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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

#Behaviorism and Scrutiny by John von Daler


                 Recently I sat talking with a number of friends who, unlike me, know something about psychology and the various schools of thought connected to it. In connection with another subject someone mentioned in passing that Behaviorism is dead. Now for me that is the intellectual equivalent of saying that Donald Duck has gone on to greener ponds, if I may coin a phrase.

                Anyone who went to Princeton and who took courses related to psychology had to dip his feet in the Behaviorist puddle. I did, several times. So I was disconcerted to hear that my cantankerous old friend had passed on.
                I remember so well the little pink-nosed rat given to me by our white-robed teacher along with the little, devilish box complete with electric shock, a food lever and metal bars, like a little jail for wayward rodents. Under the disguise of scientific experimentation we were to plague these creatures until they had enacted a little living metaphor about reward and punishment. Mine participated a while and then just wandered over to one of the free corners of his cage and sat in a kind of neutral king's x until the few weeks of the experiment were finished. This allowed me for those weeks to write, "Subject unresponsive" on my weekly score sheet. I dare not speculate as to his fate after he left my keeping.
                One of our few ratless experiments had to do with interpreting images. We were divided into groups of two and asked to go through a stack of cards, each of which had some kind of design within a frame inscribed on it. My partner, who knew the answer, was to turn the cards slowly, one at a time. I was supposed to figure out what connected the cards.
                I concentrated as hard as I could, because the lab assistant had announced that those who had guessed the secret connecting element could leave the class for the day. It was sunny outside and my partner and I fancied a game of frisbee. I put my face right down close to each card as my friend turned them, speculating on all kinds of aesthetic, cultural, sexual, popular, philosophic links. Every time I came up with a new theory, my partner just shook his head. Nope, red and blue lines do not mean negative and positive interpretations of the same space. No, there is no sexual connection between the designs. No, no, no, he said again and again, looking out the window at the dwindling afternoon.
                My response to these failures was of course to concentrate even harder. After an hour or so had passed and most of the rest of the class was gone, I was still bent over, scrutinizing every card as closely as I could. Finally the assistant came over and liberated us from our agony. We could go, he said, and gave me a sharp look.
                Walking home, I of course had to hear what the connecting element had been. My friend, who by now looked both tired and disgruntled, answered with ill-concealed irritation: The frame, you idiot! The design in the middle was different almost every time. The only thing that connected the pictures was the number of borderlines in the frame, one, two or three!
                Sometimes you can concentrate too hard. Sometimes, as they say, you don't see the forest for the trees. Sometimes it might be better to just get up, walk over to a neutral corner, and sit quietly there until the problem disappears by itself. Like my rat. Take me. I've waited these almost fifty years, and now Behaviorism is gone, on to greener ponds as it were. But I'm still here, scrutinizing.



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