Behaviorist Cafe

March 10, 2014

Setting:  A small café located in the city of Whittier in Southern California.  Neutral territory for all involved.  It is 9:27 PM and tiredness begins to overtake everyone giving a laziness to the air around them.


Watson:  Friends, my idea is to understand the ways in which a person operates, why a person reacts the way they do, and what is going to happen if a person is faced in a situation.  I want to be able to predict a person’s behavior before it actually happens.  My whole idea is that a person learns their behavior from birth.  Behavior is not naturally occurring, but is impacted by environment and is able to be changed throughout life.

Tolman:  Watson, how exactly do you think this is possible?  I believe that behavior is learned, but I also believe that behavior is learned in order to obtain a goal.  The manner and rapidity in which  behavior is learned is based on the expectations created for the act of obtaining the desired goal.  This is my thought.  What do you think Skinner?

Skinner:  Well, I kind of agree with both of you, however, I also disagree.  Yes, I think  behavior is a learned process.  I do not believe that behavior is learned to obtain a said goal, but rather I believe, as does Watson, that behavior is learned from birth and can be modified to a desired standard.  In addition, I believe that it is most important to study the environment all around the person, including outside forces, not just the immediate living circumstances, as well as the person’s history.  I think History and environment are the two main forces that impact the behavior a person learns.


All three men sit quiet for a moment and seem to be thinking about these theories of behavior being discussed.  They all begin to look around the café almost as if they were studying the people and surroundings around them.

I began to wonder, how they developed these similar yet varying differences in theories.

Time seemed to stand still as they looked around and seemed to stare from group to group and person to person. They began their discussion once again.


Tolman:  Let me explain my experiment, maybe then you will be more agreeing to my theory.  It all begins with Watson’s theory that behavior is learned and can be modified; however, I thought that learning was more like a map rather than physically observable reactions.  I put mice in a maze and let them find their way.  Through exploring the maze, they began to expect a certain organization each time I put them in the maze.  Throughout exploration, they learned environmental cues that seemed to develop certain expectations for each time they were faced with the same cue.  All in all, these cues developed a type of map for the mice that directed future behavior to obtain a pre accomplished goal.  As I began reducing sensory cues that were used, the mice began to behave differently when faced with a stimulus they’d already been exposed to, however, through more exposure, the mice began to learn their way through the maze even without certain cues available.  This means that they had expanded their map even more to include changes and how to make accommodations.  I then decided to add a reward in the mix which proved to be beneficial in the speed of learning the maze. So you see, providing a benefit to learn the behavior increased the speed in which it was learned.  Initially, the path through the maze was found, but even after altering the course and the cues available, the mice were able to learn their way through proving that initial learning can be expanded.


Watson:  Those are interesting findings, but we kind of agree in  essence.  See, I used Little Albert to prove that  behavior learned from birth could be changed and predicted.  Basically, I exposed Albert to a white, furry animal that he seemed to show no fear but portrayed a natural curiosity.  I began to clang metal rods together at the exposure to this furry animal which overtime, seemed to cause Albert to relate the loud frightful noise to the white, furry animal, eventually giving him a fear of not just that animal, but to any white, furry object.  Although I was not able to conclude my experiment by reversing my instillation of fear into Albert, after a few months, his fright of the white, furry objects seemed slightly calmer.  My intention was to reverse his fear, but due to circumstance this was not attempted.  I was actually scorned for attempting this experiment.  I did, however, have the pleasure of working with Mary Cover Jones, who was trying to reduce a fear in a patient. Her attempts of explaining there were no reasons for fear, and having the patient face the fear, proved useless.  She thought that if she produced the item of fear during a pleasurable experience, and gradually moved it closer to the patient, the pleasure the patient was receiving replaced and reduced the phobia of the item.  Both of these experiments prove that behavior is learned and is able to be changed through the use of stimulus.


Skinner:  Well, here’s my thought.  Tolman, you were able to prove that reinforcement assists in the speed of learning behavior, but I do not think learning is completed fully through inner processes, as much as I believe it is learned by observing behavior in our surroundings and our pre wired selves.  Watson, although your experiment caused a huge controversy and has given people many things to talk about, you proved that behavior can be learned through the use of a stimulus, but I think this type of behavior shaping is better left to train an animal to act in a certain way.  Taking into consideration both your thoughts, I decided to place a rat inn a box with a lever. Triggering the lever, dropped a piece of food, which gave the rat a reason to hit the lever again.  Quickly, the rats became accustomed to receiving their treat by hitting the lever.  I then made the lever issue a shock when triggered.  The rat quickly learned he would be discomforted if he hit the lever, so he avoided it.  This taught me that rewards in the form of positive reinforcement encouraged a certain behavior, but a negative reinforcement discouraged  behavior.  I call this operant conditioning and believe it can be used to modify behavior.


