Monday, September 26, 2011

Bruno Littlemore Critiques Skinnerian Behaviorism

B.F. Skinner

In The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, Benjamin´╗┐ Hale has his main character Bruno -- the chimp with a mind of his own and a chip on his shoulder -- offer a critique of Skinnerian Behaviorism ostensibly directed at the character Norman Plumlee, the novel's strict behaviorist who wants to teach Bruno human language using rewards and punishments. At first, food is used, and Bruno retrospectively explains its limitation:
[T]his system was . . . pretty much in place at the lab, where the immediately gratifiable desires of my stomach apparently ruled, because they were all that could be methodologically counted on. If I did not always want a sticky delicious little piece of candy to put inside me, then Norm's whole silly Skinnerian system of positive reinforcement for desired behavior would fall apart. Which it often did! The problem with Norm's dogmatic insistance on his methodology of rewarding my behavior with food was that sometimes I didn't really want the reward. I just wasn't hungry. (page 133)
To his credit, Norm realizes that he needs a reward that transcends the moment, so he introduces Bruno to "some notion of, basically, money" (page 134) by giving him money to buy things with. Not real money, just play money. Play money that worked exactly like real money. Play money as colored chips in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 100. No fifty-cent piece, apparently, but otherwise just like American money:
When Norm was reasonably sure I understood the chips' value relationships, my rewards in the lab were no longer doled out in the form of raw goods, but in liquid holdings, with these idiotic colorful chips that I could later use to purchase food items from the company store, when I wanted something to eat. (page 134)
This works, more or less, but I have a question. How did Norm use a "Skinnerian system of positive reinforcement" to teach Bruno the 'notion' of money? Aside from the problematic point that a Behaviorist shouldn't attribute a 'notion' to a mere animal (remember the "black box" theory of mind?) -- and also the even greater inconsistency of a Behaviorist, who would in principle forbid "anthropomorphizing" animals, being intent upon turning a chimp into a human being -- what, exactly, did Norm use as reward for Bruno in teaching him to understand the concept of money? The lab was turning to money because food didn't work consistently enough as positive reinforcement, so what reinforcement was used to reward Bruno's progress toward the proper use of those hard-frozen chips of liquid currency? Perhaps Norm was inconsistent and had to violate Behaviorist principles for a few weeks but neglected to report that in the research results? Bruno, however, ought to let us in on the secret!

That point aside, if you like Ben Hale's satirical deconstruction of Skinnerian Behaviorism, you might also enjoy his comic account of "Gnome Chompy" . . .

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At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here I am again, commenting on your 2nd "Bruno" post. This is a very good question, I'd say. Again, one for Ben to answer if anybody! I guess I might surmise, that maybe Norman was beginning to realize that things were not normal with Bruno, and that he was going have to (or, going to have the luxury of being able to) treat Bruno like a "real human" intellectually, and thus could take the abstract leap to "money". Or something like that. I'll definitely relay to Ben in Costa Rica! --Pete

At 5:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ben's in Costa Rica? He actually sent me an email. Did it emanate from there?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you received it within the past ~ 4 weeks, then yep that's where it came from. He'll be there another ~ 4 weeks, then back to Brooklyn.

At 7:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, I got it a few days ago. When I couldn't reach you, I tried him -- but found you meantime through LinkedIn.

Jeffery Hodges

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