The Experimental Analysis of Behavior

The Galilean scientific method and the study of individual and social behavior

Giulio Bolacchi e i fondamenti metodologici del linguaggio della scienza

«While it is true that Galilean knowledge of behavior began to be pursued about three centuries after the start of the revolution in the knowledge of physics, one may come to understand why psychology and sociology persistently lagged behind during that period, and to a large extent still are. Although the advantages of the Galilean method are evident, no scholar before Pavlov and Skinner has been able to question the postulate of the stochasticity of behavior, with which philosophical thought has always associated the concepts of “freedom” and “will.” The latter still constitute an inarguable and indispensable assumption of all philosophies, ideologies, and pre-scientific psychologies and sociologies.» IT

(Le scatole vuote della sociologia [Empty sociological boxes], p. 56)

Obstacles to the Diffusion of the Science of Behavior

«The diffusion of behavior and social sciences is hindered by […] mistaken theoretical approaches that have their root both in traditional metaphysics and in Weber’s philosophical methodology of the social sciences and, in a broad sense, in the thought of philosophers belonging to the so-called school of contemporary German historicism. Many still consider the latter as an unsurpassed endpoint of methodological reflection on human behavior because of its contrast with traditional metaphysics and its openness to cultural relativism.

These issues, implicitly or explicitly, ultimately base the distinction between historical social sciences and natural sciences on a diversity of objects between the two types of sciences, which would imply a difference in the methods of knowledge.» IT

(Il problema del metodo nella sociologia [The problem of method in sociology], p. 4)

The Human-Nature Dualism

«After more than a century of development, the social sciences, particularly economics, psychology, and sociology, face basic internal problems stemming from the fact that their research methods fail to conform to those of natural science.

These problems derive from the persisting prejudice about the dualism between man and nature [was] made explicit by W. Dilthey, who bases the distinction between human sciences (sciences of the mind) and natural sciences not on the ontological metaphysical doctrine of the “opposition between material and mental substances,” but, in a gnoseological perspective, on the “awareness that the lived experience of the self is the basis for the very concept of substance.” In this way, the old opposition is replaced by “that between the external and internal worlds: the external world has given in outer perceptions (sensations) through the senses, and the inner world has presented originally through inner apprehension of psychic events and activities (reflections).” […]

In this way the “essences” (with their many and various configurations), excluded from the world of nature, persist in the world of the humans’ internal states, fitted into a schema that considers them (in terms of will and intentionality) as mentalistic anticipations and causations of action (which is for Dilthey the “purposive activity of humans”).»

(On “social sciences” and science, pp. 465-466)

Mentalism and the Introspective Method

«Spiritual reality would entail a particular relation between the subject carrying out the research and the object of research, in that while nature is supposed to be external to the subject, the spirit would be something that the subject feels and experiences from within. This difference implies a mentalistic consideration of humans and a research method based on introspection. Mentalism is the non-experimental perspective that considers behavior as a dependent variable that is a function of non-experimental (independent) variables defining the mental states or states of consciousness of the subject. Introspection is the method by which subjects would know their states of consciousness.» IT

(Il problema del metodo nella sociologia [The problem of method in sociology], pp. 4-5)

The Two-Knowledge Dogma

«The two-reality dogma, i.e., the dogma of the separation of spirit from nature, is assumed as a constraint on knowledge, which turns into the two-method dogma, also interpretable as the two-knowledge dogma-a knowledge about spirit, another about nature.

Dilthey does not take into account that, with Galileo, scientific knowledge gets rid of the Aristotelian concept of essence (lacking in explanatory power) and replaces it with the mathematical function (that is, the relation between the independent variable and the dependent variable). It is a methodological revolution that shows a world of natural events no longer considered singly but in ordered pairs. Albeit excluded from the world of nature, however, the essences (in their multifaceted configurations) persist in the world of human internal states, within a schema that considers them in terms of will and intentionality, as mentalistic anticipations of action, and even today uses them uncritically to propose a theory of the human organism as the initiator of a causally ordered series of events.» IT

(Il concetto di organizzazione secondo il paradigma scientifico [The concept of organization in the scientific paradigm], p. 274)

Methodological Relativism

«The inherent subjectivity of internal processes implies an evaluative reference model, such as cultural relativism. When the internal processes (and the states of consciousness expressing them) are considered to be the sole, exclusive characteristic of humans, the problem arises that cultural relativism tends to move from the evaluative level to the methods of knowledge. Indeed, in most recent developments, the two-method dogma has turned into the multiple-method dogma: on the one hand, a plurality of methods (based on intuition and common sense) is postulated, corresponding to the multiplicity of possible objects of knowledge; on the other hand, the profound difference and incompatibility between the scientific method and all other conceivable methods are denied or not recognized. Thus, experimental knowledge—operational, intersubjective, and cumulative by definition—is placed on the same level as experiential knowledge, which is segmented into various perspectives devoid of intersubjective reference paradigms. It follows a simplistic equipollence of methods of knowledge as to their heuristic value, which promotes a lax use of the attribute “scientific” applied and applicable to all possible research domains.

