Posts Tagged ‘behaviorism’

This week my 11 year old daughter asked if she could download and join snapchat. I immediately nixed that idea. I haven’t nixed her getting involved in much else technically where the EULA allows it. Snapchat touched a chord and got me to thinking (again) about identity – how we identify ourselves – who we think we are – and who others think we are. I think about this deeply every so often, sometimes becoming unglued when I think too hard about it. It’s a complicated concept.


So many things contribute to the patterns that are what we are. Our identity and sense of place in this world – undoubtedly conditioned by the modern world – is built around physical place (and now virtual places) and social circles (and now virtual social networks) and status within established networks of influence. This was probably not always the case when people were far more nomadic and identity wasn’t tied to a hometown or a home school or a 150 person social network. But now, more than ever, identity is a thing.

I personally have moved residences over 20 times in my life. 13 of them different cities (social networks) and 5 across state lines.

Non Existence -> Born (don’t remember)
Littleton, CO (don’t remember, sorta remember)
Colorado Springs (k – 2nd grade)
Aurora, CO Laredo Circle House (2nd grade – 3rd grade???)
Aurora, CO Laredo Court House (4th grade??? – 7th grade)
Miami, FL Kendall House (8th grade)
Miami, FL Baptist Hospital House (9th grade – 10th grade)
Aurora, CO Salsaleto House (11th grade – 12th grade)
Aurora, CO Some Apartment I Forget Where (Summer before college)
Chicago, IL Woodward Court/Univ. Chicago (Freshman year college)
Aurora, CO Buckingham Mall House (Summer between Freshman and Sophomore Year)
Chicago, IL Woodward Court/Univ. Chicago (Sophomore year college)
Chicago, IL 53rd Street Apartment (summer between sophomore and junior year)
Chicago, IL Blackstone Building/University Chicago (Junior year college)
Chicago, IL 53rd Street Co-Op Apartment (summer between junior and senior year)
Santa Monica, CA 9th and Pico (1999)
Chicago, IL Roosevelt and Michigan Apartment (2000 – 2002)
Santa Monica, CA 9th and Pico (2002 – 2005)
Playa Vista, CA Fountainhead Apartment (2005 – 2006)
Venice, CA Abbot Kinney House (2006 – 2010)
Austin, TX Travis Heights House (2010 – 2011)
Austin, TX Deep Eddy House (2012)
Marina Del Rey, CA (2013 – present)

My own children have now moved 5 times (the oldest one) and twice across state lines.

And these are just the residence moves – not all the jobs, schools, social circles, life phases and other changes that go into making up our context and our history. I have 692 friends on facebook, a couple hundred followers on twitter, tens of followers on instagram, one attempt at snapchat, fifty pinterest followers and so on. Sometimes I think of this all as an audience, which is quite insane to me as a concept but I doubt I’m the only one that feels like they have an audience online. I’ve done speaking engagements at conferences, I’ve written 8 years of blogs, somehow I authored several whitepapers, I think i have a patent or three, I’ve performed in 40+ live theater shows, I built hundreds of websites and mobile apps with between 1 and 50 million users a month…. WHAT THE F*** DOES IT ALL ADD UP TO? WHO AM I? and WHY IS THAT EVEN A QUESTION?

It’s a question because my daughters keep finding new ways to “express themselves” and “connect to others.” They “identify” with my wife or myself by saying “oh, i’m so like mom!” They intellectually get the ideas of genetics and art and fashion and learning and the delineation between it all.  They are very keen at telling me I don’t “get” them…. I keep waiting for the day when the TSA finally says they are full human identities and require proof of the case (driver’s license/passport).

It’s also a question because everyday the Western world bombards each other in ways such as:
“what am I worth?”
“tell me about your past.”
“are you this ism or that ism?”
“what party are you?”

and every other variation of class, job history, race, culture, language, outward appearance…

Anchors is my best guess at identities. Us, limited beings, pattern creating and recognizing beings find ways to lay anchors and say THIS IS ENOUGH – THIS IS WHERE I’M DROPPING ANCHOR and REMEMBER THIS. We drop these anchors – which are complex patterns we simplify – and label them as classes, races, job titles, cultures, state lines, political parties, etc. We drop anchors to save energy. That is, we hope the anchors keep us from having to remember all of the context and history that lead us to here when we are in the heat of the moment of making a decision. We want to save time when working out who we hire, with whom we partner, with whom we commune, with whom we war…


Identity is an illusion.

