Skinner and Deprivation: Reply

[FROM: Dennis Delprato (930106)]

(Bill Powers (930105.2130))

Did Skinner ever face the problem of the specificity of the
relationship between deprivation and reinforcement? Why is food
deprivation the best way to make food a reinforcer, water
deprivation the best for making water reinforcing, exercise
deprivation the best way to make ... etc. ? And, of course, the
converse of these questions: why does free access to food, water,
exercise, etc. make these things, specifically these things in
1:1 correspondence, less effective as reinforcers?

I am fairly certain he would invoke evolution. When the organism
is deprived of certain opportunities (to eat, sometimes exercise...),
it is more likely to eat, be active... when given the opportunity
than under conditions of nondeprivation. "In the evolutionary
sense this 'explains' why water deprivation strengthens all
conditioned and unconditioned behavior concerned with the intake
of water" (Science and Human Behavior, 1953, p. 142). Also,
ontogenic factors can come into play, e.g., conditioning or
"history of reinforcement."

You say "he viewed deprivation procedures as simply controlling
variables (= variables of which behavior is a function) in his
terminology." Did he never suspect that there was a pattern here?
Didn't it ever occur to him that something is reinforcing BECAUSE
of deprivation? Of course that would have led him into deep
waters, philosophically, because he would have had to see that
lack of something is a deprivation only if the organism wants it
and actively (spontaneously!) seeks it out. You can deprive a
fish of air indefinitely without making air reinforcing to a

I intepret him as taking the position that one way to make
an object or activity reinforcing is by way of deprivation.
Thus, his theory agrees with the statement that something is
reinforcing (functions as a reinforcer) because of deprivation.
The level of deprivation is an environmental variable
that an experimenter can manipulate as an independent variable.

He would object to adding that deprivation leads to a want
that in turn enters into the control of behavior. To him,
want is an inner cause that is of no use in predicting
and controlling behavior. He would ask how would we
produce a want, how do we know what the organism wants?
Only by environmental manipulations and/or observations
of overt behavior. And he might go on and point out that
want is a prescientific concept that his experimental
analysis of behavior finds unnecessary to go about the
job of understanding behavior.

Note the relevance of phylogeny (in Skinner's view) to the
fish case.

Dennis Delprato
De Psychology
Eastern Mich. Univ.
Ypsilanti, MI 48197