One of the most exciting classes I took in college was Psych 101, in which I was introduced to the ideas of B.F. Skinner. In a nutshell, Skinner believed that individuals do not create their own lives through free choices, but are created by their culture and its system of punishments and rewards.
For the first time in my life, I saw the obvious truth that had I been reared by different parents or in a different culture, I would have become a different person. Even something I thought of as precious as my religion was more or less trained into me. I wasn’t as free as I imagined.
Professor K, a passionate Skinnerian, played tricks on us to make us question our belief in free will. Once he told those in the class who believed in free will to hold a pencil high in the air. Then he said, “On the count of three, everyone will drop their pencils to the floor. One, two, three.” Silence. Not a pencil dropped. Then Dr. K asked a student to open a sealed envelope he had given him before class. The student read the note aloud: “On the count of three, everyone will be holding their pencils in the air.”
In rat lab, we conditioned the rats according to rewards and punishments (food pellets and electric shock), and although rats aren’t human, I was impressed by the possible parallels. We saw how making a rat suffer a punishment to get a reward created neurotic symptoms, such as twitching and shaking. We saw how overcrowding rats created deviant behavior: from sadism to lethargy. We learned how secondary reinforcements (the sound of a bell before the administration of a shock) could make the actual punishment finally unnecessary in controlling behavior.
The principle of intermittent reinforcement was especially fascinating to watch enacted. The more the rat had to work for his reward, the stronger the rat’s behavior was conditioned and the harder it was to extinguish. If you made a rat press a bar once or twice to get a reward, the rat’s attraction to the bar was minimal. But if you slowly built up the rat’s persistence to get its reward on the 50th bar press, the rat was more under your control and much easier to train to various other behaviors.
Best of all, however, was to set up a reward schedule that was unpredictable as well as intermittent: for example, to reward on the 50th try most of the time, but to throw in an early reward now and then. Now the rat became an abject slave to the conditioned behavior.
Light bulbs flashed in my young mind. Of course, a child can whine for hours and become a chronic whiner because finally he gets what he’s whining for in order to shut him up. Lovers are more attractive when they aren’t easy, when they don’t come around so often; and the faithful, regular lover becomes a bore, taken for granted.
It happened at the time that my high school sweetheart had recently broken up with me in pursuit of an old rival, a man she could never conquer. Training a rat, I saw that I had been laboring under the illusion that faithful attention was what a lover really wanted. And it also became clear to me how she still held me in thralldom for on occasion, intermittently, irregularly, she would visit and exhibit a pellet or two of vulnerability.
The next time she called. I told her I didn’t want to hear from her again. I was amazed at the intensity of her protest, and in a few weeks I had extinguished her powers over me altogether. Here was a college class that was helpful in real life.
I was so fascinated with Psych 101 that on the midterm exam my score went off Professor K’s statistical charts. When he called me into his office for a conference, I thought he might compliment me and invite me to major in psychology. But instead, he accused me of cheating. He said he had looked up my high school and college records, and that it was one in a million for me to have made that score.
I said I had not cheated, rather had gotten excited by the materials, particularly behavior-conditioning theory. Nonetheless, he said that unless I matched, or nearly matched, the score on the final, he was not going to count it.
It was a weight on me for the rest of the semester, but it turned out I did come reasonably close. I thought I might receive an apology, but I didn’t. Next semester I declared my major in literature.
Professor K, known all over the campus as a powerful recruiter of the best students, never encouraged me. I think he believed more in scores and records than in his own powers of inspiration.
When I saw him at my college’s 25th reunion last year, he was just retiring. He didn’t remember me when I shook his hand, but I thanked him for opening up my mind in his terrific Intro to Psych course.
“Teachers often don’t realize the impact they have on their students,” he said, trying to remember me, but unable.
“No, they don’t,” I agreed.