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The Elysian Muse Youth Literary Magazine
Written by Phoebe R.
11 Psychology Avenue
Bobo City, NJ 01904
September 8, 2020
Mr. B.F. Skinner
17 Barclay St
Newtown, PA 18940
Dear Mr. Skinner,
Perhaps you would be frustrated if you were to peak over your perch in the afterlife and realize that, even in the 21st century, we’re still caught up in the long-standing debate of the validity of free will.
Despite your calculating, objective approach toward the debate, I hear you were quite creative in college, with aspirations to become a writer. Have you read Franz Kafka’s work? His short stories also challenge the idea of free will, though he often attributes the notion to some greater force like fate. Surprisingly enough, that was an idea people could stomach, or at the very least, tolerate. On the other hand, I’m afraid your ideas on free will still have the general public’s distaste. While Kafka challenges free will with the notion of some greater significance, your ideas demean humanity to something seemingly inhuman: nothing but controlled reactions to external stimuli.
However, this isn’t to say you weren’t an influential psychologist, important in your field. Your behavioral experiments with animals to this day stand as groundbreaking, influential work. By discovering the power of positive reinforcement through operant conditioning, you opened up doors in our understanding of the process of learning (for both animals and humans).
Behaviorism is not as popular today as it once was in the late 1800 to early 1900s. However, many of your discoveries, along with those of others in your field like Ivan Pavlov and James Watson, helped solidify our understanding of psychology today. I’m sure you were well familiar with their work; Ivan Pavlov’s research on classical conditioning through his famous dog and bell experiments were also incredibly important. You’re well known for your operant conditioning box with the mouse pressing a button for some kind of reward, thus acquiring the knowledge that pressing the button would result in food. You’re also known for your air crib (though there are many rumors that perpetuate your notoriety). If I may add, your air crib lacked the thing your books and papers often did: a human touch. What was meant to be a nurturing environment was recorded differently in the eyes of history.
Regardless, history still remembers you as an influential psychologist who helped us understand more about the learning process. Since your death, there has been further research and experiments done that broaden our understanding of the way we learn. Albert Bandura conducted the famous Bobo experiment. In this experiment, a woman aggressively beat an inflatable clown (Bobo) in front of a child, repeatedly punching and kicking it. The child was then taken to another room with a bunch of toys. The toys were then taken away, much to the child’s frustration, and Bobo was placed in front of him or her. The children who observed the woman beat the clown mirrored the woman’s aggression. The children in the control group who did not see the woman brutalize Bobo did not have such a violent reaction to Bobo. Thus, the children who observed the woman “learned” this aggression toward the clown without the use of any external reward or punishment system. Bandura’s experiment showed us that conditioning and association through rewards and punishment aren’t the only ways learning can occur. Bandura’s establishment of social-cognitive learning showed us that learning can also occur through observation and imitation, a process we call associative learning.
I mentioned before that behaviorism is not as popular as it was once before. This has much to do with Bandura’s experiments. Today, we view psychology as a science pertaining to both behavioral and mental processes. Even though these mental processes may not always be empirically observable, it does not degrade psychology to a less valid discipline of science.
I can only wonder if any of the new research done, as well as the new view of psychology, would have any impact on your views and opinions. Why do you find mentalistic concepts like the idea of a “consciousness” so impractical? I would love to hear what you would have to say about Freud’s introspection. You believed that mentalism was non-existent. You believed free will to be an illusion. I sourly disagree; allow me to practice my free will in this letter.
I assure you, absolutely nothing prompted me to give this smiley face a lopsided top hat. Hats have not been on my mind recently, and frankly, I don’t feel that tophat is particularly doing my smiley face any favors. So, why did I draw a tophat on the smiley face?
For absolutely no reason.
If my actions truly were a mere product of external conditioning, what in my environment could have possibly cued this action? Of course, I did this to prove a point. Though including a rough sketch in a business formatted letter is far from expected, it may not be a true indicator of the validity of free will. Your beliefs are highly controversial today, especially when compared to back when you were alive (when behaviorism was more common). Again, this doesn’t compromise your credibility, nor the respect the scientific community has for you (I’m referring to those in the community who do not buy into the rumors, of course).
It was a pleasure writing to you. Your daughter says you read all of your “fan mail”, so though it is impossible, I’ll say it for the sentiment: I hope to hear back from you soon.
A Curious Psych Student
Phoebe R. is a writer from South Carolina. She is 15 years old. She spends much of her time writing and scrolling though Tumblr next to her two adorable kittens (Mittens and Zipper!)