Methodological relativism finds the most difficult obstacles to tackle and overcome in the coherence, intersubjectiveness, and operativeness of Galilean science. Indeed, there are no plausible arguments, but only antiscientific prejudices against the controlled experiment applied to study human and social behavior, starting from the more basic segments of behavior typical of non-human living organisms.» IT

(Il concetto di organizzazione secondo il paradigma scientifico [The concept of organization in the scientific paradigm], pp. 275-276)

The Historical Social Sciences

From the perspective of the dualism between humans and nature, the diversity of objects underlying the distinction between social sciences and natural sciences relates to the fact that «the spiritual reality [taken as the minimal unit of analysis] is considered to be a dynamic reality subject to a continuous evolutionary process. It is precisely in this sense that we speak of historical social sciences. »

«All of Weber’s thought is vitiated by the confusion, on the methodological level, between the historical standpoint, regarded as orientation towards the individuality, and the structural scientific standpoint seeking to detect a system of “laws.” The fact is that, from the commonsense viewpoint, we see social phenomena in their continuous flow, i.e., as subject to an irreversible change. However, this fact does not entail the impossibility of constructing a structural perspective, methodologically analogous to the perspective of natural sciences, which makes it possible to identify relations between social phenomena that do not reduce to a mere temporal order defined in irreversibility terms.» IT

(Il problema del metodo nella sociologia [The problem of method in sociology], pp. 5, 12)

Historical Dimension as Metaphysical Presupposition

«Assuming historicity as a characterization peculiar to human behavior -and hence as a fundamental element distinguishing the latter from the phenomena studied in the domain of natural sciences leads to a twofold methodological confusion. Firstly, the historical dimension is not a metaphysical attribute, an essence typical of some phenomena and not others; it is only a methodological perspective, a mode of ordering phenomena -those studied within the natural sciences, too. Indeed, every phenomenon can be considered as belonging to an irreversible series, whose characterization is given by assuming uniqueness and unrepeatability as factors determining the order of phenomena within the series. […]

Secondly, the metaphysical presupposition of the historical dimension as peculiar and unique to human behavior necessarily leads to the impossibility of extending the experimental method of the natural sciences to the study of behavior. Namely, it leads to the erroneous conclusion that human behavior could not be ordered in reversibility terms and, hence, could not be characterized in terms of functional relations.» IT

(Introduzione a “La natura delle scienze sociali” di G.C. Homans [Introduction to “The nature of social science” by G.C. Homans (Italian translation)], pp. 12-13)

The Metaphysical Concept of Causality

«The concept of causality that postulates an infinite set of determining factors is typically associated with the concept of historicity, referring to this multiplicity of factors. If the causal factors are infinite, then the determined (caused) phenomenon must be individualized and thereby unrepeatable. Indeed, the repeatability typical of the functional schema characterizing the scientific language is not compatible with an infinite set of causes. The reason is that if an infinity of causes produces an individualized fact, then it is not possible to operationalize the causal relation by selecting one or some defined causes from the infinite set of causes.

Only a posteriori causal attribution is possible, which cannot be operationally verified. If the causal relation supposedly valid in the historical social sciences is neither repeatable nor operationally verifiable, the conclusion is that the concept of causality in the historical social sciences and the concept of causality in the natural sciences share only the name that designs them. Therefore, the methodological unification of so-called historical social sciences and natural sciences based on the concept of causality is only fictitious, a pseudo-unification.»

«The postulate of the infinite multiplicity of elements (which is a metaphysical postulate) has no relevance within the scientific discourse, whether it is social or natural sciences. Therefore, the multiplicity of causal factors, whether it relates to the sole field of social phenomena or to the field of natural phenomena, too, cannot be assumed as a postulate of the methodology of science. What pertains to the scientific discourse are only those structural relations strictly characterized as finite series of relations identifying the specific logical structures of the language of each science.» IT

(Il problema del metodo nella sociologia [The problem of method in sociology], p. 7, 14-15)

The Postulate of Stochastic Social Facts

«The argument for the radical separation between natural sciences and human sciences—with which those natural scientists who are methodologically more inexperienced often agree uncritically—is re-proposed in a seemingly non-philosophical way by maintaining that there are two types of science both characterized, in principle, by the functional relation: the natural science, which admits experimental verification, and the social science which, not admitting experimental verification, should only use statistical methods. Both sociologists and (especially) economists and econometricians, who do not discriminate between scientific method and statistical analysis, endorse this modern reformulation of the “human/nature” dichotomy.»

«Those who maintain that social phenomena can only be analyzed scientifically by using statistical methods found these conclusions on the unproven postulate that social facts have a stochastic or random character that would prevent, a priori, any form of knowledge that applies the experimental method.

However, the stochastic character supposedly typical of the social variables (or phenomena) presents a profoundly different facet from the stochastic character we find in physics. […]

The concept of statistical law in physics differs from the concept of statistical law in sociological and economic analysis because it is assumed that the domain of application of correlations between variables and empirical generalizations for social phenomena is limited over time and space, unlike physics.» IT

(Le scatole vuote della sociologia [Empty sociological boxes], pp. 53, 54-55)

Overcoming the Human-Nature Dualism: the Experimental Definition of Behavior

«In short, research about man and society has to be redefined by overcoming the obstacles and the presuppositions of philosophical ideology and common sense. The so-called world of spirit (mind), which prevents us from building an experimentally based explanatory language of man univocally defined and implies in principle a multiplicity of often mutually contradictory perspectives, must be replaced by the world of behavior. This does not mean to deny internal states or even cognitive states of the human organism; it only means ascribing a merely descriptive (not explanatory) character to these states (and to the language that designates them).»

(On “social sciences” and science, p. 467)

Science and experimental method

«Only through the experimental method, an intersubjective discourse can be built, which allows for unifying phenomena that appear very different from the commonsense perspective but are explicated, from the scientific perspective, through the same experimental and theoretical predicates having a broad domain of application. That is the case with behavior science, whose basic predicates explicate not only animal behavior but also individual and social human behaviors.