We are not the isms, the races, the classes, nor the anchors we drop. We all are ever evolving changing masses of organs, cells, and atoms that respond to the changes around them. We are connected – to each other, to the Web, to the world, to nature, to everything that passes gamma rays into us – EVERYTHING.

And this isn’t a ZEN kind of thinking i’m talking about. It’s a very simple, real concept that *WE* don’t EXIST. and the idea that WE EXIST is a major reason why “we” all end up fighting and destroying and gloating and taking credit and paying dues and every other manner of paying homage to an illusion. We do this because the delusion of singular identity is efficient in many respects. Capital markets reward identities. Democracies, despite their conceptual idea of the masses, reward identities. Social media and the internet reward identities.

And in all this efficiency created by identities we actually end up destroying things. Identities are the most efficient destructive concepts we’ve collectively devised. They shut everything down. They allow entire populations to be ignored. They tune our attention out. They tune our own senses out.

It makes sense this is so and that it persists.

Can it be resisted? *I* don’t know. Can we live without it?  I don’t know.

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Here’s another nice piece from JEAB on determinism.

In About Behaviorism (1974), B. F. Skinner addresses how the discussion of self control may appear contrary to a behavioristic formulation suggesting some lack of determination. Or does the behaviorist’s use of ordinary language, or for that matter any of his own behavior, violate his behavioristic account? Had Skinner not decided to write that book? Skinner states the issue in another form:

If human behavior is as fully determined as the behaviorist says it is, why does he bother to write a book? Does he believe that anything matters? To answer that question we should have to go into the history of the behaviorist. Nothing he says about human behavior seriously changes the effect of that history. His research has not altered his concern for his fellow men or his belief in the relevance of a science or technology of behavior. Similar questions might as well be asked of the author of a book on respiration: “If that is respiration, why do you go on breathing?”

I remain unsatisfied with the conclusion that “Nothing he says about human behavior seriously changes the effect of that history.”   Certainly the act of writing a book (doing the research) has little impact, but a long exposure to researching behavior and determinism DOES change the effect on that history because it becomes the history.

When that happens, then what?

Does anything matter?  Let’s take that question on its own, outside of the context of any particular researcher or philosopher.  If determinism is true, then does any investigation matter?  

The trouble here is that what is determined and what we mean by “matter” is by no means clear.  

What is determined is hard to pinpoint because behavior is part of an open, dynamical system.  There are so many things pushing and pulling on a person at any given time, all of those things are determined.  They come together in ways that make it damn near impossible to tell what is being determined, in fact it’s so complex we often just chalk it up to choice and free will.  I like to think about the weather when trying understanding unpredictable determinism.  We can all agree the weather is completely determined by the air, water, land, jet streams, sunlight, etc. etc. and yet we like to say “it has a mind of its own” because what it actually does is hard to predict.  By determined we mean that there is no free will or random chance, everything is connected.

What “matters” in a behaviorist philosophy is always relative to the historical values of the person questioning what matters.  There is no universal matter.  The behaviorist investigates and writes down their investigations because their history (environment, genes) determined it so.  This is what Skinner implies with the line “Similar questions might as well be asked of the author of a book on respiration: “If that is respiration, why do you go on breathing?””   You can’t really stop breathing even if you understand it all.  You can’t stop believing what you believe and acting according to those beliefs simply because you grok behaviorism.  

All in all, nothing matters.  Nothing matters in some universal way.  It might matter to you and that is determined by your history.

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Here’s a nice argument promoting the use of mathematically modeling in the experimental analysis of behavior.

Described in this way, the predictions of these two theories are difficult to distinguish. Although they make their predictions for different reasons, both theories seem to predict the same general result: punishment will cause a decrease in the punished behavior. Once they are translated into mathematical form, however, the different predictions of the two theories can be seen more easily. Deluty (1976) andde Villiers (19771980) developed two different quantitative models of punishment, which can be viewed as mathematical versions of the avoidance theory of punishment and the negative law of effect, respectively. Both models begin with Herrnstein’s (1961) matching law, but then proceed in different directions.

