Back in the '50's, when I was a student and then a young Instructor at Harvard, Sigmund Freud's theories of human personality, which were enjoying a considerable [and, in my opinion, deserved] reputation, were challenged by the school of Psychological Theory known as Behaviorism, of which the Harvard professor B. F. Skinner was the leading exponent. It was the contention of Skinnerian behaviorists that they could give a completely adequate explanation of even the most complex behaviors without reference to internal thought processes, conscious or unconscious, restricting themselves solely to observable stimuli and responses. According to Skinner, human behavior, like animal behavior, could be regulated by schedules of positive and negative reinforcement [rewards and punishments], such as pellets of food for chickens or pigeons. In the laboratory, Skinner's disciples were able to achieve such wonders as conditioning a chicken to play perfect games of tic-tac-toe. Skinner himself viewed his theories as beneficent, since they taught that desired results could be achieved by properly constructed schedules of positive reinforcement, without the need for punishment at all. Some readers of this blog may be familiar with the enormous stir created by Noam Chomsky's scathing review, in 1959, of Skinner's attempt in Verbal Behavior to explain language acquisition by Behavioral Theory.
In those days, an urban legend was making the rounds in Cambridge, Mass. about a malicious game devised by some of Skinner's more reprehensible students. According to the legend, they would go to a student party and spot a shy, anxious, socially awkward young man [of whom, at Cambridge parties in those days there was sure to be an adequate supply], and they would observe him quietly until they spotted some distinctive bit of socially unacceptable behavior that he exhibited, such as picking his nose. Then they would position themselves around the room, and as soon as he moved his finger to his nose, they would all smile broadly at him for a moment. [This was the positive reinforcement.] By the end of the evening, it was said, they would have him touching his nose again and again, like a pigeon pecking a key that released a pellet of food. The poor young man would be utterly unaware that he had been "conditioned by a schedule of positive reinforcement."
Readers of this blog may have noticed that I have a rather embarrassingly compulsive need for encouragement from my readers in the form of the comments appended to blog posts. Periodically, I express my dismay with the enterprise of blogging, exhibiting a pathetic desire to be reassured that my efforts are not falling on deaf ears [or, perhaps more accurately, on blind eyes.] I think I have developed this tic as a consequence of a lifetime in the classroom, where one is constantly rewarded with reactions from one's students -- laughter at a joke, a groan when an exam is announced, the shy smile from the quiet young woman the back row who never speaks in class but seems to understand one's subtlest points and most obscure references. None of these "positive reinforcements" are available in the blogosphere, where even the identity of one's readers may be concealed behind bizarre web handles.
I shall soldier on, confident that someone out there is reading me. When I grow anxious and feel unappreciated, I shall consult Google's statistics, which faithfully record every visit to this page. How strange we humans are.