In this regard, the experimental behavioristic predicates seem to be the unifying predicates of a plurality of phenomena whose supposed diversity is such only for the common sense. The same happens in the field of physics. Newton’s laws of motion explicate, in a unitary way, phenomena (such as the motion of celestial bodies, free-falling bodies, and the motion of bodies on earth) that appeared completely diverse and unsusceptible to unification to the pre-Galilean common sense (expressed by Aristotelian physics).» IT

(Introduzione a “La natura delle scienze sociali” di G.C. Homans [Introduction to “The nature of social science” by G.C. Homans (Italian translation)], pp. 15-16)

Experimental vs. Aristotelian Perspective

«I.P. Pavlov and B.F. Skinner operated on the experimental level by totally isolating the system from the outside. However, this fact did not obstruct the finding of the basic laws of behavior; on the contrary, it helped. Nevertheless, modern Aristotelians seem not to follow the lesson of science. They persist in doing experiments that contradict the scientific method and do not keep under control the stimuli that conditioned the past history (learning as an irreversible process) and that condition the current behaviors (learning as a reversible process) of the experimental subjects.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, pp. 326-327)

Animal experiments

«The scientific analysis of human behavior has developed through experimental animal research. It is now an established result of modern psychology that the study of psychological processes must be conducted on an experimental basis, and a suitable method is to use animals under controlled conditions because the possibilities of animal experimentation are not practicable with human subjects.

From a methodological perspective, behavioristic psychology asserts that the difference between human and animal organisms is not qualitative but a matter of degrees of complexity. […] Granting that the difference is a matter of degree, animals appear to be the most suitable organisms for experiments on the basic structure of psychological processes. Thus, psychology turns from a metaphysical analysis of mental processes to the scientific analysis of behavior; it becomes an experimental science in the same sense that physics and biology are.» IT

(L’analisi scientifica del comportamento di scelta [The scientific analysis of choice behavior], I, p. 137-138)

The Stimulus-Response Relation

«The explication of behavior is based on the definition of the subject (organism) as a set of responses to a set of environmental stimuli; the latter can also be other organisms’ behaviors. The experimental analysis concerns the study of the functional relation between stimulus (independent variable) and response (dependent variable). The more general set of behaviors is partitioned into two subsets: the subset of operant behaviors (explicated by the reinforcement relation) and the subset of respondent behaviors (explicated by the elicitation relation). On the experimental level, the distinction between the two subsets rests on the difference in the structure of the two types of responses and stimuli and can be traced back to I.P. Pavlov (respondents) and B.F. Skinner (operants). Operants are characterized by instrumental sequences, whereas respondents are simple reflexes (akin to emotions).

After Skinner, the experimental analyses have mainly turned to operant behavior, given its instrumentality character, which can be considered a fundamental factor that connotes rationality (in its various expressions) and social interaction.» IT

(Il concetto di organizzazione secondo il paradigma scientifico [The concept of organization in the scientific paradigm], p. 276)

I.P. Pavlov and Respondent Behavior

«In the case of respondent (reflex) behavior, the stimulus-response relation is such that the stimulus elicits a certain behavior (response), and it is possible to predict the response with the utmost precision […]. The eliciting stimulus is denominated an unconditioned stimulus (US), and the response is denominated an unconditioned response (UR). Pavlov showed that by associating the US with a neutral stimulus (which does not have the property to elicit the US-induced behavior per se), the neutral stimulus could acquire the same properties as the US. For example, by associating a sound stimulus with food several times, the sound stimulus acquires the property to elicit salivation in a dog. The intensity of the response (salivation) induced by the sound stimulus increases with the number of associations, whereas the reaction time (i.e., the time between the presentation of the sound stimulus and salivation) decreases. The sound stimulus is denominated a conditioned stimulus (CS), and CS-induced salivation is denominated a conditioned response (CR).» IT

(L’analisi scientifica del comportamento di scelta [The scientific analysis of choice behavior], I, pp. 140)

Respondent Behavior and the Laws of the Reflex

«The three laws of the reflex are:

(1) the law of threshold: a stimulus’s intensity range exists below which there is no response and above which there is always a response;

(2) the intensity-magnitude law: an increase in the stimulus’s intensity corresponds to an increase in the response’s magnitude;

(3) the law of latency: an increase in the stimulus’s intensity corresponds to a decrease in the time interval between the onset of the stimulus and the onset of the response.» IT

(L’analisi scientifica del comportamento di scelta [The scientific analysis of choice behavior], I, p. 142)

B. F. Skinner's Basic Experiment

«With this experiment, Skinner studied how a hungry rat learns a specified behavior. The rat is placed within an innovative experimental environment designed by Skinner (the Skinner box), where a lever is arranged so that, as soon as it is pressed, a certain amount of food is introduced into the experimental environment through a dedicated dispenser. At the beginning of the experiment, the rat engages in several behaviors. It can also happen that the rat accidentally presses the lever, in which case, instantly some food is introduced into the experimental environment. Over time, the frequency of the behavior consisting in pressing the lever increases while the frequency of behaviors consisting in running, sniffing, etcetera decreases. A suitable device connected to the lever allows the cumulative frequencies of that behavior to be plotted on a paper tape as a function of time. The result is a growing curve denominated learning curve.

The experiment shows that receiving food each time the rat presses the lever changes the probability (meant as relative frequency) that the rat engages in that behavior; food is said to reinforce the behavior of pressing the lever. Food is named a reinforcing stimulus and is denoted by S+; the behavior consisting in pressing the lever is denoted by R. The following expression symbolizes the reinforcement process:

R → S+IT

(L’analisi scientifica del comportamento di scelta [The scientific analysis of choice behavior], I, p. 139)

Operant Behavior and Learning

Skinner’s basic experiment shows that «associating the stimulus-food with the response “pressing the lever” results in an increase in the probability that the response R will occur (reinforcement of R or strength of the operant R, which is the predisposition to emit an operant R without further reinforcement).

