Solving what problems? The pattern Skinner missed; statistics

[From Bill Powers (930105.2130)]

Greg Williams (920105 - 2) --

I echo Rick's sentiments: it would be nice to know what questions
conventional psychologist are trying to answer concerning human

It seems to me that they aren't trying to answer questions of
that kind at all. Mainly what they want to know is how people
will behave under specific circumstances and influences. As there
is no legitimate general answer to any question of this kind,
they are forced to settle for population statistics, an estimate
of what the average person will do under average conditions, all
else being equal. All else, of course, is never equal in any
specific instance of behavior, nor is any specific person the
average person. Therefore the predictive power of any answers to
such questions approaches zero. It is not, however, EXACTLY zero,
as one can prove by doing another population study and getting
roughly the same result. This modest degree of success appears
sufficient to keep generation after generation of psychologists
energized and convinced that they are making some sort of

I have no interest in this kind of question, not even as a way of
convincing psychologists that control theory is important. What I
want to know is how human control systems work. I want to figure
out what is common to all human beings, regardless of
circumstances. I want to know how we perceive the things we
perceive, at all levels. I want to know how perceptions of one
kind figure into perceptions of more general kinds, and how
people manage to control them, and what for. Specific instances
of behavior under specific circumstances are useful only to the
extent that they reveal common types of controlled variables;
only that kind of information will help us to understand human
nature in any general sense.

If I were to explain these interests to any conventional
psychologist (as I have tried to do more than once), the reaction
would be one of bafflement: why do you want to know that? What
good will it do? Why don't you study what people actually do? My
answers to such questions are simply incomprehensible. I am
looking for answers that will actually resolve human
difficulties. They are not, but think they are.


Dennis Delprato (930105) --

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?
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 can't understand how Skinner could have been so incurious.
Avery Andrews (930106.1341) --

... a possibly useful distinction that I've been mulling over
is that between `macro-phenomena' and `micro-phenomena'.
`Macro-phenomena' are the big, noticeable things that people
start out wanting to understand. Such as our ability to use
language to give and receive directions about how to go places,
or to use our hands so as to get our breakfasts into our faces
rather than on them. `Micro-phenomena' are the fiddly little
details that experiments are directed at, which aren't
intrinsically interesting to anybody, at least at first, but
which tend to turn out crucial to getting real insight into the

To me, it seems that most people are involved in the fiddly
little details and ignore the big obvious problems. Problems like
"How can I know what I want to say and then actually say it?" Or
"How can I cook a breakfast and not be surprised by what I end up
eating?" Or "How can a person drive 20 miles through traffic
every day and end up in the same parking spot?"

We take the big obvious control processes for granted, not asking
how they can possibly keep working like that, and instead are
concerned about the fiddly details of which action we tend to use
under various circumstances. I think that it's not just the
fiddly detailed experiments that give us insight (although that's
where we usually start, I agree). There's also the phenomenon of
looking at the commonplace and seeing something going on that
everybody else takes as just the way the world is.
Martin Taylor (930105.1800) --

... it seems to me that the testers are justified in being
happy that (more people survive the cancer longer| more
students can read the instructions in a manual| more people are
happy using the isntrument), even if the differences are
measurable only statistically. It's a question of whose
control systems are you worrying about, the tester's or the

Precisely. The insurance company cares earnestly about the
statistical effects of hazardous substances or conditions. The teacher cares
(or if certain policies are carried out, will come
to care) about turning out class after class that scores high, as
a population, on national tests. Mass statistics apply to masses.

The individual, however, is well-advised to avoid being part of
such mass systems, because the tradeoff is never in the
individual's favor. Aspirin may have a measurable effect in
reducing heart attacks in a population, but for any individual
the cost of the aspirin is probably greater than the expected
benefit. Never participate in testing of any kind for a job or
for educational opportunities, if you can help it: you have far
more to lose than to gain. Testing was not devised for the
benefit of the individual, but for that of the person or
organization dealing with large numbers of individuals and that
is not adversely affected by a few misjudgments, however
devastating such misjudgments may be for the testee.

Best to all,

Bill P.