Excerpt: 'Animals in Translation'

For the behaviorists this was no great loss, since, according to them, environment was the only thing that mattered.

Some animal behaviorists took this idea to the extreme by teaching that animals didn't even have emotions or intelligence. Animals only had behavior, which was shaped by rewards, punishments, and positive and negative reinforcements from the environment.

Rewards and positive reinforcers are the same thing: something good happens to you because of something you did. Punishment and negative reinforcement are opposites. Punishment is when something bad happens to you because of something you did; negative reinforcement is when something bad stops happening to you, or doesn't start happening to you in the first place, because of something you did. Punishment is bad, and negative reinforcement is good. Punishment makes you stop doing what you're doing, although a lot of behaviorists believe that punishing a bad behavior isn't as effective as rewarding a good behavior when it comes to getting an animal to do what you want him to do.

Negative reinforcement is the hardest to understand. Negative reinforcement isn't a punishment; it's a reward. But the reward is negative in the sense that something you don't like either stops or doesn't start in the first place. Say your four-year-old is screaming and crying and giving you a headache. Finally you lose your patience and blow up at him, and he's shocked into silence. That's negative reinforcement, because you've made the crying go away, which is what you wanted. Now you're probably more likely to blow up at him the next time he starts a tantrum, because you've been negatively reinforced for blowing up at him during this tantrum.

Behaviorists thought these basic concepts explained everything about animals, who were basically just stimulus-response machines. It's probably hard for people to imagine the power this idea had back then. It was almost a religion. To me -- to lots of people -- B. F. Skinner was a god. He was the god of psychology.

It turned out he wasn't much of a god in person. I met B. F. Skinner once. I was probably eighteen years old at the time. I'd written him a letter about my squeeze machine, and he'd written me back saying what impressed him was my motivation. Which is kind of funny when you think about it. Here was the god of behaviorism talking about my internal motivation instead of my behavior. I guess he was ahead of his time, since motivation is a hot topic in autism research today.

After I got his letter I called up his office and asked if I could come see him. I wanted to talk to him about some of the research I had done.

His office called and invited me down to Harvard for a visit. It was like going to see the Pope at the Vatican. Dr. Skinner was the most famous professor in all of psychology; he'd been on the cover of Time magazine. I was very nervous just about walking up to see him. I remember walking to William James Hall and looking up at the building feeling like "This is the temple of Psychology."

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