Accordingly, learning can be defined as a change in behavior that occurs as a result of a reinforcement processIT

(Processo di apprendimento e strutture ideologiche [Learning process and ideological structrures], pp. 13-14)

The Behavior-Environment Relation: Operant Behavior

Behavior Laws from a Scientific Perspective

«In the perspective of science, we can suppose that behavioral laws “exist,” but these latter are only learning laws and must not be confused with the environmental contingencies […].»

Experiments prove that «subjects do learn if their operant behaviors are reinforced; i.e., the experiments verify the hypothesis that learning is the reinforcement process and is either hindered or facilitated by different types of events, such as the repetition of the operative sequences, the subject’s past history, and the specific social interaction that are the (external) behavioral stimuli reinforcing the subject’s operant behavior.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, pp. 329, 327-328)

The Law of Effect and the Matching Law

«The results so far achieved by the experimental analysis of (animal) behavior can be synthesised by the law of effect: behaviors are reinforced by their effects and this relation takes place within a “learning” process, whose variables can be brought back to three quantitative dimensions characterizing reinforcement contingencies: rate of reinforcement, amount of reinforcer, delay of reinforcement. The matching law expresses these primary variables of the reinforcement process. Only the existence of these invariants of “learning” allows the experimenter to obtain specific behaviors from the organisms by manipulating the experimental reinforcement contingencies.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, p. 328)

Reinforcement and Discrimination

«When behavior is emitted only under specific circumstances, it is named a discriminative behavior. Experimentally, it is possible to analyze discriminative behavior by reinforcing a particular behavior […] under certain circumstances and not reinforcing it when the subject carries out that behavior in the absence of such circumstances. What follows is an experiment showing how a discriminative behavior can be shaped: a rat is placed in the box “a” connected, through a passageway, to the box “b” where some food can be placed; if the rat runs along the passageway when a bell rings, then it finds food in b; instead, if the rat runs to b when the bell is not ringing, it finds no food there. The bell trill (SD) becomes the specific circumstance under which the behavior of running from a to b (R1) is reinforced by food. By repeating this trial several times, the rat learns to run to b (R1) only when the bell rings (SD); the rat’s behavior is under the control of the bell (discriminative stimulus).

The discrimination process is of the utmost importance because the discriminative stimulus SD can reinforce a behavior R2 different from R1. With reference to the experiment described, this result can be achieved by placing a lever connected to the bell in the box “a” so that pressing the lever makes the bell ring. The experiment shows that every time the rat presses the lever (R2), it is reinforced by SD; hence, the frequency of this behavior increases rapidly: the rat learns to press the lever and produce SD. […] This type of reinforcement is named secondary reinforcement […].» IT

(Processo di apprendimento e strutture ideologiche [Learning process and ideological structures], pp. 22-24)

The Instrumentality Relation

«We have seen an SD acquires the property of a secondary reinforcer if R1 is reinforced by S+ only in the presence of SD, on the experimental level. To say that SD reinforces the behavior R2 means implicitly referring to a relationship between R1 and R2, which we can call instrumentality. From the instrumentality relation […], it follows that SD acquires the property of a secondary reinforcer since it is related to a behavior R2 instrumental to R1. In short, the association between SD and the primary reinforcer S+ is effective as SD reinforces a behavior R2 instrumental to R1 (reinforced by S+).» IT

(Processo di apprendimento e strutture ideologiche [Learning process and ideological structures], p. 25)

Punishment and Extinction

«Punishment can refer to either presenting a negative reinforcer or removing a positive reinforcer […]. The latter is different from operant extinction. The case of operant extinction occurs when the reinforcer is not presented, which results in a decrease in the frequency of an operant; instead, in the case of the so-called removal of a positive reinforcer, properly speaking, an impediment to carrying out the instrumental behavior sequence to get the reinforcer occurs […]

However, it is possible to speak of disruption of an instrumental operant sequence even in the case of the presentation of a negative reinforcer, precisely because the subject to whom that reinforcer is presented is forced to carry out an escape behavior incompatible with the ongoing behavioral sequence […]

Whether one wants to get a subject doing something or not doing something, the only result achieved by punishment —in terms of learning— is that the subject learns to escape negative reinforcement or, in the case of secondary negative reinforcement, to avoid primary negative reinforcement by escaping secondary negative reinforcement […]

Therefore, punishment cannot be considered as the opposite of reinforcement.» IT

(Processo di apprendimento e strutture ideologiche [Learning process and ideological structures], pp. 18-20)

The State of Deprivation

«The analysis of reinforcement laws always presupposes a deprivation operation. Hence, the relation between behavioral modifications and reinforcement contingencies (given a certain state of deprivation) is only one aspect of the complex reinforcement process. The other aspect is the relation between behavioral modifications and the changes in the deprivation state (while the contingencies of reinforcement remain constant). To explain the reinforcement process, therefore, it is necessary to consider not only changes in reinforcement contingencies but also changes in deprivation states.»

«A deprivation operation determines the reinforcing value of a class of stimuli on which different behavioral sequences may depend. However, if the organism has not acquired the behavior leading to reinforcement, the deprivation itself cannot result in reinforcement.» IT

(L’analisi scientifica del comportamento di scelta [The scientific analysis of choice behavior], I, pp. 154, 152)

The Past History

«Behavioral evolution time, which characterizes the past history (cumulative learning) of the organism, at present cannot be taken into consideration as a variable in the functions explicating the structural dynamics of behavior, but it must be set as a parameter.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, p. 321)

The experimental analysis of motivation

«Measuring motivation means relating some behavioral effects, such as response rate and resistance to extinction, with deprivation […] (drive operations). In the analysis of the reinforcement process, the deprivation state is presupposed, while behavioral effects are studied as a function of changes in reinforcement contingencies. Instead, in the analysis of motivation, the reinforcement contingencies are kept unchanged, while the behavioral effects are studied as a function of changes in the organism’s deprivation state:

Consequently, there are two basic classes of operations.

