by Alfie Kohn. The first chapter is devoted to an explanation of operant conditioning, the cornerstone of B.F. Skinner’s contribution to the study of behaviorism. Skinner’s views, as related by Kohn, would be something requiring a much more in depth look if it were not revealed that Kohn had personally interviewed Skinner several times. As it is, what Skinner relates certainly follows sound logic, if it doesn’t follow reason.

For example, Skinner believed that humans are no different in how or why they behave from any other animal on earth. Our behaviors, he claimed, are simply reactions to outside environmental factors. If this is the case, then there is no self, we have no will – there is no ability to reason in us. Everything, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Steve Jobs’ creation of the iPhone, simply happened because the stars aligned just right – the environment and genetic makeup surrounding Beethoven and Jobs was precisely what each individual needed to be able to create what they did.

This argument seems to be precisely what has fueled the nature/nurture argument for so long. Which has more affect on how a person turns out: their genetic disposition (nature) or the environment that they grew up in (nurture)? No wonder that battle has raged on and on. The one thing that each of these arguments fails to consider is the self – the individual inside the body that is able to think and create and reason. Rather than viewing anyone as a person, we are viewing the people around us as a ball of chemicals and experiences. We count certain chemicals and experiences as handicaps; we see someone from a single parent home and use that environment to justify poor performance in different areas of their life. We then develop statistics that back up our justifications, and when one person from a single parent home bucks the trend, we discuss how they overcame such great odds. But this person is not part of a group – the group of those from single parent homes. This person is an individual who is able to control their own destiny, whether they are from a single parent home or not. All individuals have this capability, and placing individuals into categories based on genetics or experiences does nothing but hurt the individuals involved.

Now, granted, certain genetic diseases can be a handicap, but that still does not and should not negate the fact that the people that have these genetic diseases are still individuals that can shape their own destiny. We have become a culture that allows people to justify their behaviors based on experiences and genetics, thereby releasing them from personal responsibility for their actions. We have become a culture that holds individuals back through the use of conditioning rather than stand back and watch them reach their full potential.

I chose the name “Uplifting Freedom” for this blog because I believe that every individual should be afforded every opportunity to realize their full potential. As teachers, it is not our job to assign children to groups based on their genetics or their environment in order to figure out how to deal with the group as a whole. Our job is to look at each individual child – their capabilities, their strengths, and their interests – and help them figure out how to maximize these individual traits in order to learn more about their world. Our job is to help them as they realize their individual dreams and goals, and to challenge them to take personal responsibility for the actions that they take to reach them. In this way, we create a truly free individual.