Column: Skinner

by Ashley Farmer

I’ll Give You a Dollar if You Eat this Collie
The box is simple: inside, a rat or pigeon is conditioned to press a lever in response to certain stimuli. Some bring reward, some punishment. Over time, the creature learns when it should press the lever and when it shouldn’t. The creature is no dummy. The creature is each of us. B.F. Skinner’s theory is an elegant no-brainer: Our behavior is conditioned by the negative or positive results of our actions. Biology supports this: The pleasure center of the brain flickers with every petite mort, inside each Vegas casino, after frosting licks or tequila shots. Even the less prurient pleasures—a hug, the feeling of small triumph—prod that circuit. Pain is also processed in the brain, both emotional and physical. Like Skinner’s rats, we’re programmed and predictable.Or so it seems if we picture ourselves ping-ponging through binaries of pleasure and pain. But what about those choices we make that don’t bring either? What about our actions that yield neither buzz nor sting? What about the things we do simply because we’re compelled? What about devotion?

Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1,800 poems and died without success. James Hampton Jr., a janitor in Washington, D.C., spent 14 years constructing an intricate, shimmering throne from trash—one discovered after his death and now displayed in the Smithsonian. Sterling Richard Smith (a.k.a. Jandek) has released over 70 obscure albums. Maybe each artist experienced rewards during moments of creating. Maybe they expected future rewards for their efforts. Maybe they simply didn’t need any. We are, after all, a nation of persistent amateurs: slow joggers, awkward dancers, so-so chess players. And we’re not delusional: most of us know we won’t get much better, let alone go pro. For some of us, our pursuits bring more punishment than pleasure. Yet we continue.

Science has deciphered much of the sticky, tricky brain with respect to behavior, yet some of what we do remains mysterious. Experts claim there is no “God spot” we can point to and say here is where faith lives. Similarly, some scientists suggest that while there are chemical components to altruism, selflessness has more to do with how we perceive the world than any hit we get from extending kindness.

Like Skinner’s rodents, we are efficient learners, pursuing what helps and avoiding what hurts. But this trajectory is scored with exceptions: You greet the neighbor who pretends most days not to hear you. You feed the cat that hisses every time you touch it. The Burning Man gets set on fire. The Buddhist’s mandala blows away in the wind.

Science was a second choice for Skinner: he wanted to become a writer. For 18 months—his “Dark Year”—he lived with his parents and scratched away at a novel. The rewards, he said, weren’t immediate enough. It makes sense, his own rats would’ve quit. To do something without reward means thinking outside Skinner’s box. To do something for the sake of devotion, we must be truly out of our heads.