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April 14th, 2011 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 472 views | Send article | Print this Article |

By Robert DePaolo


This article discusses a subtle, but influential sub-ideology that became entrenched in American Society several decades ago and continues to influence virtually every aspect of American life, including child-rearing, education, economics, communication and personal development. It is encompassed in the operant conditioning paradigm, whereby “positive reinforcement” is wielded as a social panacea and a means of putting an incongruously happy face on growth, learning, creativity and social responsibility. The argument here is that in general terms such a method has been unsuccessful and that it is at odds with how minds, bodies, and nature itself operate.


We arguably live in a time when criticism, long the precursor to excellence, is viewed as an ineffective, perhaps even crass approach to dealing with children. To an extent this is understandable, particularly as the distinction between adult and child becomes less clear with each generation. In previous times adults told children what they were expected to do and guided them accordingly. The presumption of authority enabled parents, coaches, teachers and even the clergy to exert fluidly their influence on the child. Adults did not have to prove themselves to children through the excruciating mental gymnastics that go with building trust, establishing relationships or reaching the child. Not that those things weren’t important. They just weren’t required.

Instead for the most part the child was groomed and prepared to listen. It was a system designed around the incontrovertible idea that adults generally know more than children about life and the consequences of behavior. As a result, adults did not have to work so hard and children had the security of knowing they had access to a reliable consultant – even if at times they did not agree with his or her advice.

Modern times have been harder on adults who must first establish “credibility” in what amounts to a reversal of a tried and true teaching method. In effect the nature of authority has changed – it is now more like reciprocity e.g. you do for me and I’ll do for you…and the relationship between adults and children is now more parallel than authoritative. Under such conditions, criticism – that is, appropriate, didactic criticism – is more difficult to dispense and receive, which makes teaching more difficult.

Over time the duress inherent in that social evolutionary process cried out for a solution, specifically a control mechanism that would enable adults to forego the trappings of authority while still imparting lessons to the young.

That device was discovered and employed sometime around the late sixties when a rose-colored, quasi-humanist philosophy took hold in American society, featuring the ubiquitous use of positive reinforcement and ushering in what I shall refer to here as the operant society,

The idea emanated from the mind of theoreticians and researchers generally referred to as “behaviorists.” While behaviorism actually began with Pavlov’s studies on classical (or respondent) conditioning – a process that provided grist for the Soviet collectivist-communist mill – the American movement began with the work of John Watson and B.F. Skinner. Their method differed from that of Pavlov. The latter sought to demonstrate that learning occurred via increasingly complex associations between stimuli (1927). The experiment in which he conditioned a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell (the bell having been presented just prior to the presentation of food in trial runs) led him to believe that the mind was much more pliable that had been presumed. Pavlov was adamant in his opposition to communism but his discovery seemed to support Marx’ and Engels’ notion of scientific socialism by suggesting man could be easily and justifiably conditioned to believe in any political system.

Pavlov had no political inclinations so he can hardly be faulted for the oppression that engulfed the Soviet Union for the next 70 years. He saw himself as a scientist rather than an ideologue and his life’s quest was not to change the world but to map the human brain.

Watson and Skinner were much more than scientists. The former believed so much in the behaviorist model that he used it to try to extinguish a fear of rats in an 8 month old boy. While a much more humane and scientifically pristine individual, Skinner also attempted to apply behaviorism in a broader social context. In his book, Walden Two, he put forth the vision of a controlled operant community that made many advocates of a free society take pause.

That takes nothing away from his achievements. Some of his methods were used successfully to teach disabled individuals and the elderly. In certain circumstances the use of positive reinforcement schedules to shape behavior can be effective. However even within those populations it can come at a cost. When applied in a broader social context, the cost is and has been considerably higher.

Unlike Watson, Skinner was almost exclusively concerned with positive reinforcement and while seldom regarded as a prominent social philosopher his impact on modern mores has been substantial. He offered his method as a feel-good version of control, a feedback-based Utopia. It was well received by some for its sheer simplicity but others saw an ominous level of complexity in its repercussions. Ayn Rand described Skinner’s second book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity as “a sociological Frankenstein patched together with nuts and bolts from the graveyard of philosophy”(1972).

Yet his method and the ideology encompassed within it have arguably reshaped the American zeitgeist more than any other throughout its history. As a result, Skinnerian language now permeates American society. Words like, “positive” “feedback,” “gentle teaching,” phrases like “good job,” “well done”, and “nice work” echo in homes, public schools and playing fields.

Operant conditioning caught on because it purported to offered solutions. At the time Beyond Freedom and Dignity came out more women were in the work force, spent less time with their children and needed a way to at once assuage guilt and have maximal impact on their child’s development. “Positives” provided the answer. Teachers – baby boomers who started the whole rebellion thing…don’t trust anyone over thirty… now had to reap what they had sewn. It took the form of a generation of kids disinclined to trust adults. “Old” became tantamount to ”stupid” and “square,” making the teaching process awkward at best. Once again “positives” offered a solution. American society continued to evolve in a scientific direction and operant theory was research-based. To all those guilt-ridden parents and overwrought teachers and coaches it offered a conflict-free methodology that would surely lead to a society of high achieving, self-assured, internally driven young adults without neuroses.

