Posts Tagged ‘B.F. Skinner’

Psychology: The Innovative Humanity-Turned-Science [Part 2]

(A continuation from the previous post.)


In 1879, Wundt’s increasing interest in the strength and extent of nerve stimulation plus his transference from his studies in Zurich to the University of Leipzig’s Institute of Psychology would be marked by a post ceding immediate rapid increase of scientific experimentation in psychology.[1] The credibility of Wundt’s experiments was bolstered as he accepted possibilities of statistical error, a concept borrowed from German psychophysicist Gustav Fechner. The primary basis for his original reaction-time investigation was his insistence that psychology imposed sustained reasoning because the study derived and explained complex physical processes through simpler means.[2]

In the ensuing decade, American psychologist William James supported the first formal psychology experiment through his greatest contribution, the publication in which he announced psychology as the “science of mental life” with regards to the study’s form and underlying aspects.[3]

Furthermore, James elucidated the complex process, which Wundt had compromised for experimental means, at the neuronal level.[4] He additionally professed there were two ways to viewing sensation, both of which were required in Wundt’s lab. People could physically perceive an attribute, such as through sight or touch, or they could dedicate thoughts to an attribute without maintaining a real relationship to it.[5] With respect to Wundt’s lab, these differing concepts ultimately and respectively referred to physically perceiving the stimulus versus awaiting it.


By the following decade, immediately after Wundt’s revolution, an unknowing opposition was already proliferating under the same notions of psychology. Austrian Sigmund Freud was crafting an authoritative new subcategory, psychoanalysis, which would come to defy and haze scientific psychology’s standards. Suddenly, defense mechanisms—from repression to regression—became common justifications for ambiguous actions whereas other concepts—such as parapraxis, the Oedipus complex, and hedonistic fixations—transformed the public’s view of human nature into a simplistic struggle solely based on desire.

In his own way, Freud was the Wilhelm Wundt of psychoanalysis. Yet by classifying his study as a metapsychology—an offspring of the parent study—his unintended reform hindered psychology’s further establishment as a discipline.[6] In one such example, Freud advocated that one’s characteristic guilt could be derived from a committed bad action or simply the proposed thought of committing such a deed. Although this subject correlated with emotions, the concept was indirectly supported by Wundt’s claims, which held conjectures with regards to thinking about perceiving a signal versus actually discerning it.[7]

A few decades later, Swiss analytic psychologist Carl Jung, a follower and expander off of Freud’s claims, also alienated scientific psychology when he asserted that humans would never fully understand themselves. He noted that the individual consciousness was an exception to statistical rules, and a result, valuable empirical data would never be obtainable.[8]

Above all, psychoanalysis’ largest role in psychology was the simplicity that it advocated in observing human nature. According to the Freudian psychoanalyst, humans’ memories, thoughts, and ideas were all structured from ponderings on sexuality. Although this statement was mainly Freud’s opinion, the idea proved so compelling at the time that it stuck and developed.[9] As a result, such philosophical input afflicted the pure science as the latter evolved and regained some of its pre-revolution shaky theoretical aspects.


As the 20th century further unraveled, scientific psychology proved somewhat resilient to the allegations that denied its viability. Although the discipline’s trunk still had some philosophical remains, newer branches provided unique studies that complied with the field’s empirical standards while promoting novel methods for the science’s application.

Forty years after the revolution, classical conditioning materialized into one of psychology’s most significant offshoots. Russian polymath Ivan Pavlov came center-stage with his experiments on animals in which he used their simple-minded associations to represent the macrocosmic complexity in humans. Yet contrary to Wundt’s experiment, Pavlov analyzed the speed of reflexes that could not be controlled. His experimentation greatly consisted of projecting an external stimulus at the same time that the animal produced its instinctive “reflex reaction” toward an ordinary stimulus. After several repetitions, the animal would unknowingly learn to automatically produce the instinctive reaction in response to the previously random stimulus as well.[10] This experimentation with animals demonstrated how the simplicity of human innateness could be applied to work in the utmost methodical manner.

Just years after classical conditioning’s incipience, American behaviorist B.F. Skinner emerged, among others, as the primary advocate of behaviorism. Although he viewed behaviorism to be a philosophy-subsidiary of behavioral science, the characteristics that he attributed to his study resembled many of those that were prominent in scientific psychology. Forms of empirical data were deemed valuable while natural selection and evolution fueled the study. Skinner enforced his study’s pedestal on the operant plane, in which various reinforcements—consequences for a specific behavior—could be manipulated to drive a person to act accordingly. While some radical thinkers—such as Skinner—placed behaviorism as an investigational field of only unemotional drives, others included the former with associated feelings, which altogether diversified the presiding science.[11] Psychology now included experimentation on conscious mental responses, which incidentally alluded to Descartes’ early theorizations on mind-body interactions.

Gestalt psychology provided another constructive branch-off—initiating circa 1910 and then developing in the following decades—through the combined efforts of founders German Kurt Koffka, German Wolfgang Kohler, and Czech Max Wertheimer. The study required for discerned movement to produce a sum of basic sensations in the human mind.[12] In the decades to come, the Gestalt model represented this foundation at the broader altitude of individuality. The primary goals for psychologists in Hitler’s regime reflected gestaltism’s notions while the study strengthened in Germany and then spread internationally and for America.[13]


Psychology’s revolution from a theorized humanity into an investigational science ultimately proved a success. Wundt’s essential Leipzig laboratory formally postulated human behavior and thought in a manner that had never before been pursued during the predecessors of biology, physiology, and philosophy. The elite innovators of Germany merged the three sciences into one discipline that consequently altered the international perception of the field. Then the open-minded America transformed into the forefront for the radical infant science, and novel subfields sprouted. While some swayed the science precariously, the overall result was a diverse school of thought with a marked finesse based on scientific investigation. Most importantly, whilst psychology delved into the mind’s processes at the microcosmic level, it also illuminated a macrocosmic humanity that otherwise would never have been explored without the key contribution of this crucial “science of mental life.”

