Understanding Control, and Hope for a Better Future

“The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever. It is not allayed by disguising the facts. We cannot make wise decisions if we continue to pretend that human behavior is not controlled, or if we refuse to engage in control when valuable results might be forthcoming. Such measures weaken only ourselves, leaving the strength of science to others. The first step in a defense against tyranny is the fullest possible exposure of controlling techniques. A second step has already been taken successfully in restricting the use of physical force. Slowly, and as yet imperfectly, strong man is not allowed to use the power deriving from his strength to control his fellow men. He is restrained by a superior force created for that purpose- the ethical pressure of the group, or more explicit religious and governmental measures. We tend to distrust superior forces, as we currently hesitate to relinquish sovereignty in order to set up an international police force. But it is only through such counter-control that we have achieved what we call peace- a condition in which men are not permitted to control each other through force. In other words, control itself must be controlled.” -B.F Skinner, “Freedom and the Control of Men”

This quote taken from B.F Skinner’s “Freedom and the Control of Men” stood out strongly to me more recently than it has before. It is both a warning, and in a sense, an optimism for the future to reign in force and better understand science. “Freedom and the Control of Men” is a title that, at first, comes across as very antiquated and a little tone deaf in the word usage, but was very much written as both a critique of its time, and also geared to the readers of the future. “Men”, in this usage, refers to humankind, and not a particular sex. In it, Skinner carefully takes into account the period of time in which it was written in the United States in 1955, but an optimistic view of the future- and speaks to the reader about the topic of control, and how “tyranny” can hide in an atmosphere of democracy. He speaks to future readers directly. Coercion, violence, and disproportionate uses of these were very much alive in 1955 as forms of control, and unfortunately for us readers of today, are apparent still. Force and violence to control a population were spoken of as something to be left in the past, something to overcome as a society. Control that needed to be controlled itself. It is one of B.F Skinner’s lesser known works, but hold points that still underpin very much of the behaviorist views of a better world through science, not violence or ignorance. He did not shy away from the idea that there is a purpose in aiming for perfection, perfection is not impossible, but is not easy to attain either even in democracy. A message of humanitarianism driven by science. It is not ingrained, it is taught, shaped, and practiced. The painful realization for modern readers is that we have not come far at all from 1955.

In this piece, Skinner speaks to us in “Footnotes for the reader of the future”, which I found to be helpful and an insightful way to see that this was a piece of its time, but was also intended not to stagnate back there. It was meant to give a grounding in the period which this early behavioral science came from. B.F Skinner believed in the improvement of the future through behavioral science; a belief that I think most people who study psychology or are interested in it, believe too. Things can be better if we just strive to understand them. “Freedom and the Control of Men” was not meant as a guidebook in stamping out freedom, or forcing people to follow a path, but rather to help understand that control exists outside of the connotations of coercion. There are good forms of control that help bring order, and progress and “designing a new cultural pattern”, but also to understand that there are forms of control that can hold all of that back and grasp at power for selfishness, or indoctrination. If we do not understand both how good control, and the more selfish forms control work, designing a better future is a very difficult task. Only through science can an understanding of control be explored which is not skewed by propaganda or ideological misuse. Skinner poses a question that stands out, and serves as the underlying point to his piece:

“The question is this: Are we to be controlled by accident, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?”

Effective cultural design is something that B.F Skinner explores in many of his works, even in the fiction of Walden Two, but always has an equitable and positive aim for humanity. Behavior change that leads to a better world where the malevolent, violent, or selfish forms of control are not used on the populous for behavior change. Misuse of power, which is described in the quote at the start of this essay, is something Skinner warns us repeatedly about, and something I believe many of us may still see in abundance around us today. As Skinner puts it, it takes an ethical and well thought out process to effect this change through science. But even in 1955 there were opponents to the idea of science as the means to work out change. In “Freedom and the Control of Man” Skinner references two works revolving around this point: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to describe the general ideas of human “cussedness”, or the idea that people would reject control, even an ethically guided and scientific implementation of it through effective cultural design. At the time of its writing, Skinner references an idea of a human innate refusal of control, and a new forming fear of scientific dystopian futures arising from even the most basic forms of behavioral conditioning. Skinner poses that control exists, either by accident, by tyranny, or by a more scientific and ethical cultural process regardless.