After over forty years it is perhaps time to evaluate the efficacy of this trend and the overall progress made by America’s well-supported, minimally punished and criticized children.


If, as behaviorists suggest, the best way to reach and teach a child is to catch him being good and provide positive reinforcement then the Skinnerian thesis could be considered the most important movement/philosophy in American history. This is not hyperbole. Since a democratic society requires maximized citizen production, creativity, motivation and pro-social values a behavior enhancing method would be not just important but also quintessentially patriotic.

While it is difficult to prove or disprove such a general assumption, statistics on crime and education are revealing. While parents and teachers undoubtedly praised their children back in the early 60s the extraordinary emphasis on positive controls as per the operant culture did not begin until much later. Skinner’s seminal book Beyond Freedom and Dignity wasn’t published until 1971. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book on child rearing was published much earlier but while he recommended a show of respect for the child in lieu of punishment he did not outline a specific methodology – certainly not one as simple as providing positive reinforcement for any desirable behavior.

In that context one can compare crimes rates in the US to see whether the post 70s operant zeitgeist or the pre-operant (critical-guidance) zeitgeist was more conducive to positive behavioral outcomes.

A glance at the numbers is indicative. Poverty was much higher in 1960 than in 1990. Yet the fraction of Americans who committed a crime back then was 1 out of 59. In 1990 it was 1 out of 17. With respect to violent crimes the numbers are just as staggering. In 1960 the percentage of violent crimes committed per person was .0016. In 1990 it was .06 – a rate 37 times greater than in 1960. Certainly other factors besides an overly positive zeitgeist are involved in criminal behavior; for example population dynamics. Yet more Americans were approaching adolescence and young adulthood in 1960 than in 1990. Those are the age groups most involved in criminal activity. Moreover many more anti-social stimulants were in play in 1960 than in 1990. The culture was being inundated with musical rebels. Films celebrated and described the teenage life style as part para-social existential entity and part glorified alienation. A great many students had read Catcher in the Rye (published in 1951) yet comparatively few of them resorted to criminal behavior. While no scientific conclusions can be drawn from this it seems clear that the widespread use of positives in recent times has not made for an improved behavioral environment.


Another avenue of exploration is education. If positives work and are liberally dispensed in public schools shouldn’t that have impact on student achievement? Much has been written about America’s underachieving students. Some international comparisons are unfair because studies don’t take into account the sample selection of students in other countries who take the tests. However one study did correct for that variable (Forgione 2011) and yielded the following results.

American students finished in the middle of the pack internationally in science and math by the time they reached fourth grade.

American students finished in the bottom third internationally in science and math by the time they reached 8th grade.

American students finished last among the 26 countries in science and math by the time they were graduated from high school.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that operant methods cause low achievement. In fact American students have never been at the top of the list, going back as far as 1964. However if positive reinforcement was truly effective one might expect a comparative rise in achievement over the past forty years. Such has not been the case.

Consequently one can say that in two crucial areas the use of positives has not made any real difference. Indeed if one were to ask (Regan-like) whether today’s students are better off than they were forty years ago the answer would have to be in the negative.


Meanwhile a glance at the history of great accomplishments seems to indicate that achievement can often result, not from positives but from hunger fueled by negative experience. With the possible exception of Freud, whose mother showered him with praise and referred to him as “Mein Goldener Siggy” (Grubin 2002) many achievements throughout history have been driven by hurt, rejection and insecurity.

Even Freud, who stated that his mother’s attention was important, also wrote that his drive to excel was driven more by anti-Semitic attitudes he encountered as a youth.

For others the circumstances were much clearer. Fear, derived from failures in early youth fueled the ambitions and development of athletes like Michael Jordan, whose entire Hall of Fame speech revolved around “coaches who said I wasn’t good enough,” as well as Jesse Owens, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Wilma Rudolph Ward – the last of who suffered disease-related injuries and could barely walk as a child, only to dominate the women’s sprints at the 1960 Olympics. It includes many figures from the world of science, for example Einstein. Stephen Hawking and Galileo – whose father berated him for enrolling in Vallembrosa a monastery school, then pulled him out and became his private tutor. (Reston, 2000)

Politics is also replete with individuals who had to learn to control negative circumstances; for example myriad deaths in Thomas Jefferson’s family, a stuttering problem for Sir Winston Churchill and FDR’s bout with polio.

While this does not prove there is a direct correlation between duress and success it certainly refutes the notion that avoidance of duress through positive inundation leads to personal development and significant accomplishment.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain is to say that positive feelings, especially as derived from positive reinforcement, obey an appetitive mandate. In order to gain pleasure one must first experience some degree of deprivation. Satiation has no bearing on the drive to achieve.

