B.F. Skinner on Desire

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADesires are functions that we have, supposedly, within, and as a part of, the intentional force we harbor and that we also share with other living beings, be it via an inner psychic and/or physiological structure(as some researchers of behavior have contested), and is furthermore a phenomenon that is dealt with on a daily basis in our lives and in the scientific study of human and other living organism’s behavior. Though desires (or drives if you will) are largely considered as faculties within the living organism, I however, believe it is important to and look into competing conceptions within this area; particularly those of psychologist B.F. Skinner. The radical stance that he held was that these inner motivations, such as those of desire or drives, of behavior did not exist inside as sole causes of that behavior; sole causes could be traced outside the person in his immediate environment; to external causes which he called variables or conditions of behavior–any of which can be manipulated and changed to influence behavior. In any event, desires were, of course, and as Skinner held, a phenomenon that came from the outside. The external variable(s) contributing to desire/drives, incognizant to the living organism, gave it the notion that desires/drives were a force that came from withn. But that is not the case as we shall soon come to see.

As I finished one of Skinner’s first and distinctively one of his most comprehensive works outlining the conceptual and methodological structure of what would soon be termed ‘behaviorism’, I could not help but notice some of the small increments of information that were said throughout isolated areas of the book. Anyone who has heard of Skinner has heard of his radical stance on the issue of human behavior and psychology. He was of course a strict determinist and believed looking through such a deterministic scope was necessary to psychology in order for it to be considered an actual, respectable science. As he writes for such a need:

“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[…]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”[1]

Skinner’s method of determinism concerning behavior involved the idea that all human behavior, indeed every organism’s behavior, was a result of variables or “specifiable conditions”, as he says in the quote above, outside the individual. In the individual’s environment where immediate causes or affecters that influence him to act. As such, he viewed, certain variables/conditions (objects or events) either increased or decreased the probability of certain behaviors.

Without getting too much into the broad range of Skinner’s theories and ideas, he, too, thought that desires/drives were caused by outside influences. That is to say, your behavior is a product of your environment(i.e. environment: including persons, places, events, and things, all of which he called external stimuli). This of course was viewed as a radical stance against the conception that desires/drives such as hunger, thirst, sex or procreation etc, were inner phenomenon; that they were physiological or psychic compellations that caused your motivations to be active.

It is important to understand that ‘operant behavior’, what Skinner called behavior dependent and defined by its responses to external stimuli (persons, places, events, and things), is modeled by specific responses or reactions within the individual’s immediate environment. An example of operant behavior would be the behavior of a child throwing temper tantrums reinforced, that is strengthened, by the reward of parent giving into the pressure and giving the child what he/she desires or has a drive for. Such a behavior (i.e temper tantrums) is, and was in this example, defined and is more likely to happen in the future as a result of the parent’s response to the child’s behavior. As a result, the child’s desire/drive for the reward (be it candy, cookies, toys, or even affection maybe) doesn’t become active when the reward is at hand, but when the ‘means’ of the reward is at hand and available. The parent becomes the means to the reward–which is the end. Skinner also states that deprivation or satiation (satisfaction) of rewards increase or decrease the behaviors for them. That is, the desires/drives level of activity, and as a result, the behavior learned to take part in in order to obtain the reward are increased or decreased in proportion to the deprivation or satiation of a reward. Skinner writes:

“A need or want could simply be redefined as a condition resulting from deprivation and characterized by a special probability of response[…]A drive need not be thought of as mental or physiological. The term is simply a convenient way of referring to the effects of deprivation or satiation and other operations which alter the probability of behavior in more or less the same way”[2]

As I mentioned before, operant conditioning, what Skinner is best known for, an operant unit of behavior, is defined and molded by response. Response in the environment–what is outside the individual–determined behavior; what he wants, desires, drives for, and when he does so. When he does so is when the means to this reward (the object or objective he desires for) is available in his immediate, perceptible environment. That behavior becomes discriminative and contingent on the presence of those means.

Deprivation and satiation play secondary roles in some cases. The presence alone of a specific stimulus is enough to generate a response which has a history of deprivation trailing it. The history of deprivation and satisfaction leaves for the respective individual ‘expectation’. That is, an expectation of response that leads to a reward. An expectation that is conditioned in as a result of previous rewarding; thus behavior is reinforced, and is more likely to happen, as a part of the repertoire that the individual uses to act and behave. Skinner uses a child, temper tantrums, and candy as an example:

“Suppose we approach a child who is playing happily by himself and give him a small piece of candy. We may observe the sudden emergence of a great deal of objectionable behavior–asking and teasing for more candy, then crying, and perhaps even a temper tantrum[…]The sight and taste of candy are the ‘discriminative stimuli’ under which behavior of asking or reaching for candy is frequently effective. There is no likelier occasion for the reinforcement of such behavior than the immediate presence of candy. By giving the child a small amount of candy we establish a common situation in which powerful behavior under the control of candy-deprivation is usually effective and hence strong. We have not made the child any hungrier in terms of deprivation. With a given history of deprivation the behavior of begging for candy shows two levels of strength under the control of two stimuli”[3]

Skinner says, moreover,that the temper tantrums, the child threw, are a result of frustration from a withholding the candy under which, in previous times, the reward of candy was forthcoming. Previous history of rewards have, as I said before, created the expectation of a forthcoming reward. However, frustration served only as a consequence of the reaction to the unexpected withholding of the candy, as Skinner goes later on to explain.

Instances of deprivation or satiation need not factor in in cases of searching for the causes and reasons why an individual, or living organism, behaves the way it does. They need not be held as the sole cause of behavior in Skinner’s conception and theory of behavior. Sometimes a history of previous rewarding or withholding can be looked on as causes of certain behaviors. That is only because the history, in regards to reward, created the expectation that in all cases the individual should be rewarded in all contexts regardless of the situation. Nevertheless, it is important to note that nothing in Skinner’s presentation of causes of behavior, as has been illustrated here, or anywhere in this text, have desires/drives, as inner causes rising from psychic or physiological phenomenon be explanations of behavior. Skinner never thought inner causes of behavior to be sufficient for the science of human behavior, as he so ardently worked to achieve. He thought these inner explanations lacked the ability of being directly observed and controlled, and thus not of too much scientific curiosity or interest. To be able to trace clear and readily observable, and adjustable, variables of behavior that lie outside the individual’s behavior was the goal of the science of human behavior; so that we may be able to manage better control of our behavior if in any case we need to adjust it; which is the goal of health sciences, in which psychology is a function.


1. Skinner, F. B (1953). Science And Human Behavior. New York, NY: THE FREE PRESS. pg 6

2. Skinner pg.144

3. Skinner pg. 207


2 responses to “B.F. Skinner on Desire

  1. Pretty fantastic post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing on your rss feed and I am hoping you write once more very soon!

  2. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find
    this matter to be really something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

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