Wk4 discussion

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Consider: Imagine that you were invited to participate in Walter Mischel’s experiment called the “marshmallow test” when you were a child (age 3, 4, or 5). Predict how you would have responded (at age 3, 4, or 5) to the marshmallow test (which used different candies, crackers, and snacks, not just marshmallows).

Respond to all three questions in 175+ words (total).

  1. Would you have been able to exercise willpower, self-regulation, and delayed gratification (at age 3, 4, or 5)? Why or why not? 
  2. What techniques did you use or (in reflection) should have used to delay gratification?
  3. Based on your (hypothetical) response to the marshmallow test, what might Skinner’s Behaviorist theory have to say about your childhood personality? Incorporate these 2 terms in your response:
  4. Social control – Ch. 16, p. 519
  5. Self-control, Ch. 16, p. 520

1187326 – McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US) ©


Like Erich Fromm, each of us is controlled by a variety of social forces and techniques, but all these can be
grouped under the following headings: (1) operant conditioning, (2) describing contingencies, (3) deprivation and
satiation, and (4) physical restraint (Skinner, 1953).

Society exercises control over its members through the four principal methods of operant conditioning:
positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and the two techniques of punishment (adding an aversive
stimulus and removing a positive one).

A second technique of social control is to describe to a person the contingencies of reinforcement.
Describing contingencies involves language, usually verbal, to inform people of the consequences of their not-
yet-emitted behavior. Many examples of describing contingencies are available, especially threats and promises.
A more subtle means of social control is advertising, designed to manipulate people to purchase certain
products. In none of these examples will the attempt at control be perfectly successful, yet each of them
increases the likelihood that the desired response will be emitted.

Third, behavior can be controlled either by depriving people or by satiating them with reinforcers. Again, even
though deprivation and satiation are internal states, the control originates with the environment. People deprived
of food are more likely to eat; those satiated are less likely to eat even when delicious food is available.

Finally, people can be controlled through physical restraints, such as holding children back from a deep ravine
or putting lawbreakers in prison. Physical restraint acts to counter the effects of conditioning, and it results in
behavior contrary to that which would have been emitted had the person not been restrained.

Some people might say that physical restraint is a means of denying an individual’s freedom. However,
Skinner (1971) held that behavior has nothing to do with personal freedom but is shaped by the contingencies of
survival, the effects of reinforcement, and the contingencies of the social environment. Therefore, the act of
physically restraining a person does no more to negate freedom than does any other technique of control,
including self-control.

Physical restraint is one means of social control.
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1187326 – McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US) ©

If personal freedom is a fiction, then how can a person exercise self-control? Skinner would say that, just as
people can alter the variables in another person’s environment, so they can manipulate the variables within their
own environment and thus exercise some measure of self-control. The contingencies of self-control, however,
do not reside within the individual and cannot be freely chosen. When people control their own behavior, they do
so by manipulating the same variables that they would use

1187326 – McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US) ©

sexual fantasies and to actually inflict damage on an enemy are two behaviors likely to be associated with
punishment. Even to covertly think about these behaviors may have punitive effects, but in dreams, these
behaviors may be expressed symbolically and without any accompanying punishment.

Social Behavior
Groups do not behave; only individuals do. Individuals establish groups because they have been rewarded for
doing so. For example, individuals form clans so that they might be protected against animals, natural disasters,
or enemy tribes. Individuals also form governments, establish churches, or become part of an unruly crowd
because they are reinforced for that behavior.

Membership in a social group is not always reinforcing; yet, for at least three reasons, some people remain a
member of a group. First, people may remain in a group that abuses them because some group members are
reinforcing them; second, some people, especially children, may not possess the means to leave the group; and
third, reinforcement may occur on an intermittent schedule so that the abuse suffered by an individual is
intermingled with occasional reward. If the positive reinforcement is strong enough, its effects will be more
powerful than those of punishment.

Control of Human Behavior
Ultimately, an individual’s behavior is controlled by environmental contingencies. Those contingencies may have
been erected by society, by another individual, or by oneself; but the environment, not free will, is responsible for

Social Control
Individuals act to form social groups because such behavior tends to be reinforcing. Groups, in turn, exercise
control over their members by formulating written or unwritten laws, rules, and customs that have physical
existence beyond the lives of individuals. The laws of a nation, the rules of an organization, and the customs of a
culture transcend any one individual’s means of countercontrol and serve as powerful controlling variables in the
lives of individual members.

A somewhat humorous example of both unconscious behavior and social control involved Skinner and Erich
Fromm, one of Skinner’s harshest critics. At a professional meeting attended by both men, Fromm argued that
people are not pigeons and cannot be controlled through operant conditioning techniques. While seated across a
table from Fromm and while listening to this tirade, Skinner decided to reinforce Fromm’s arm-waving behavior.
He passed a note to one of his friends that read: “‘Watch Fromm’s left hand. I am going to shape a chopping
motion’” (Skinner, 1983, p. 151). Whenever Fromm raised his left hand, Skinner would look directly at him. If
Fromm’s left arm came down in a chopping motion, Skinner would smile and nod approvingly. If Fromm held his
arm relatively still, Skinner would look away or appear to be bored with Fromm’s talk. After 5 minutes of such
selective reinforcement, Fromm unknowingly began to flail his arm so vigorously that his wristwatch kept
slipping over his hand.

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