Interestingly, one fact seldom mentioned is that the animals in Skinners studies were initially deprived of food and water; the presumption being that learning could only occur in response to a state of agitation. In that sense even the staunchest positive reinforcement paradigm had to pivot off a negative set of circumstances.


The fact that Skinner needed negative precursors to prove the efficacy of positive reinforcement theory is not surprising. The brains and bodies of his subjects that orchestrated those behaviors are part of nature which operates primarily (some would argue exclusively) through a negative feedback mechanism.

At face value that probably sounds absurd. After all, we’ve all been led to assume that praising someone can have a positive impact. Many of us have seen it happen. From another perspective it seems less absurd.

To explain further; it is important to bear in mind that negative feedback is not synonymous with punishment or aversions – though they are typically involved in the process. Negative reinforcement is actually a reward process, whereby one acts in a way that avoids or attenuates an aversive situation. This is often called by other names; for example tension reduction, cybernetics/error correction and poly-stability (Patten & Odum 1981), (Arbib 1984) (Pickering 2010). The process begins with the detection of an error, which could be something as human as a pain signal or something as mechanical as a drop in room temperature registered on a thermostat. The homeostatic mechanism of the body, the neuro-chemical transmission process in the brain, weather patterns, gravitational forces, nuclear forces – all function according to an error detecting/error correcting format. In other words the inherent language grammar of nature is not positive but negative. it consists of an obligatory initial statement; “something’s wrong. There’s a disruption in the system that must be resolved.”

The intent here is not to refute Skinner’s work, merely to qualify it. In essence we live in a negative feedback world where “positives” are really just confirmations that a corrective action has ameliorated a negative set of circumstances. In other words, for positive reinforcement to work requires an initial state of deprivation.

That would explain why it works with some children but not others. For it to work requires an a priori state of need or agitation whereby the learner is uncertain of his status, the quality of his performance, the acceptability of his behavior, others’ opinions of him. By not allowing our children to experience duress, emotional deprivation, and depleted confidence from time to time we might well be stifling their growth, development and ultimately their potential contributions to society.

This is hardly a new idea. Seligman (1975) offered a learned helpless model of depression suggesting that those with a history of working through negative circumstances tend to be less prone to depression. In a different context, Lazarus (1999) has suggested that controllable stress – termed eustress – is necessary in the development of a health personality and can indeed become a pleasurable state of mind.

To the average American living in present times the conclusions offered above will undoubtedly be perceived as crass, possibly cruel or downright wrong. For decades we have been inundated with information proffered by social scientists indicating (in the most adamant terms) that punishment does not work. As a result positive reinforcement has become the new mantra, a modern version of the Ten Commandments whittled down to a single idea – that behavior is a function of its consequences.


In light of the above discussion the reader might view this article as espousing return to an old fashioned, punitive method of child rearing. While punishment is necessary in certain circumstances for certain children, that is not the point. If a new zeitgeist were to take hold it might be based not on punishment but on a more parsimonious use of “positive feedback”, aso that the can develop the hunger, become agitated and ultimately profit from occasional feedback. The process is a bit like monetary inflation – the more there is of it the less its value.

Beyond that, holding back support for the child would force internal assessments, so that perhaps over time the child would become more self-motivated, self regulated and bound by conscience. Since a free society must and should preach the value of self-reliance this might comprise a better approach. And lest staunch behaviorists cringe at the thought, it bears mention that even Skinner found that the most motivating, sustaining schedule of reinforcement was variable, i.e. delivered at low, unpredictable rates. Thus the same behavioral science that first attracted parents and teachers to the operant method could enable them to pull back and guiltlessly allow the child to experience periodic stress and uncertainty as prerequisite to learning and guiding the development.


Arbib, M (1987) Brains, Machines and Mathematics. Springer Publishing Company.

Blake, R. (1997) Churchill; Pocket Biographies. Stroud. Sutton Publishing

Freud on Mother-son relationships. Quote: “I have found that people who know they are preferred or favored by their mother give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshaken optimism which often brings actual success to their possession.” Excerpt from Film Documentary Dr. Freud by David Grubin aired on PBS 2002)

Lazarus, R. (1999) Stress and Emotion; A New Synthesis. New York, Springer Publishing Co.

National Education Statistics. 2011 One Line Article by Pascal Forgione PhD. Commissioner of Educational Statistics.

Patten, B.C. & E.P. Odum (1981) The Cybernetic Nature of Ecosystems. The American Naturalist, 118, 886-895

Pavlov, I (1927) An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex. Oxford University Press.

Pickering, A (2010) The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. University of Chicago Press.

Reston, J (2000) Galileo; A Life. Beard Books

Seligman, MEP, (1975) Helplessness; On Depression, Death and Development. San Francisco. W.H. Freeman

Skinner; BF (1972) Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York, Vintage Books

Spock, B (1946) The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare. Duell, Sloan & Pearce Pub Co.

The Ayn Rand Letter. Vol. 1, No. 8 Jan 1972

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