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The Behavior Analyst 2006, 29, 125–128 No.

1 (Spring)

Through the Looking Glass:

Symmetry in Behavioral Principles?
M. Jackson Marr
Georgia Tech

Baron and Galizio (2005) have sciences as seemingly far apart as

reprised and updated Michael’s re- embryology, crystallography, botany,
gretfully neglected (1975) paper on and organic chemistry are also de-
the lack of functional or interpreta- pendent on principles of symmetry.
tive distinctions between positive and What, then, is meant by symmetry?
negative reinforcement. They con- Basically, a system shows symmetry
clude that 30 years of subsequent when there exists at least one trans-
intensive research into contingencies formation that leaves the system un-
of consequences and related areas changed. This condition most obvi-
have not modified Michael’s original ously applies to certain figures and
thesis: Positive and negative rein- shapes, but, more important for this
forcement are equivalent. As the discussion, to principles as well. The
following commentary will attest, I laws of physics, for example, do not
am of two minds on this effort. On depend on position, time, or, more
the one hand, I applaud a move generally, states of motion; we say
toward coherence in a fundamental they are invariant under these trans-
concept; on the other, the means by formations.
which this is achieved is not always How might symmetry principles be
clear and in some ways abandons reflected in behavior analysis? There
a functional account of behavior. are seven that come to mind as
possibilities and readers may think of
The Search for Symmetry others. First, if, as Michael (1975) and
The issue raised by Baron and Baron and Galizio (2005) assert, there
Galizio (2005) is reflected in a much are apparently no functional distinc-
wider context. Behavior analysis may tions to be made between positive and
share with other sciences in having its negative reinforcement, then reinforc-
own basic principles of symmetry. As er effectiveness (by various measures)
Randall (2005) remarked in her recent is invariant under a simple inversion of
popular book on contemporary phys- procedure, that is, arranging, say,
ics: ‘‘When a physical system has onset as opposed to offset of pertinent
symmetry, you can describe the sys- events. Second, the degree to which
tem on the basis of fewer observations this applies to reinforcement, we
than if the system has no symmetry’’ should extend the principle to include
(p. 193). But this is not merely a mat- positive and negative punishment,
ter of convenience. The very structure although I suspect the pertinent re-
of physics is founded on symmetries, search here is sparse. Third, there is
from mechanics to electromagnetics some evidence that reinforcement and
to relativity to particle physics (see, punishment are, in some sense, mirror
e.g., Park, 1988). Such symmetries lie images of each other, that is, they are
at the heart of the conservation laws antisymmetric, just another form of
of momentum, energy, and so on. But symmetry (e.g., de Villiers, 1980;
Farley, 1980; Farley & Fantino,
Address correspondence to M. Jackson 1978). Fourth, discrimination and
Marr, School of Psychology, Georgia Tech,
Atlanta, Georgia 30332 (e-mail: mm27@ generalization are in a virtually perfect symmetrical relation, being two sides


of the same coin we call ‘‘stimulus observations—shoes and ships, cab-

control.’’ Whether we refer to one or bages and kings, wombats and wall-
the other depends on selected proce- paper. Others emerge from more
dures as well as the degree to which we detailed study. For example, rain
wish to emphasize differences or and snow can certainly look very
similarities in behavior as we vary different, but are found to be simply
a stimulus. Fifth, in a three-term different phases of the same sub-
contingency the antecedent stimulus, stance, H2O. If we are interested in
operant class, and reinforcing conse- phase transitions or crystalline struc-
quence possess a kind of circular ture, then we consider the distinction
symmetry in which none of the terms important, but if we are interested
can stand alone, but have meaning only in the atomic composition of
only through their interaction; each, in water, this distinction is not impor-
some sense, controls the other. Sixth, tant. With extensive and systematic
in shaping behavior, we recognize the study, some initially clear distinctions
symmetry between the behaviors of may become less so, or even disap-
the shaper and the shapee. As Skinner pear. The motion of the moon and
pointed out long ago, the behavior of a falling apple turn out to be reflec-
each controls the other in a kind of tions of the same mechanism—the
acquisitional dance (e.g., Skinner, moon is also falling toward the earth.
1972, pp. 122–123). Seventh, just as Electricity and magnetism, initially
the laws of physics do not depend on thought to be quite distinct, turn out
time or place, the laws of behavior to be intimately tied together, as
appear to operate over an enormous Maxwell so beautifully instructed us.
range of species, a biological feature When a science has not yet reached
shared perhaps only with certain bio- an adequate understanding of the
chemical pathways. As a corollary to phenomena of interest, distinctions
this invariance, behavior analysts of- may be vague and provisionary, at
ten assume that, for example, princi- best, and ultimately may change
ples of reinforcement apply not only radically or disappear altogether; in-
to the behavior of individuals but to deed, that volatility is part of what it
groups of individuals as well—a kind means to grasp for understanding.
of scale invariance. Behavior analysis is in that place.
Why might these possible symme- In the current example of positive
tries be important? Not only could versus negative reinforcement, I see
they have the advantage of our a conceptual knot that needs to be
needing fewer observations, as Ran- untied to clarify any potential distinc-
dall (2005) suggested, but they would tions, or, alternatively, to confirm
confer an internal and consistent a proposed symmetry. Baron and
unity to the field as well as affirm Galizio (2005) touched on this knot
the enormous range of its applica- at certain points, but, in my view, did
tions. But how are we to show these not untie it or even cut through it.
symmetries convincingly? Have Bar- Basically, there is a tangle of (a)
on and Galizio (2005) succeeded? operations or procedures, (b) the
Basically, yes, but I believe there are effects of those operations, and (c)
significant conceptual challenges, not the reasons for the effects seen. To
to say empirical ones. take another, perhaps less conten-
tious, example, consider the term
extinction. As a procedure, this could
Tweedledee and Tweedledum
be defined, for example, as the re-
At the outset, we may ask how we moval of a reinforcing consequence
make distinctions of any sort in the that is currently maintaining behav-
development and practice of a science. ior. There are other procedures that
Some are based on fairly direct reflect a more sophisticated definition

