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Methods and theories in the experimental analysis of behavior

  • B. F. Skinner (a1)


We owe most scientific knowledge to methods of inquiry that are never formally analyzed. The analysis of behavior does not call for hypothetico-deductive methods. Statistics, taught in lieu of scientific method, is incompatible with major features of much laboratory research. Squeezing significance out of ambiguous data discourages the more promising step of scrapping the experiment and starting again. As a consequence, psychologists have taken flight from the laboratory. They have fled to Real People and the human interest of “real life,” to Mathematical Models and the elegance of symbolic treatments, to the Inner Man and the explanatory preoccupation with inferred internal mechanisms, and to Laymanship and its appeal to “common sense.” An experimental analysis provides an alternative to these divertissements.

The “theories” to which objection is raised here are not the basic assumptions essential to any scientific activity or statements that are not yet facts, but rather explanations which appeal to events taking place somewhere else, at some other level of observation, described in different terms, and measured, if at all, in different dimensions. Three types of learning theories satisfy this definition: physiological theories attempting to reduce behavior to events in the nervous system; mentalistic theories appealing to inferred inner events; and theories of the Conceptual Nervous System offered as explanatory models of behavior. It would be foolhardy to deny the achievements of such theories in the history of science. The question of whether they are necessary, however, has other implications.

Experimental material in three areas illustrates the function of theory more concretely. Alternatives to behavior ratios, excitatory potentials, and so on demonstrate the utility of rate or probability of response as the basic datum in learning. Functional relations between behavior and environmental variables provide an account of why learning occurs. Activities such as preferring, choosing, discriminating, and matching can be dealt with solely in terms of behavior, without referring to processes in another dimensional system. The experiments are not offered as demonstrating that theories are not necessary but to suggest an alternative. Theory is possible in another sense. Beyond the collection of uniform relationships lies the need for a formal representation of the data reduced to a minimal number of terms. A theoretical construction may yield greater generality than any assemblage of facts; such a construction will not refer to another dimensional system.



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Methods and theories in the experimental analysis of behavior

  • B. F. Skinner (a1)


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