Higher Mental Processes

Skinner (1974) admitted that human thought is the most difficult of all behaviors to analyze; but potentially, at least, it can be understood as long as one does not resort to a hypothetical fiction such as "mind." Thinking, problem solving, and reminiscing are covert behaviors that take place within the skin but not mside the mind. As behaviors, they are amenable to the same contingencies of reinforcement as overt behaviors. For example, when a woman has misplaced her car keys, she searches for them because similar searching behavior has been previously reinforced, hi like maimer, when she is unable to recall the name of an acquaintance, she searches for that name covertly because this type of behavior has earlier been reinforced.

However, the acquaintance s name did not exist in her mind any more than did the car keys. Skinner (1974) summed up this procedure, saying that "techniques of recall are not concerned with searching a storehouse of memory but with increasing the probability of responses" (pp. 109-110).

Problem solving also involves covert behavior and often requires the person to covertly manipulate the relevant variables until the correct solution is found. Ultimately these variables are environmental and do not spring magically from the person s mind. A chess player seems to be hopelessly trapped surveys the board and suddenly makes a move that allows his marker to escape. What brought about this unexpected burst of "insight"? He did not solve the problem in his mind. He manipulated the various markers (not by touching them but in covert fashion), rejected moves not accompanied by reinforcement, and finally selected the one that was followed by an internal reinforcer. Although the solution may have been facilitated by his previous experiences of reading a book on chess, listening to expert advice, or playing the game, it was initiated by environmental contingencies and not manufactured by mental machinations.


How does the radical behaviorist account for creativity? Logically, if behavior were nothing other than a predictable response to a stimulus, creative behavior could not exist because only previously reinforced behavior would be emitted. Skinner (1974) answered this problem by comparing creative behavior with natural selection in evolutionary theory. "As accidental traits, arising from mutations, are selected by their contribution to survival, so accidental variations in behavior are selected by their reinforcing consequences" (p. 114). Just as natural selection explains differentiation among the species without resorting to an omnipotent creative mind, so behaviorism accounts for novel behavior without recourse to a personal creative mind.

The concept of mutation is crucial to both natural selection and creative behavior. In both cases, random or accidental conditions are produced that have some possibility of survival. Creative writers change their environment, thus producing responses that have some chance of being reinforced. When their "creativity dries up," they may move to a different location, travel, read talk to others, put words on their computer with little expectancy that they will be the finished product, or try out various words, sentences, and ideas covertly. To Skinner, then, creativity is simply the result of random or accidental behaviors (overt or covert) that happen to be rewarded. The fact that some people are more creative than others is due both to differences in genetic endowment and to experiences that have shaped their creative behavior.

Unconscious Behavior

As a radical behaviorist, Skinner could not accept the notion of a storehouse of unconscious ideas or emotions. He did however, accept the idea of unconscious behavior. In fact, because people rarely observe the relationship between genetic and environmental variables and their own behavior, nearly all our behavior is unconsciously motivated (Skinner, 1987a). In a more limited sense, behavior is labeled unconscious when people no longer think about it because it has been suppressed through punishment. Behavior that has aversive consequences has a tendency to be ignored or not thought about. A child repeatedly and severely punished for sexual play may both suppress the sexual behavior and repress any thoughts or memories of such activity. Eventually, the child may deny that the sexual activity took place. Such denial avoids the aversive aspects connected with thoughts of punishment and is thus a negative reinforcer. In other words, the child is rewarded for not thinking about certain sexual behaviors.

An example of not thinking about aversive stimuli is a child who behaves hi hateful ways toward her mother. In dohig so, she will also exhibit some less antagonistic behaviors. If the loathsome behavior is punished it will become suppressed and replaced by the more positive behaviors. Eventually the child will be rewarded for gestures of love, which will then increase in frequency. After a time, her behavior becomes more and more positive, and it may even resemble what Freud (1926/1959a) called "reactive love." The child no longer has any thoughts of hatred toward her mother and behaves in an exceedhigly loving and subservient manner.

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