(1) deprivation operations, which refer to the primary reinforcement process; in this regard, it should be noted that deprivation operations do not exhaust the field of so-called primary drives, as the behavior of organisms can be reinforced by reinforces other than those corresponding to experimental deprivation operations-that is the case with behaviors looking for novelty, exploratory behaviors, manipulative behaviors, and behaviors seeking bodily contact (J.R. Millenson, Principles of behavioral analysis, N.Y. Macmillan, 1967, p. 397);

(2) reinforcement operations, which can be related to the presentation or removal of positive or negative reinforcers in the context of primary reinforcement.

Experiments consist in varying one or the other of these factors and relating these changes to the corresponding changes in behavior. The experiments studying the changes in the organism’s behavior corresponding to the changes in reinforcement contingencies, with unvaried operations of deprivation, allow for identifying the laws of reinforcement.

However, as we have seen, it should also be possible operationally to identify what could be named laws of motivation. As mentioned, an attempt has been made by keeping unchanged the reinforcement contingencies and relating behavior modifications to changes in deprivation operations.

That is an attempt to determine the reinforcing value of a given class of stimuli. The changes in the organism’s behavior considered to be dependent on deprivation operations are: (a) the increase in resistance to satiation, (b) the rate of intermittently reinforced responses, (c) the increase in resistance to extinction, (d) the increase in the speed of behavior acquisition, (e) the increase in the ability to overcome obstructions, (f) the increase in the work done by the organism to obtain the reinforcer, (g) the increase in tolerance for adulterated reinforcers, (h) the preference shown for one reinforcer over others (J.R. Millenson, Principles of behavioral analysis, op. cit., p. 373 e ss.).

Some of these dependent variables, such as response rate and resistance to extinction, are the same variables related to reinforcement contingencies in the analysis of reinforcement laws. Instead, in the analysis of motivation, they are related to deprivation operations. Other variables, such as those referred to in points (a), (g), (h), are considered only in the analysis of motivation; that is, they take on a specific meaning only in relation to deprivation operations.» IT

(L’analisi scientifica del comportamento di scelta [The scientific analysis of choice behavior], I, pp. 153-154)

On the reinforcement process and discrimination

«The forming of a discriminative stimulus, by reinforcing a given behavior in the presence of a particular stimulus and not reinforcing it in the absence of that stimulus, must be considered as a specification of the reinforcement process. Wanting to avoid any reference to mentalism is not correct to characterize the discriminative stimulus by introducing a discriminative function in addition to the fundamental reinforcing function (based on which the operant behavior is characterized). The discriminative stimulus must be characterized in terms of either elicitation or reinforcement.

While it does not elicit the response, as already said, the discriminative stimulus must be characterized as a reinforcer for some behavior. Otherwise, another type of relation different from elicitation and reinforcement should be introduced, but this would imply renouncing explaining discriminative behavior in terms of operant behavior. To affirm that the relation between discriminative stimulus and response is not an elicitation relation does not suffice to conclude that the discriminative behavior is an operant behavior; it is necessary to place the discriminative behavior in the context of a reinforcement-based explication and, therefore, to characterize the discriminative stimulus as a reinforcer. What makes it possible to explicate this phenomenon in a unitary way within the reinforcement schema is the fact that the stimulus may function as a (secondary) reinforcer.

The (secondary) reinforcement property of the discriminative stimulus does not appear noticeably in the discrimination experiments. It is because of the experiment’s structure, which is designed to highlight the operations of reinforcement (and extinction) of a given behavior in the presence (or the absence) of a particular stimulus, not the behavior in relation to which the discriminative stimulus acts as a reinforcer. The experiment shows that when the bell rings, the rat runs towards the food; what is highlighted is the bell controlling the behavior of the rat running towards the food, but not the behavior reinforced by the bell. Given the very simplified experimental conditions, the latter is not a complex behavior; it solely consists in waiting for the bell to ring. The behavior reinforced secondarily by the bell can be highlighted only when the experimenter connects the lever to the bell: it consists in pressing the lever.

However, the discriminative stimulus always acts as a secondary reinforcer even when a specific behavior reinforced secondarily is not immediately evident. This reinforcing function allows the discriminative stimulus to be characterized within the reinforcement schema.» IT

(L’analisi scientifica del comportamento di scelta [The scientific analysis of choice behavior], I, pp. 145-147)

An example of secondary reinforcement: Cailletet's experiment on liquefaction of gases

«In 1877, Cailletet (a French physicist) carried out an experiment on the liquefaction of gases.. He thought acetylene could liquefy under a pressure of 60 atmospheres, but he was wrong because acetylene does not liquefy at 60 atmospheres. While he was experimenting, upon reaching 60 atmospheres, the equipment suddenly began to lose pressure due to a technical defect. Cailletet noticed that a mist of acetylene droplets immediately formed. He repeated the experiment and, again, noticed that the mist reformed as soon as the equipment began to lose pressure. Thus, he learned that a sudden decrease in pressure (after compression) causes acetylene to liquefy.

We can explain how Cailletet made his discovery in terms of secondary reinforcement. The primary stimulus S+ is the liquefaction of acetylene; the behavior R1 consists in compressing the gas up to 60 atmospheres; the discriminative stimulus SD is the defect of the equipment that causes the loss of pressure. We can therefore say that S+ (liquefaction of the gas) follows R1 (compressing the gas) only in the presence of SD (equipment defect). If there is not such a specific technical defect, S+ does not follow R1. Hence, S+ only reinforces R1 when SD is present.