All those men appeared to be satisfied with what the other had to say, but they undoubtedly looked skeptical of the other.  I began to wonder how these experiments could tie into everyday life and prove to be true.  So I closed my eyes and found some courage within myself.


Jennifer:  Excuse me gentlemen.  Please allow me to introduce myself, my name is Jennifer, and I have scrunched down in the chair behind your table for the past hour eavesdropping on your conversation.  I truly was not trying to be rude, but your discussion is very intriguing to me.  I would like to ask one question since these theories of yours prove true in the lab, can be directly correlated to everyday life?

Skinner:  Jennifer, please, may I ask, do you have children?

Jennifer:  Yes, I actually have several children.

Skinner:  So tell me then, how do you handle your children when they become unruly?

Jennifer:  Well, first of all, it depends on the situation.  My biggest issue is getting them to clean their bedroom. I give them a set amount of time, and if they do not complete the task, I hand them a trash bag to fill up with the remainder of their belongings. They think these things are thrown away, but they are hidden in the attic they do not know we have.

Skinner:  So you confiscate their belongings when they do not care for them properly?  This is a negative reinforcement you are using in an attempt to discourage  undesired behavior, or having a messy bedroom.  What do you do when your children receive a reward?

Jennifer:  I really just praise them by telling them how proud I am of them.  I might let them choose what we eat for dinner or dessert, but mainly praise.  So far this has worked well for my children.

Skinner:  Since your children seem to enjoy hearing your proud of them, praise serves as a positive reinforcement which encourages them to continue doing whatever it is they did earn the reward.  If you stopped praising them, those rewards would be less frequent.

Jennifer:  So having a program of discipline, negative or positive, encourages a child’s behavior.  So, then in Watson’s opinion, I can directly develop a child’s behavior simply by setting an example?

Watson:  Not exactly.  Since my theory’s experiment created a huge drama fest, let’s think of it this way:  Do you have animals?

Jennifer:  No, I have a child with a severe allergy to furry animals… no pun intended.  I do know people with animals though.  I know my mother has a Chihuahua that carried a fetish for relieving itself where it felt like it.  She tried to rub her nose in it and smack her bottom when she found it, but this did not work.  She tied smacking her hands together and interceding as the dog sniffed for a place, but neither of those worked either.  My father found that the dog barked whenever she heard an aerosol spray can.  My mother got an idea.  She began to spray a can as the dog sniffed around and then put her outside.  For a few weeks,  she did the same thing, but eventually, the dog began to go to the door and sniff instead of around the house, letting my mom know she needed to go out.  She no longer barks when my dad puts on deodorant anymore either, but she does go to the door when he does.

Watson:  I think you understand.  You took an aerosol can, the stimulus, and used it to change  behavior, the dog using the proper bathroom.  In return, the dog no longer fears the sound of the aerosol can, but has grown accustomed to the sound meaning she needs to relieve herself.

Jennifer:  Tolman, I think I understand your theory, but I am honestly, not sure in any way to relate it to everyday life.

Tolman:  Hmmm…. Well, let me hear what you think, and we will take it from there.

Jennifer:  I am not sure about this, but I am thinking along the lines of learning my way through a new city.  I recently moved to California from Florida.  I was totally lost getting to the corner store.  My family has always ridiculed me for being direction illiterate.  Anyway, I learned a very small proximity close to my home.  Once I had that area down, I began to venture a little further each day.  Over the span of eight months,  I have been able to double my travel without using a GPS system to get places.  Is this the right track?

Tolman:  Well, if you are thinking that each time you learn something, a new plot has been added to your internal map, then yes you’re right.

Jennifer:  Well, guys I know it was pretty rude to interrupt your conversation, but I must tell you, you have some intriguing thoughts among you.  You all have a good night now.

Curtain closes with men shaking their heads.





Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A History of Modern Psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.


Hauser, Larry.  (2005). Internet Encyclopedia of philosophy: Mind & Cognitive Science.  Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/behavior/


McLeod, S. A. (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html


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