[1] Wilhelm Max Wundt, Principles of Physiological Psychology, trans. Edward B. Titchener (New York: Macmillan, 1904), 75, accessed November 19, 2011, Google eBooks.

[2] Mandler, 55-60.

[3] James, 1.

[4] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover Publications, 1950), 1:88, accessed January 29, 2012, Google eBooks.

[5] William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover Publications, 1950), 2:3.

[6] Dorian Feigenbaum, “Freud’s Latest Contribution,” The Nation, May 11, 1927, 537, accessed January 29, 2012, MAS Ultra – School Edition (13659575).

[7] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989), 84.

[8] Carl G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self with Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), 25-7.

[9] Sigmund Freud, The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. A. A. Brill (New York: Random House, 1966), 62-6.

[10] Ivan P. Pavlov, Conditioned Reflexes, trans. Gleb V. Anrep (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), 5-7.

[11] B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 46.

[12] Mandler, 10.

[13] Stanley M. Herman, “Toward a More Authentic Manager,” Training & Development Journal 25, no. 10 (October 1971): 10, accessed January 29, 2012, Professional Development Collection (8812404).

Facebook and its Addictive Traits

January 3, 2012 2 comments


Facebook. What makes it so popular and why is it so addictive?

The social networking site continues to grow since it was created in a Harvard dormitory in 2004. With over 500 million users (according to, it has united individuals from dozens of countries into a population exceeded by only China and India. History has never seen such an incident occur; the site is translated in 70 different languages and is used via mobile by 30% of its virtual population. With over half of its users logging in on any day and over 700 minutes spent per month by the average Facebooker, there clearly must be something amiss.

What did Mark Zuckerberg and his co-founders do to make Facebook so powerful and uniting? Certainly many things but one aspect proves exceptionally interesting because of its relation to psychology.

My explanation starts with Edward L. Thorndike, whose 1898 experiment consisted of cats searching their way out of a puzzle-like maze toward a concluding reward of fish. Thorndike noted that the cats improved in performance over time. He attributed their increasing speed in completing the maze to the fish treat. The cats learned that there would be a treat at the end of the puzzle, so they worked quickly to complete it.

Upon obtaining these results, Thorndike generalized that actions followed by positive consequences are more likely to recur in an individual. Likewise, actions post ceded by unfavorable consequences will be less likely to recur. He coined the overall phenomenon the law of effect.

Following in 1961, psychologist B. F. Skinner delved more into the law of effect in terms of partial reinforcement. In this method, reinforcement—the consequence—is present but not in a 1:1 ratio to the committed action. Instead, the reinforcement schedule comes in four different options: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval.

In a fixed ratio plan, the individual receives the consequence periodically after completing the action a specific number of times. In Thorndike’s example, the cat would receive a fish treat every—for example—five times that it completed the puzzle maze. This schedule is effective but the desired action can disappear very easily if the reward stops coming.

In regards to the fixed interval schedule, the individual receives the consequence periodically after a specific amount of time. The cat in Thorndike’s puzzle maze may receive a fish treat every hour, regardless of the number of times it completes the puzzle. The cat will most likely learn to only complete the maze at the end of the hour in order to take the treat that is left at the end of the maze. Naturally, this schedule is very ineffective once the individual learns how long he must wait in order to receive the reward.

The variable ratio schedule has the individual receive the consequence after completing the action a random number of times. For example, Thorndike’s experimental cat may receive its first fish after completing the puzzle five times, the second fish after completing the puzzle eight more times, and the third fish after completing the puzzle four times more. This schedule is effective; in a study with pigeons, Skinner showed that this schedule can increase the number of instances that the action is performed, per unit of time, very early on in the procedure or setting.

In the variable interval schedule, the consequence is presented over random periods of time—regardless of how often the action is performed. In Thorndike’s situation, the cat may receive a fish treat after twenty minutes, a second fish after another ten minutes, and a third fish after another two minutes. This schedule is effective for the cat because the cat has to go through the maze to receive the treat at the end. (If the treat was given directly to the cat, then the schedule would become ineffective because the cat would have no motivation to go through the maze.) The individual altogether never knows when he will receive his treat.

Facebook’s foundation complies with the variable interval schedule through the site’s notification system. This system allows an individual to receive messages every time an event or action occurs in relation to him. If someone writes on the individual’s “wall”, then the latter will receive a notification that will come up when he logs onto Facebook. In this sense, a notification is the consequence—the treat—that occurs when the individual logs in. Notifications are not dependant on how often the individual logs in; they occur according to random intervals of time. The variable interval schedule is thus created.

Facebook’s addictiveness altogether proves discernable as the individual constantly logs onto the networking site (goes through the trial) to see if there are notifications (check for treats at the end of the trial’s puzzle or maze). Of course, this only explains the situation from the psychological level; there surely must be more going on at the molecular level…