I recommend to everyone to read “Freedom and the Control of Men”, “Notes from the Underground”, and “Brave New World”. Skinner’s ideas truly tie together nicely here with the referenced works understood as he intended. For brevity, I will put the “Piano keys” reference of Dostoevsky below, which Skinner uses to relate the common idea that humans would innately refuse all control, which would stand in the way all efforts to improve human behavior:

“…out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary– that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object–that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated–chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point!”- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

We see this all the time. Rebellion against any hint of new regulation or advice, no matter what the intent as noble or admirable. This belief still remains popular in culture today as much as it was when Skinner referenced it in 1955. There is still a belief that no matter how ethical the goal; be it wearing a face mask to reduce the risk of disease transmission, or taking advice to better oneself, there is an innate need to rebel no matter what the cost and damage it wreaks- and that the rebellion is the natural and right thing to do. Or, taking Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” wherein social and environmental engineering only lead to a world where people serve as cogs in a machine with very little imagination or will of their own. It was not ethical, it was tyrannical. Rebellion, in a sense, glorified as right no matter the cost. Behavioral science, and any control itself, was bad. Skinner believed that there was more to science than that. Science was a tool, and could be used for negative ends just as positive ends, but it could be used positively.

Skinner believed that behavioral science could be used to understand control, not as a form of “brain washing” or “fooling with the machinery in the human head”, but as a way to step forward and away from the very real and existing systems of the past that hold people back today. “Freedom and the Control of Men” was written with hope that the democratic philosophy that many of us know could either use science as a strength to move forward to a better future, or risk falling back into the very tyranny and violence that it was meant to overcome. In Skinner’s words:

“If Western democracy does not lose sight of the aims of humanitarian action, it will welcome the almost fabulous support of its own science of man and will strengthen itself and play and important role in the building of a better world for everyone. But if it cannot put its “democratic philosophy” into proper historical perspective- if, under the control of attitudes and emotions which it generated for other purposes, it now rejects the help of science- then it must be prepared for defeat. For if we continue to insist that science has nothing to offer but a new and more horrible form of tyranny, we may produce just such a result by allowing the strength of science to fall into the hands of despots.” – B.F Skinner “Freedom and the Control of Men”.

In 1955, these words came a decade after World War II ended, a rise of cultural and governmental attitudes towards communism, and at the very spark of the civil rights movement. There is certainly historical context that needs to be applied when reading it too, and the meaning behind this piece holds enduring hope and truth, in my opinion, about what science, especially behavioral science can bring to the world. Ignorance of control, praising the use of violence as a form of control, or holding too tightly to the notion that rebelling against even the safest forms of control, is human nature may only lead to a repeat of history in which no one benefits.

I hope you have a chance to read the works above, and take as much enjoyment and reflection as I had.


  1. Huxley, A. (1998). Brave new world: Aldous Huxley. New York, NY: Spark Publishing.

2) Dostoyevsky, F. (1993). Notes from the underground. New York, NY: Vintage Classics.

3) Skinner, B. F. (1999). Cumulative record. Place of publication not identified: Copley Pub. Excerpt: “Freedom and the Control of Men”

Comments? Questions? Leave them below.

Did Cognitivism Beat Behaviorism?


Some hold firm to the idea that the division between behaviorism and cognitivism is a vast divide; where there is a winning theory and a losing theory. You’ll hear them- “Behaviorism died decades ago!” and “Thoughts about thoughts? That’s just unprovable mentalism!” shouted from entrenched believers until they are blue in the face. There may be some salient historical details that explain why they feel that way; behaviorism (arguably) replaced many of the mentalism and introspective psychological methods well into the 20th century. Then, some would say that the behaviorist movement was halted by Chomsky’s rebuttal of B.F Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior” and the rise of the 1960’s “Cognitive Revolution”. The deep division could be argued as unbridgeable. As someone who was not practicing at the time of these contrasting theories coming to a head; I always wondered what it would have been like. Did everyone see it as a giant butting of heads? Did all the researchers and scientists find themselves marked on either side? Are the loud entrenched voices of today just echoes of the past that haven’t been resolved? If so, how did cognitive behavioral therapies do so well blending the two perspectives? There had to be more than just a line in the sand. Enter Terry L. Smith, and his book “Behavior and it’s Causes”- relating the exact sentiment which I was so curious about.