In its simplest form, the matching law can be written as follows:

A mathematical equation, expression, or formula that is to be displayed as a block (callout) within the narrative flow. The name of referred object is jeab-85-02-02-e01.jpg

where B1 and B2 are the rates of response on reinforcement schedules 1 and 2, and R1 and R2 are the rates of reinforcement on these two schedules. This equation has often been applied to choice situations in which the two alternatives are variable-interval (VI) schedules of food reinforcement. Imagine that a pigeon responds on two keys, with Key 1 delivering 75 reinforcers per hour and Key 2 delivering 25 reinforcers per hour, so Equation 1 predicts that the pigeon will make 75% of its responses on Key 1. Now suppose that in addition to producing food, responses on both keys begin to deliver punishers (electric shocks) at a rate of 20 shocks per hour for each key. How can Equation 1 be expanded to deal with this situation? 

According to de Villiers (1977), if punishment is the opposite of reinforcement, as the negative law of effect states, then the punishers delivered by each alternative should be subtracted from the reinforcers delivered by that alternative:

A mathematical equation, expression, or formula that is to be displayed as a block (callout) within the narrative flow. The name of referred object is jeab-85-02-02-e02.jpg

where P1 and P2 are the rates of punishment on the two keys. 

In contrast, Deluty (1976) took the view that punishing one response increases the reinforcement for other responses, as proposed by the avoidance theory of punishment. Therefore, in his equation, the punishers for one alternative are added to the reinforcers for the other alternative:

A mathematical equation, expression, or formula that is to be displayed as a block (callout) within the narrative flow. The name of referred object is jeab-85-02-02-e03.jpg

To keep this example simple, one shock is given the same weight as one food delivery, but both models could easily give food and shock different weights by multiplying P1 and P2 by some constant other than 1. Using such a constant would not change the general conclusions presented here. In this example, with R1  =  75, R2  =  25, and P1  =  P2  =  20, Equation 2 predicts that the percentage of responses on Key 1 should increase from 75% to 92% when the shocks are added to both keys. Conversely, Equation 3 predicts that the percentage of responses on Key 1 should decrease to 68% when the shocks are added. In an experiment with pigeons, de Villiers (1980) found that preference for the key that delivered more reinforcers increased when shocks were added to both keys with equal frequency. This result therefore favors the predictions of Equation 2 over those of Equation 3

It should be clear that the issue here is more fundamental than simply whether a plus sign or a minus sign should be used in an equation. These two models are based on two very different conceptions of how punishment exerts its effects on behavior. The experimental evidence suggests that punishment exerts its effect by weakening the target behavior, as the negative law of effect stipulates, not by strengthening alternative behaviors, as the avoidance theory proposes. This example illustrates how two psychological theories that seem to make similar predictions when stated verbally actually may make very different predictions when they are presented in mathematical form.

Mathematical Models and the Experimental Analysis of Behavior
James E Mazur

Southern Connecticut State University
Correspondence should be addressed to James E. Mazur, Psychology Department, Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, Connecticut 06515, e-mail: mazurj1@southernct.edu
Received July 21, 2005; Accepted October 3, 2005.
In the conclusion we get this nice warning.
In a commentary about some competing mathematical models of timing, Killeen (1999) wrote: “If you think models are about the truth, or that there is a best timing model, then you are in trouble. There is no best model, any more than there is a best car model or a best swimsuit model, even though each of us may have our favorites. It all depends on what you want to do with the model” (p. 275). Those who do not enjoy studying mathematical models might take this statement (from a preeminent mathematical modeler) as an excuse to avoid them. Why bother putting in the time and effort to understand current mathematical models of behavior when there is no best model, and when they all have their weaknesses and limitations? Killeen addresses this issue by asserting that “all understanding involves models—reference to systems that exist in a different domain than the thing studied. Loose models make vague reference to ambiguous and ad hoc causes. Tighter models are more careful about definitions and avoid gratuitous entities. Models of phenomena are not causes of phenomena; they are descriptions of hypothetical structures or functions that aid explanation, prediction, and control” (p. 276).
That’s true of mathematical modeling in behavior and pretty much anything else.  The model is not the thing.  However, models help structure thinking, investigation and make it easier to communicate.  
I also want to point out just how useful the Matching Law is in analysis of behavior.  You can use it as a basis for so many investigations and you see it play out in almost every situation you are observing behavior from web metrics to neural studies.

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The study of animal and human behavior is fraught with quantitative potholes.  Months ago I explored these with a fellow researcher and was put back into place simply by my lack of knowledge.  However, after months of study where I understand a smidge more than I knew thing (not much more because I learned how much more I don’t know!), I’m confident in my identified modeling potholes.