The stimulus SD reinforced another behavior of Cailletet. It was necessary to produce a loss of pressure to obtain liquefaction with equipment without defects. Cailletet then built a valve by which he could lower the pressure at the right time. We summarize this situation with diagram 4.

In this experiment, the discriminative stimulus SD acts as a secondary reinforcer for the behavior consisting in building a valve (R2) by which the pressure can be lowered at the right time. This behavior is instrumental to the behavior consisting in liquefying the gas (R1) and, therefore, R2 is reinforced secondarily.»

Note. The history of the Cailletet’s discovery is reported in: K. Mendelsshon, The Quest for Absolute Zero: the Meaning of Low Temperature Physics, McGraw-Hill, 1966. IT

(Processo d’apprendimento e strutture ideologiche [Learning process and ideological structures], pp. 31-33)

An application of operant behavior principles: The programmed instruction

«In the present state of scientific research, programmed instruction is the only educational technology which surpasses the old pedagogic views, based on ideological stances and commonsense psychology; it is an outcome of the experimental laws of operant behavior. The experimental analysis of behavior carried out according to the rigorous methodological criteria of scientific research (using animals as experimental subjects) allows for the precise identification of the structure of the learning process. That also makes it possible to separate from the learning process all the spurious factors -such as punishment, anxiety, frustration, and conflict- which characterize, manifestly or latently, traditional teaching.

For learning to be achieved, it is necessary that: the student has an interest in learning; the teacher consistently reinforces, always and only positively, the student’s problem-solving behavior; the positive reinforcement follows right away the student’s correct answers. There is no need for punishments, obligation, peer emulation, conflict, disciplinary power, or personal detachment between teacher and student. The scientific analysis also shows that teaching must be carried out in a way that takes into account the student’s aptitudes and response times. Classroom teaching based on standardized learning paces set by the teacher, which seldom coincide with the students’ ones, leads to severe difficulties for students whose learning paces are lower than those set by the teacher. The blame is placed on students, who are subject to deep frustrations with negative repercussions on their personalities, even outside the school environment. However, the student’s learning difficulties are indeed effects of the discrepancy between teaching pace and learning pace.

It is a short step from these analyses to the operationalization of the experimental laws of learning.

Techniques providing for the student’s active engagement in the learning process have been developed based on the programming of contents to be transmitted. These contents are presented in ordered and logically consistent sequences, where all the steps are isolated and clarified by constructing deductive arguments which show all the possible implications of the subject matter. The educational program starts from the items most directly accessible to the students, given their cultural level, and pieces together the cultural contents to be transmitted by successive insertions of increasingly complex items, always rigorously and clearly defined.

The program proceeds through frames containing more or less large portions of information, depending on their place in the ordered sequence in which all frames are inserted. The opening frames of the program contain small portions of information; the ending frames contain large portions of information whose semantic contents can only be understood if one goes through the ordered sequence of all previous frames. Therefore, the order of frames is fundamental to the appropriate learning of the subject matter. No frame can be omitted, as they are all indispensable, being logically related to each other in a strictly deductive way. […]

Each frame presents the student with a portion of information and poses a problem, suggesting several alternative solutions, including the correct one. The student can solve each problem using only the information already obtained through the program, with no other information outside the program.

If the student chooses the wrong solution, a frame explaining the error is presented, and the student returns to the source point. Only after choosing the right solution can the student continue the sequence and face an additional problem to be solved. Thus, students learn individually and can adapt the learning pace to their abilities and problem-solving times.

The students who go through this kind of programmed instruction are led to choose the correct answer more frequently than the wrong answers. It is because the individual frames are ordered in a consistent logical sequence, and the information needed to solve each problem is all contained in the frame posing the problem and in the frames preceding it in the logical sequence. Moreover, students are reinforced positively, as they experience satisfaction in solving problems they are motivated to solve. They are told that the answer is correct, and the wording of the answer is repeated. Of course, positive reinforcement in a technical sense could also consist of social approval, such as approval from the teacher. However, this kind of reinforcer cannot be presented when the programmed instruction is administered through a “teaching machine” or book.

Furthermore, positive reinforcers are presented only in correspondence to the correct answer, which is always the last of the student’s answers. Wrong answers are never punished, not even verbally, and using the phrase “you were wrong” is avoided, too. Usually, students are invited to think about their answers, and the logical inconsistencies implicit in their choice are shown, together with additional elements that can help solve the problem. Thereby, the student’s learning process is not “disturbed” by a “wrong” answer; in this case, only a semantic segment is inserted in the process, which allows the student to delve into the logical arguments that lead to the correct conclusion of the sequence.

When the learning process is managed through a programmed-instruction technology, the role of the teacher changes because both transmitting cultural information and verifying their memorization are no longer necessary, whereas the programming of learning becomes relevant. The development of the program implies high levels of professionalism, not only in the subject matter but also in logic and the psychology of learning.» IT

(Problemi concernenti una campagna di promozione sociale contro gli incendi [Some problems on a social campaing against fires], pp. XLV-XLVIII)

Dysfunctional effects of punishment in educational institutions

«When the punishment is not strictly related to the specific objectives for which it should be used, severe social damage is produced: impaired learning processes, alteration (including significant pathological effects) of the personality of the subject punished (and the punisher), social interaction of a conflict-type, elicitation of disturbing emotional factors.