of extinction, such as switching from be called motivating operations (Mi-

a response-dependent to a response- chael’s term) and attendant condi-
independent contingency. As for ef- tions. The latter, especially, seem to
fects, in both cases we expect to see engender mostly alternative and un-
the target behavior to decrease in decidable ‘‘just-so’’ stories about the
probability, although the two proce- key event that controls behavior—
dures are likely to produce different one emphasizes onset, the other,
patterns in extinction that are tied to offset, of a hypothetical condition.
our concept of extinction. Why does Some of the scenarios hark back to
the behavior change under either of now-long-dead need- or drive-reduc-
these conditions? If one is focused on tion theories of action.
the presence or absence of a maintain- Traditionally, reinforcers were said
ing event as crucial to maintenance of to act through the onset of pleasure
behavior, then the former procedure or the offset of pain. But the Twee-
is appropriate; if one sees the relation dledee–Tweedledum characterization
between a behavior and its conse- of reinforcement often seems con-
quence as the crucial determinant of trived, if not outright implausible.
a performance, then the latter pro- The child who turns on the TV and
cedure is the more appropriate. In views a cartoon is said either (a) to
either case, one may theorize further receive the positive reinforcer of the
about the ‘‘causes’’ of extinction. For cartoon, which thus increases the
example, in the traditional procedure subsequent probability of turning on
maybe behavior goes away because the TV, or (b) to be relieved of
other, incompatible behaviors that boredom with the same outcome. Of
supply alternative reinforcers com- course, both might be the case; how
pete with the original target behavior, do we deal with that? Moreover, I
or maybe responding in the absence would assert that the pursuit of
of the reinforcer is punishing, or pleasure does not imply the prior
whatever. Are there two (or more) condition of pain, nor does the
kinds of extinction, and on what avoidance of pain imply the pursuit
bases do we make this judgment: of pleasure. I happen to like Beetho-
procedure, effect, or cause, or some ven and Wagner, and I tend to listen
combination of these? to their music if it happens to be on
Now the case of positive versus the radio, but in the absence of
negative reinforcement seems more hearing their music, I don’t ordinarily
clouded. Clearly, there are distinctive sense that I am in some active state of
definitions tied to procedures (onset deprivation of 19th century romanti-
vs. offset, etc.). Moreover, because cism that can be relieved by my
we are talking about putative reinfor- hearing, say, the Egmont Overture.
cing effects, in both cases we expect Similarly, I don’t take active pleasure
to see responding acquired and main- in not having a headache; if I don’t
tained as a result of imposing one or have one, so what? But if I do have
the other kind of procedure. But a headache, taking an analgesic takes
when it comes to understanding why the pain away and restores me to my
this might be the case, we enter into former condition of relative neutral-
difficult waters. Many behavior ana- ity with respect to the no-headache
lysts have, I think wisely, tended to condition. I don’t discount the possi-
put that question aside with respect bility of some contrast effect, but it is
to any putative reinforcer, positive or the headache I want to get rid of—
negative, while exploring the condi- the primary cause, if you like; what
tions under which some contingencies happens afterward seems irrelevant.
serve to modify behavior. A major Of course, one can make up many
focus of Michael (1975) and Baron examples of varying plausibility, but
and Galizio (2005) is on what might one is playing a game that I thought

most behavior analysts had largely tions for acquiring and maintaining
abandoned with respect to behavior– avoidance behavior.
consequence relations. Baron and We might take a lesson from the
Galizio (2005) cite Morse and Kelle- symmetry between discrimination
her (e.g., 1977), who emphasized and and generalization mentioned earlier.
demonstrated that maintaining (and Here distinctions are based on pro-
punishing) events can be created cedures and what changes in behav-
through contingencies and their his- ior we wish to emphasize. In either
tories, not simply through our prior case, we are talking about stimulus
picking and choosing from a catalog control. With putative distinctions
of events rigidly tied to particular, between positive and negative rein-
usually motivational, effects. Even if forcement, procedure is obviously of
Morse and Kelleher’s theory needs significance, but we also tend to
modification, many, if not most, of emphasize nonaversive as opposed
the consequences that control our to aversive circumstances; in either
behavior have little, if anything, to do case, we are talking about reinforce-
with any known motivating opera- ment. Whatever the circumstances,
tions or conditions. For example, if I perhaps we are better off simply
walk toward a building, I get closer assuming symmetry until there are
to it; this behavior is not necessarily good reasons not to. Reinforcement,
related to deprivation or any other whatever it is exactly, is just re-
such specific condition I know of, inforcement—positive or negative.
including the fact that in walking We know it when we see it.
toward one place, I am going away
from somewhere else. These condi- REFERENCES
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Most behavior–consequence rela- of two models. Journal of the Experimental
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and are not captured by digitizing Farley, J., & Fantino, E. (1978). The symmet-
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