“I had (just like everyone else) read Kuhn (1970), and so almost reflexively interpreted cognitive psychology and behavioral psychology as competing paradigms (see Leahey, 1992, for a discussion of how common, and mistaken, this interpretation is). Cognitive psychology was clearly on the rise, so I inferred that the Skinnerian program must be on the decline. Indeed, I thought it must have disappeared by now… What I discovered was that during the 1960’s, the Skinnerian program had actually grown at an accelerating rate. This baffled me. How could operant psychology have survived and even prospered in the midst of “the cognitive revolution”?”

-Smith (2011).

How could that be? Terry L. Smith’s book explores this topic, speculates on some great points, and comes to several strong conclusions. I won’t spoil it for you aside from one- “Operant psychology” as Smith calls it, separated itself from being tied down to every philosophical tenet of Radical Behaviorism. It was Radical Behaviorism, in Smith’s view, that had taken the beating because it was too rigid on what it would allow to be studied, and cut too much out of what could be considered the study of behavior. This was a fascinating point, to me, since I had already studied what B.F Skinner had done with Radical Behaviorism to broaden it from Methodological Behaviorism (ie. private events). We’ve heard this one before, right?

“Radical Behaviorism does not insist upon truth by agreement and can therefore consider events taking place in the private world within the skin. It does not call these events unobservable”- Skinner, 1974

This was one of the larger distinction B.F Skinner made from Watson’s methodological approach which was strictly focused on observable stimuli and responses. If we take Smith’s interpretation on what “operant psychology” is today; it goes even further from radical behaviorism by cutting the divide and seeing itself within the broader breadth of psychology as a whole. This rings true for me when I speak to the behaviorists and practitioners I see in the field- there is still that aversion to “mentalism”, but the focus on the observational thrust that comes from Watson’s strict view is mainly practical- data collection is best done when people can see and define what they track. The behaviorist tradition still lives on in the practice of Applied Behavior Analysis, for example, but Skinner’s written word is not taken as a biblical truth; the components of the philosophy and science that propelled behavioral psychology to continue to progress are still empirically validated. They are scientific findings. The ones that work and do the most good remain.

This is Smith’s main point on “operant psychology” during the “cognitive revolution”; it continued on stronger than before on its own steam because the findings were strong and reproducible. While Chomsky, and other cognitivists, had made some compelling points on the limitations of Radical Behaviorism as an idea and philosophy; it did not undercut the behavioral science as a whole. The practices, techniques, and ideas of both Methodological and Radical behaviorism that came through in the empirical work remained. The broader reaching philosophy that might limits on the science with no empirical backing? Not so much.

Keep in mind that during the “cognitive revolution” beginning in the 1960’s- research in brain mapping and neurobiology had come a long way from the days when Watson, Pavlov, Thorndike, and Skinner began their work. Behavioral theory had been running strong for the beginning of the 20th century, and was now met with convergent findings. Both had their uses, and the ideas that did not refute one another but did overlap when it came to the theories. Internal processes were becoming more understandable through the biological discoveries; which some strict behaviorists may have misinterpreted as just another form of mentalism. That’s a hang up that did not help them. On the other hand, some cognitivists still thought all of behaviorism was comparing humanity to basic stimulus-response (S-R) machines. Another misunderstanding, another hang up. My interpretation is that people fought over those illusory extremes. Those were the voices that screamed the loudest but at the same time were the most misguided on what was actually happening. I equate this to the kind of thing we see on the internet- the “strawman arguments”, where someone constructs an exaggerated facsimile of their opponents’ ideas and tears those down rather than confronting what is actually said. It creates an easy target, but does not actually represent the reality. Strict behaviorists get some things right. Strict cognitivists get some things right. Sometimes…just sometimes… both groups get things wrong too! Surprising, right? That is how anything based in theory and following the scientific method actually works.

Maybe Terry L. Smith is on to something. Maybe we consider ourselves all a part of Psychology with a capital P, and put our findings and theories out there. The right ones that can empirically and reliably help people will be the legacy.

To be fair though, I am not completely in the objective virtuous middle; I’ve read Noam Chomsky’s review of Verbal Behavior and believe he missed the point.

Thoughts? Likes? Comments? Questions? Leave them below.


Chomsky, N. (n.d.). 4. A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. The Language and Thought Series. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674594623.c6

Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

Smith, T. L. (2011). Behavior and its causes: Philosophical foundations of operant psychology. Dordrecht: Springer.
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Why we don’t always prompt: Behavior Analysis meets Vygotsky.


