Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Those Successful Skinnerians and Gibsonians

C&S write,
Both Skinnerians and Gibsonians have been very successful as psychologists, and both groups have achieved results that are undeniable psychological milestones. So these views are neither nonstarters, nor obviously crazy.  (Chemero & Silberstein, 2008, pp. 4-5).
This seems to me a bit simplistic.

For one thing, recall that the Ptolemaic astronomers were very successful as astronomers and had results that are undeniable astronomical milestones, but much of their theory was wrong.  So, one can still achieve results with a flawed theory.

For another, I think that one has to recognize that theories have different parts (to speak generically).  Some parts might be true and others false.  So, maybe it is true that the world contains affordances, but false that these are directly perceived.  Indeed, one philosophical sort of project might be to draw distinctions among the components of theories to see how evidence supports one or another of them. 

For a third, I wouldn't want to undertake the burden of proof to show that Skinnerian or Gibsonian psychology is a nonstarter or obviously crazy.  (Maybe just crazy?)  Maybe just wrong on certain important points.

Chemero, A., & Silberstein, M. (2008). After the Philosophy of Mind: Replacing Scholasticism with Science. Philosophy of Science, 75, 1-27.


  1. What, really? What are the successes of Skinnerians and Gibsonians? There are several different kinds of success. Producing interesting and worthwhile experimental results is one kind of success. Being able to explain them is another. But there may be alternative models that also capture these results. Compare Gallistel's computational model of conditioning, reinforcement, etc. Do we still count these results as a 'success' of Skinnerians in light of the availability of this alternative model? Only if the theory or framework taken as a whole has greater explanatory power than the computational framework. And that claim *does* seem like a non-starter.

  2. DW, you raise a good point. There are different kinds of success. In making overall theory choices, we do want to go for superior explanatory power, etc. That is a pretty important kind of success. I guess I was being (uncharacteristically) charitable and making some concessions. So, I guess I was thinking more in terms of Skinnerians and Gibsonians finding things that others before them had not. That is a different kind of success which gives credit where credit is due.

  3. Ken, agreed. That must have been what C&S meant. Otherwise it's question-begging, since what's at issue is precisely whether Skinnerians/Gibsonians have the right explanatory framework. I'm just curious what results they have in mind specifically, and why they're a credit to those theories (construed as anything other than discovery heuristics).

  4. I was thinking myself that it would have been much more helpful to me at least had C&S given some specifics.

    I know that in some other work Chemero has talked about the work with stair climbing. If I remember correctly, the idea is that people can figure out how high to lift their feet to climb stairs. That is supposed to show that people perceive affordances.

    But, I don't think it's a surprise that people can figure out what they can do with things. The crucial issue, it seems to me, is whether they directly perceive this, or they can just figure it out. Do I directly perceive that a brick can be stacked with others on the end of a teeter totter to hold the end down while I climb to the other end to reach the branch of a tree where my frisbee is stuck? I doubt I directly perceive that, but I can probably figure it out in a pinch.

    But, long story short, more detail on the strengths of Skinnerian behaviorism and ecological psychology would have been helpful. I find myself working through papers often finding more articulation of what the theory is than why I should believe it.

  5. A little late to this party, but this popped out amongst some others as I am browsing.

    But, I don't think it's a surprise that people can figure out what they can do with things. The crucial issue, it seems to me, is whether they directly perceive this, or they can just figure it out.
    The question remains, for you, on what basis can people 'just figure it out'? You have a big story to tell; but Gibson's beaten you to it :)

    Gibson made two key contributions to psychology - the theory of affordances (what there is to be perceived) and ecological optics (a theory of the (visual) information available about affordances). The ecological research programme therefore asks about both. It's not enough to show that people act as if they directly perceive the affordance; you must also identify the perceptual information that allows this to occur.

    This second part is, frankly, very hard - not impossible, just difficult.

    As to the kinds of results ecological-type psychology has produced? Models and theories of steering, locomotion, and braking (Wilkie & Wann, Fajen & Warren); choosing objects which afford throwing to maximum distance (Zhu & Bingham); solutions to the outfielder problem (Macbeath, Fink/Warren), all come to mind. These are some of the better examples of affordance problems that have received a proper informational account.

    Pro-tip: I like Tony's stuff a lot but he's not that well up on his actual science literature.

  6. Hi, Andrew,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    I think it is clear that ecological-type psychology has produced lots of models and theories. The much harder issue for me to sort out is how those discoveries fit with Gibsonian ecological theory. Do these models really support, for example, the idea that humans directly perceive affordances as opposed to the idea, say, that humans use a Fodorian kind of visual module to compute that there are such and such objects, then use central processing reasoning to figure out what those objects are good for.

    I don't mean to deny that ecological psychology has these resources, so much as that I'd like to hear how it goes. The stair climbing example does not seem to me to work.

    I've taken a stab at some of the ecological psych literature, but there is a lot to look at and I am a philosopher and I've got other projects that demand attention.

    I don't usually defend Tony, but it's possible that there is a lot of psychology that is just not that relevant to what he is up to. I know that philosophers often get the science wrong in ways that matter to their philosophical conclusions and that is bad, but sometimes they get the science wrong in ways that don't really matter.

    I try to cut psychologists a break when they miss some minor philosophical points.

  7. It is, unfortunately, complicated. The progress of ecological psychology has indeed been mixed, with dynamical systems modelling being both a crucial boon and a real distraction. So yes, there is indeed a lot of modelling for modelling's sake going on (although I think this is a psychology wide problem, and not just restricted to eco-psych).

    That said, the data from these studies(rather than the models - you can make a model do anything) do indeed support direct perception of events and affordances, over indirect solutions. Solutions to the outfielder problem, for instance, are distinctly non-computational; you move so as to make a specific optical state of affairs obtain, which then allows you to catch the fly ball (*Fink et al have a good comparison of the various predictions of computational vs perception-action hypotheses).

    It's not clear from what you've said why you aren't convinced by the stair climbing work. What is the specific problem you have?

    *Fink, P.W., Foo, P.S., & Warren, W.H. (2009) Catching fly balls in virtual reality: A critical test of the outfielder problem. Journal of Vision, 9(13), 14:1-8.

  8. Hi, Andrew, give me maybe a few days... this teaching stuff can be rough...

  9. I hear that :) I look forward to your thoughts, though!