All current educational institutions, from family to school, conform uncritically to the customary use of punishment in a context of retaliation.» IT

(Il sequestro come fatto sociale [The kidnapping as a social fact], p. 195)

«We can point out the dysfunctional effects of punishment on the learning-teaching relation by considering two types of punitive processes: (a) punishing the student’s behavior named “not studying”; (b) punishing “not studying” and specifying a reward for some alternative behavior (where the student chooses it).

Suppose now that the student’s “not studying” is punished. If we assume the student does not have a motivation to learn, any form of behavior consisting in “studying” is necessarily instrumental to the mere interest in avoiding punishment, not to an interest whose satisfaction entails applying knowledge. Therefore, the student’s behavior being reinforced is simply memorizing the information transmitted by the teacher. We can say the student learns to memorize, the latter being an instrumental behavior in avoiding punishment; i.e., the student learns through the punishment process that memorizing is instrumental in eluding punishment […].»

«Only when a student has a motivation for knowledge, appropriate learning of the matter taught is possible, because only in that event studying is instrumental not in obtaining some extrinsic reward, but in realizing other behaviors which entail applying (operationalizing) the knowledge acquired.

Therefore, the difference between punishment associated with alternative behavior (which is positively reinforced) and mere punishment of the “not studying” behavior is the following: in the latter case, memorizing is instrumental only in avoiding punishment, whereas in the first case, memorizing is instrumental also in obtaining a reward extrinsic to the study. However, in both cases, simply memorization takes place, not any learning of the subject taught.» IT

(Processo d’apprendimento e strutture ideologiche [Learning process and ideological structures], pp. 36-37, 38)

Operant Behavior and the Social Environment

Social Interaction and Reinforcement

«All possible types of social interaction have to be explicated in terms of reinforcement, because the reinforcing stimuli for one subject’s social behavior sequences are, by definition, the behaviors of other subjects. As stated above, the set of social stimuli (the social environment) does not replace or remove the set of natural stimuli, but it widens the extent of control on behavior, determining a further constraint on the execution of instrumental sequences: in order that the subject can complete his sequence with the consummatory behavior, it is necessary that the instrumental behavior is compatible not only with the physical environment, but also with the social environment.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social science, pp. 332-333)

Social Stimuli and Natural Stimuli

«In this situation a new set of (social) stimuli joins with the (natural) stimuli of the physical environment. It follows that the discriminative stimulus SD for A is not only the presence of […] the natural secondary reinforcer, SDn, but also B’s instrumental behavior (response) […] RSB, where s stands for “instrumental.” In this case, actually, the second set of (social) stimuli does not remove the set of natural stimuli, but it does limit its range of control on behavior. […]

In the same way, the discriminative stimulus SD for B is not only […] the natural secondary reinforcer, SDn, but also A’s instrumental behavior (response) […] (RSA). […] These relationships for subjects A and B are outlined in figure 15.1.

Therefore, the social context puts further constraints on the execution of the instrumental sequences of the subject: it is necessary that the instrumental behavior, RS, is compatible not only with the natural (physical) environment (SDn), but also with the social environment (SDs) in order for the subjects to realize their consummatory behavior RC

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, p. 331)

Social Reinforcement

«For the purpose of analysis of the social interaction, only the relation (function) between the behavior of the subject and the social stimuli is examined. The natural environment is considered a parameter, taking for granted the presence of natural discriminative stimuli or secondary reinforcers. As a matter of fact, it is possible to suppose that an instrumental sequence takes place in a context which is characterized solely by physical-type variables and parameters (constraints) in the absence of any social variable and parameter, but it is by no means possible to suppose that an instrumental sequence takes place in the absence of physical-type variables and parameters.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, p. 332)

Herrnstein's experiment on social interaction

«The role of reinforcement within the social interaction is explicated in its structural invariants (applied, by definition, to all living organisms, including humans) through a very simple but significant experiment by Herrnstein (1964). The experiment is carried out with two pigeons, A and B, placed in a controlled environment and kept apart by a transparent wall. Pigeon A is previously trained to peck at a disk on the transparent wall and is reinforced with food (primary reinforcer).

The experiment is designed in order to let pigeon A receive food whenever it pecks at the disk, but only if pigeon B stands in the left corner of the experimental box with respect to A. If this situation (discriminative stimulus/secondary reinforcer) occurs, then B receives food too; but, if A pecks when B is anywhere else, then only B gets food. Since A’s pecking is reinforced only when B stands in the left corner, A learns to peck only when B stands in that specific position. On the other hand, B is progressively reinforced only when it stands in the left corner of the experimental box, since in that position both pigeons receive food. Therefore B, instead of moving, learns to maintain the most favorable position for the other pigeon and, consequently, for itself too.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, pp. 330-331)


Herrnstein, R.J. (1964). Will. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 108(6), 455-458.

Esperimento di Herrnstein sul comportamento sociale«This demonstration of one pigeon’s teaching another to do something was designed for amusement, and, hopefully, the enlightenment, of students in an introductory course in psychology. The demonstration is easy to construct and quite simple to describe, but it carries a principle that is far from plain to see, for our vision of it is almost hopelessly blurred by ancient misconceptions about behavior and the mind.» (p. 455)

«One can always invent an internal monologue for animal that seems to parallel the observed changes in behavior; but one’s empathic facility ultimately vanished, after one has seen often enough how directly the changes in behavior flow from the contingencies of reward and punishment, needing nothing more in order to be quite satisfactorily explained. … The will, which is the title of this talk, no longer finds place here except as it is the name we choose to give the natural law of behavior that we observe.» (p. 458)

Behavior science and economic behavior

«The hypothesis advanced in this chapter – that economic and social behaviors are learned behaviors – explains the non-conformity with theory of the results so far achieved by experimental economics. The general acceptance that these experiments still receive can be imputed to the error deriving from a misunderstanding of the distinction between scientific knowledge and common sense knowledge.