In the majority of behavioral experiments and studies researchers plot and analyze stimuli, responses, response rates and some physiological/biological events.  The stimuli can be classified in various ways and same with the responses and biological events.  Common terms used are consequences, reinforcers, punishers, fixed action patterns, action potential, conditioned responses, s-r, s-s, discriminant stimulus… to name a few.

And now the rub.

What exactly are these?  Peeling back the layers, what’s underneath these?  what are their discrete quantifiable parts?

Let me explain… when we measure a response, we consider the whole of that “response.”  Consider the classic examples of pigeon pecking.  We measure the “pecking behavior” rates.  It can be a quick peck, a succession of pecks, hard peck, soft peck and so on.  In most studies what researches are looking for is the relationship (not necessarily the quantitative/magnitude relationship) between the pecking behavior and various stimuli or reinforcers/punishers.  Typically a simple graph of time vs. rate of response is plotted to show strengthening or reduction in the rate of response.

All of this is very good for verifying that there is a relationship between variables.  However, it has not been helpful at all for defining a reliable, falsifiable, quantitate law like F=MA or the wave equation or anything.  It these approach never can deliver that!  Why?  because what you are studying is quantitatively subjective.  You have no way to measure pecking behavior versus drinking behavior versus fighting and so on.  You can never arrive at a generalized rule that says if I use a VI 6 schedule of reinforcement I always generate a response rate curve of 1/t^2 or something similar ( rate of response drops off as inverse square of the time). 

This makes it impossible to apply one researchers finding to another situation other than in relational terms like “we know variable interval schedules tend to increase the time to behavior extinction”.  I can’t say by how much, how long.

Up until recently this was ok because for the last 100 years we didn’t even know, understand and appreciate the fundamentals of how we learn and adapt behaviorally.

And make no mistake this same problem exists in producing quantitative models of natural selection.  What exactly are you measuring with variation in a species? How do you assign some magnitude of variation?  How do you compare to variations and their impact?  This green frog is X different from this blue frog…. X is????

I’m not sure it’s even possible logically much less computationally to get at models of natural selection and human behavior.  These are more “organizing principle” type theories/laws.  This is where my brain goes haywire.

Genes mutate.  We can see the consequences play out.  We can measure environmental variables, population densities, genetic expression and pretty much every aspect involved in playing out natural selection.  Yes, we can’t really look at a species and individuals in a species and apply an equation to predict it’s proliferation or extinction.

And so it is with behavior.  I can measure responses, catalogue stimuli, map neural networks, and plot the consequences.  I cannot look at an organism and predict with numerical precision how it will behavior – when, where, how much.

I can do this relatively.  I can make probability statements but not even those end up like the nice wave equation in quantum mechanics.  The probability statements are not reliable from organism to organism.

Part of this trouble comes from the huge variation between organisms (biological, environmental).  We can control much more strongly the stimuli (then again, the stimuli is relative to the observer, oy.)

Some ask why care about this at all?  So we can’t predict natural selection or human behavior, what difference does that make.  Besides that’s one of those intractable problems, Russ.  You are better off just observing how it plays out than coming up with computational models that will never end.  (computational irreducibility in some sense).  I agree on a macro level.  We’ll never be able to simulate / predict human behavior faster/more efficiently than letting it play out.  Any thing we do to get that efficiency will cost us in detail or clarity (which in behavior and natural selection can produce critical modeling errors down the road!).  

We can’t really produce absolute models in other disciplines either.  We can pick out relatively simple situations (meaning – we can isolate very small subsets of the overall picture with lots of assumptions and controls).  That said, even isolated sub systems can provide profound and useful insights and helpful predictions. 

That’s what I’m looking for in behavior.  An isolated subsystem I can model.  Something I can figured out and repeatedly, consistently and quantitatively measure over and over.  To do even that, there must be a unit of behavior and unit for stimulus or something to that effect.  Without a unit we can take from one situation to the next, we’re left with a description of relationships.



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In further research (yes, me sidetracking), I found these two communities based on BF Skinner’s Walden Two and radical behaviorism concepts – an experimental analysis of behavior approach to building a community.

Los Horcones


Twin Oaks

Pretty neat real world experiments of behaviorism world views.  Very cool.

These were located at the bottom of this summary of behaviorism.

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