In the early 20th century, there was a developmental psychologist named Lev Vygotsky working on theories of learning and development in parallel to many of the behaviorist traditions. If you were to ask a graduate student taking behavior analytic courses who Vygotsky was, they would most likely shrug their shoulders and wonder why that was important. He isn’t Watson. He isn’t Pavlov. He isn’t Thorndike. He isn’t Skinner. He isn’t Lindsley. So, why would a behaviorist ever want to care? Well, it’s because his work ties in so closely to the behaviorist tradition, that you could in some cases use his terminology and frameworks interchangeably and still see the same results. His work can help clarify why we, as behavior analysts, trainers, educators, and even parents, should not prompt every single time we see a child begin to struggle with an endeavor or task.

To an educator or professional following the behaviorist tradition, it’s not all that hard to describe. Prompts help the learner reach a reinforcement threshold that that their response likely could not have reached on its own. Shaping- describes a process by which an emergent behavior which is similar in some way to a target behavior, is reinforced by successive approximations to become the terminal target behavior. Basically, it’s taking an “okay” behavior attempt, and rewarding the behaviors that look closer to improvement until it’s “perfected” enough to reach more naturalistic reinforcement in the broader environment. To a behaviorist, that means looking at what the learner has in their repertroire, what they can do right now, and plan to reward the responses that improve that towards some end goal response. But wait, how exactly do we know when to intervene? And why don’t we intervene every time we see the learner encounter difficulty?

The trouble with that is that sometimes a learner does not actually learn from being prompted too much. Sometimes that reinforcement only contacts the amount of effort the learner expends to receive prompting. Sometimes they become dependent on those prompts, and then it is the educator doing the behavior, and the learner receiving reinforcement. They don’t improve because they have no need to improve. They get the prize every time their educator does it for them. That behavior that the educator prompts, might never transfer through modeling. Why should it, if the reinforcer comes anyway? This is where Vygotsky comes in. Vygotsky believed that there is a Zone of Proximal Development.

Lev Vygotsky was not a behaviorist. In many ways, he was against the methodological behaviorism that was popular at the time which focused on purely observable stimulus-response relationships. Vygotsky also believed that learning was not just a process that drew from a present environment of contingencies, but a broader wealth of cultural and societal forces that accumulate through generations and have impacts that were not directly related to the behaviors at hand. However, when it comes to the Zone of Proximal Development, his theories coincide with what behaviorists would conceptualize as both repertoires and the necessary thresholds for prompting. Vygotsky believed that there was a level at which a learner could successfully accomplish tasks without assistance, and a level at the other end of their developmental range that they could not accomplish without considerable help in the form of prompting. Between that, however, was a zone where a learner could accomplish them with some collaboration and prompting and eventually surpass it to a level of independence. It’s a zone that is in many ways different from individual to individual, but within that zone of proximal development; prompting (or collaboration as he called it) was at its most effective.

Think of it like this:

Zone of the learners “actual” development Zone of Proximal Development The limit of their current developmental ability
These are responses that the learner can perform, and tasks that the learner can complete without any assistance from others. These are tasks and responses that the learner can accomplish with the assistance and prompting of others.

These are tasks and responses that are beyond the learner’s ability to accomplish and can only be produced with considerable support and assistance.

*Behaviorist Footnote:
Think of this as the responses already in the learner’s repertoire. These are “easy”.
*Behaviorist Footnote:

Think of this as the area of “shapable” responses that are likely to lead to independent future responses. Vygotsky called this “scaffolding” but the process of “shaping” is synonymous.

*Behaviorist Footnote:

The client can be prompted through these tasks, but are unlikely to be able to reproduce them even with shaping procedures at this time.

This framework delineates an interesting range where a learner needs and could use the help of an educator or teacher to help prompt them, and when not. In the initial range, prompting is unnecessary and might actually hinder the learner from engaging in those responses in their most independent forms. The learners who can engage in the “easy” responses and find that reinforcement in the broader environment would be more likely to occur in the future. Prompting too much here could stifle that. In the next range, the Zone of Proximal Development, as Vygotsky calls it; prompting could actually be of the most use! These are responses that are viable for occurring and reaching natural reinforcement, but they just need a little help at first to get there. Here, prompting in the form of modeling or shaping could help the learner take their initial responses and bring them to their terminal and most effective independent forms. This is the exciting part. This zone is where the work put in by the educator and teacher could meet maximum return on what the learner can benefit from. Now, we have to be careful not to reach for the moon here. The final zone is where, even with prompting, the learner is unlikely to be able to shape their responses successfully. This, for example, is trying to teach a learner to run before they can walk. They need those foundational responses before they can even be prompted to a more advanced terminal response. An educator who comes across this scenario might be wise to dial the expectations back.

