Monday, 17 December 2012

Robert Sapolsky and B.F. Skinner Discuss Behaviorism

This is an interesting video up on YouTube at the moment where the uploader has spliced together snippets from one of Sapolsky's lectures with various snippets of Skinner discussing similar topics or claims as those raised by Sapolsky. The brilliance in this is the seamless juxtaposition of contradictory claims being raised on the same topic - behaviorism.

The video isn't too long and I think it does a great job of highlighting some of the character of Skinner as well, rather than presenting the dry, matter-of-fact scientist that is often seen only discussing reinforcement schedules and pigeons.



  1. Quite interesting.

    This video reinforce even more the idea, stated over and over by psychologists like Peter Harzem, of reading direclty from the source.

    Sapolsky results in the best example of misleading discurse and it doesn't look like he just misundertood behaviorism.

    1. Hi Jorge,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that reading from the source is vitally important - especially when, like Sapolsky, you're trying to educate young people who are new to a particular subject.

      I guess it's possible that he was intentionally presenting misleading information but in situations like this I like to apply Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". And given how misunderstood behaviorism is, even by psychology professors, it doesn't seem impossible that biologists like Sapolsky could be unaware of the true facts.

    2. I really enjoy Hanlon's statement. I also found over the years that, for the autism world, a big chunk of their crazy treatments come from ignorant people not from their malice.

      Consider behaviorism, the best criticisms undoubtedly come from its own people, insiders, and not people like Sapolsky, Chomsky or McDougall (poor Watson) to name just a few.

  2. Sapolsky, like Pinker, is a troubled, arrogant,angry man, who can't stand being refuted. Like Pinker, he has beef with Skinner, who is the authority on the science of human behavior. Like many other popular academics, Sapolsky misunderstands Skinner because it sells. No matter how much hot air this pedantic windbag produces, he misses scientific rigor in his own behavior.

  3. Hi Max,
    Ad hominem arguments such as yours do little to persuade, other than to express your own anger. Skinner is wrong, not because Sapolsky and Pinker may or may not be troubled and angry, but rather because there is overwhelming research evidence from neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, cultural neurophenomenology and cognitive science showing that, even rats, have cognitive processes that interact with contingencies of reinforcement, and are not mechanically ruled by them.

    1. How does that make Skinner wrong? Radical behaviorism depends on the existence of cognitive processes and importance of neurobiology. Without them, radical behaviorism would be what Skinner hated - methodological behaviorism.

      Are you adopting the myths that Skinner was a blank slatist and ignored cognition? If so, l recommend watching the video l linked to.