Skinner on “Behavioral Processes”
“You can’t foresee all future circumstances, and you can’t specify adequate future conduct. You don’t know what will be required. Instead you have to set up certain behavioral processes which will lead the individual to design his own ‘good’ conduct when the time comes. We call that sort of thing ‘self-control.’” – Walden Two by B.F. Skinner, p. 96
The “self-control” Skinner describes in this 1948 publication resembles teaching dogs to make good choices. Choice-based training involves reinforcing a variety of behaviors in a dog’s early life to build a rich behavioral repertoire. This menu of reinforced behaviors helps the dog make good choices in the varied situations of his future life. The dog’s owner or guardian doesn’t have to constantly tell the dog what to do because productive routines and a repertoire of good behaviors guide the dog’s choices. This is exactly how our virtual basic manners class works, with great outcomes for dogs and their owners.
Applications of Choice-based Training
It’s useful and fun to train dogs to do things on cue, like “sit” or “lie down.” But it’s highly productive to have a dog choose to assume one of those positions when his owner gets in line at the pet store, arms full of items to purchase. Why would a dog do such a thing? He does it because sitting and lying down have become behaviors he’s good at; behaviors that are comfortable to him. Dogs choose behaviors that owners have reinforced. A dog can be taught to sit or lie down on cue. His owner can also reinforce with a treat when the dog chooses to sit to greet a friend or to lie down while his owner talks on the phone.
It’s wonderful to go for a walk with a dog in an off-leash area and watch him come running back to check in every few minutes, all on his own. Why would a dog do that? Because his owner has given him a treat when the dog came running, hundreds of times in the past. The dog owner who realizes that a dog’s choice to come running replaces many other behavioral choices will reinforce the recall with the best treats and then encourage the dog to go back out to explore further. Choice-based training sets up the “behavioral processes” Skinner described and leads the dog to “design his own good conduct when the time comes.”
Learning Behavior Principles through Fiction
About 10 years after Dr. B.F. Skinner published his discovery of Operant Conditioning, he wrote the words above in Walden Two. He was speaking of humans but behavioral principles apply to dogs and all animal species. Consider reading Walden Two. It’s about a fictional utopian community built on behavior principles. Members of the community are comfortable and relaxed. They contribute to society and support the progress of their community as a whole. They also pursue their own choices in education and self-expression. All the behavior principles are there. It’s exciting to recognize their uses in a human application, and helps deepen understanding of each principle and its importance.