Between those two ranges of “easy” and “unlikely”, we find the responses that can be prompted for the most good. We would not prompt too much, and stifle the learner’s ability to contact reinforcement on their own, but nor would we fail to prompt at all, and miss those responses or behaviors that just need a little push. This is where a behaviorist, teacher, educator, or even parent, can take a thing or two from Vygotsky’s work. And if you’re a tried and true behaviorist who can’t believe that a cognitivist would be mentioned here, I’d suggest an open mind. You might even be surprised about the similarities between Vygotsky and Skinner on private events and “inner speech”. We can touch on that later, but for now, think about the zone of proximal development in your life and practice; what could use a little help?

Likes? Comments? Questions? Leave them all below!


Burkholder, E. O., & Peláez, M. (2000). A behavioral interpretation of Vygotsky’s theory of thought, language, and culture. Behavioral Development Bulletin,9(1), 7-9.
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The Lawfulness of Behavior


This is one of the big concept pieces seen in Applied Behavior Analysis, and Behaviorism in general. The Lawfulness of Behavior. What does that mean, exactly?

Let’s pick the concept apart. To be lawful, something has to follow some kind of order.

It comes from the philosophy of Determinism in which behavior, like any other natural phenomena, is affected and caused by external events, including its history; and that behavior is something that can be studied, just like other natural phenomena. Behavior follows rules, and can impact and be impacted by other phenomena that we can observe and track. The Lawfulness of Behavior is a foundational precept of behavioral science, and has roots in one of B.F Skinner’s earlier and seminal works “Science and Human Behavior” where he states:

“Science is more than the mere description of events as they occur. It
is an attempt to discover order, to show that certain events stand in
lawful relations to other events. No practical technology can be
based upon science until such relations have been discovered. But
order is not only a possible end product; it is a working assumption
which must be adopted at the very start. We cannot apply the methods
of science to a subject matter which is assumed to move about
capriciously. Science not only describes, it predicts. It deals not only
with the past but with the future…If we are to use the methods
of science in the field of human affairs, we must assume that behavior
is lawful and determined. We must expect to discover that what a
man does is the result of specifiable conditions and that once these
conditions have been discovered, we can anticipate and to some
extent determine his actions.” (Skinner, 1951).

That was just in the first ten pages of the book too. Imagine, if you are not already, reading that concept for the first time. It is a strong statement to make about humanity. The same scientific method and principles which can reasonably predict an object falling to gravity, can understand and predict human behavior as well. That is, behavior, is lawful. Science itself has been known to have three main purposes; Description, Prediction, and Control. It’s a process. It’s how we test and replicate our hypotheses about the world.

For this to work, the universe has to be a lawful, orderly place where everything occurs as a result of other events. Events occur because they have had factors leading up to them that contribute to a change, or action (or inaction). The universe around us, then, is not completely random. It is not a bed of chaos where anything and everything can happen at any minute without order. In science, the scientist assumes lawfulness first and then moves on to find the lawful relations between variables. This process, according to Skinner, can be applied exactly the same way in behavior.

With enough understanding: Behavior can be described. Behavior can be predicted. Behavior can be controlled.

The idea of the Lawfulness of Behavior has, and has had, some critics. When taking this principle and thinking about the free will of human beings, we can begin to see some discrepancies between the two. If behavior is subjected to the same laws as anything else, is determined by cause and effect, and it can be described, predicted, and controlled; what might that mean for the place of true independent choice and personal agency? What about something that can not be observed, like a thought, or a dream.

Take a thought, for example. Can an external observer describe a thought in someone else’s head? No. Then how could they predict something like a thought? Control something like a thought? It sounds impossible.

Behaviorist philosophies, such as methodological behaviorism, and radical behaviorism, both see ideas and thoughts as what are called “private events”. Methodological behavioral philosophy refuses to tackle these as legitimate phenomenon, as they are seen as tangential to external causes of behavior which are much more reliable at prediction. Radical behavioral philosophy, coined by B.F Skinner, do not deny “private events” specifically in scientific exploration, but they consider them behavior that can not be seen by outside observers. They exist, have impact, just as any behavior, but can not be studied as reliably as an event that can have multiple observers. Also, as a behavior, ideas and thoughts can come under the same lawfulness and order as any other phenomena, just more difficult to objectively observe.

What do you think?



Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (2012). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.