From the perspective of science, we can suppose that behavioral laws “exist,” but these latter are only learning laws and must not be confused with the environmental contingencies (i.e., the “contents” of reinforcement schedules) on which also economic behavior depends. At present, economics is constructed as a theoretical system, but without the experimental analysis of behavior it is not possible to understand the limits and the real significance of economics and to use properly (and not blindly, as currently tried) this system.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, p. 329)

«A “frictionless” experimental context would be necessary to verify the market equilibrium system, i.e., a context where all (learned) behaviors which are non-compatible with the principles of pure economic equilibrium are kept under control (like parameters) with reference to learned behavior. But such a context does not seem possible, neither with human subjects, nor (because of different reasons) with animals.

The behavioral interpretations ascribed to game-theory experiments point out this fact. In these experiments the convergence toward equilibrium (when it occurs) is usually based on the repetition of behaviors that give rise to a trial-and-error learning process. Such a process is driven both by the specific reinforcement contingencies and by the repetitive-trials procedure. Therefore, it is wrong to consider these arrangements as experimental verifications of economic dynamic functions formulated as equilibrium hypotheses inherent in the subjects’ behaviors (or brain). And it is also wrong to consider game experiments of this type, currently popular among economists, to be suitable for founding a new theoretical model for economics or, in general, for social sciences (especially in terms of trust and fairness). Whether people are selfish or altruistic is a matter of learning; subjects learn cooperation and conflict too (as in the zero-sum games, where players tend to the optimality of their conflicting strategies) during experiments. In short, when game-theory experiments, and in general all (cognitive) experiments of different types, are interpreted according to the behavioral (not behavioristic) perspective, they express assertions on the experimental-subjects’ (current or past) behaviors, but these assertions cannot be generalized to all subjects as a rule.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, p. 327)

«The term “impulsive behavior” has been used by behaviorists to provide an explication for some experimental deviations from an explanatory model founded on a strict rational concept of behavior in an economic sense. In particular, the postulate of transitivity that must characterize the (complete) preference preordering (in the language of Debreu: pp. 7-8, 54ff.): pp. 7-8, 54ff.) of a rational “agent” is often falsified with reference to human behavior and also by experimental verification on animal behaviors, as “the matching law predicts that as time passes the pigeon will change its preference (‘change its mind’)” and that consequently “the matching law, which does predict reversals, posits value as a hyperbolic (an inverse), not exponential, function of delay. Behavior is often inconsistent in just this way, says the matching law.” (Rachlin e Laibson 1997, p. 103)

On the topic of self-control, Rachlin and Laibson (1997) comment: “People who chose the larger-later are often said to be ‘controlling themselves’ (in the same sense that they forgo a smaller but still positively valued alternative). By the same token, if they choose the smaller-sooner alternative they are said to be ‘impulsive.'” (p. 101) In the same way Herrnstein (1977) states that “behavior is impulsive if it sacrifices long-range considerations for short-range gains; it is self-controlling if the reverse is the case” (p. 121). […]

All these experiments suggest that the instability of the transitivity of preferences, i.e., the assignment of value by a subject to his own behaviors over time, derives from the processes of learning (reinforcement). Therefore, it should be the social variables that determine preference ordering and its reversal, with special reference to the transitivity of the “is not preferred to” relation. In this sense, it can be said that the consistency among two or more sets of behaviors realized by, or that could be realized by, a subject or by a group, as far as they result from a learning process, implies that such learning occurs within a consistent context of external stimuli.»

(A new paradigm for the integration of the social sciences, pp. 324-325)

Structural dynamics and evolutionary dynamics

«The past history of individuals and social groups is a parameter in the functions explicating social facts, alongside the dependent and independent variables that characterize these facts in their current manifestation. For this reason, past events are not only pure relics entrusted to the cataloging of professional historians, but are a prominent element in the scientific explanation of social facts.»

«History studies past events in their individualized irreversibility. Social science assumes social facts either as parameters or as dependent or independent variables and inserts them into an explanatory model (characterized by a structural logic referring to functional relations between behaviors), assuming that the variables (and even more so the parameters) appear in the social context under consideration in a static way (i.e., they do not express a possible range of variation: this is the case of so-called static equilibrium). Alternatively, social science assumes the social fact in its structural or evolutionary dynamics.

Structural dynamics expresses those processes that entail either a change in function values followed necessarily by a reestablishment of initial values (this is the case of so-called stable equilibrium) or a change in function values that leads necessarily to values different from the initial ones (this is the case of so-called unstable equilibrium). The evolutionary dynamics does not concern the fact (considered as a set of relations between behaviors) in its individualization but the change of the function within which the fact appears as an independent variable, a dependent variable, or a parameter; namely, it refers to a change in the relation between a given fact and other facts.

All phenomena are characterized by a structural-functional logic, which can be expressed in static structural models or dynamic structural models, but also by a different dynamics that shifts the perspective of analysis to the logic of evolutionary change.

In natural (physical) phenomena, the two perspectives–structural dynamics and evolutionary dynamics–can be separated and examined in-depth as distinct, with relative ease. In behavioral phenomena (concerning operant and respondent behaviors and, in particular, personality, learning, culture, interests, and social facts), a clear distinction between the two perspectives requires greater depth of analysis. When learning is taking place, different factors or the learning itself can influence the structural and the evolutionary (cumulative) dynamics of the functionIT

(G. Bolacchi, Il sequestro come fatto sociale [The kidnapping as a social fact], pp. 104, 105-106)

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