View Full Version : Sync: Skinner, Tinbergen & Choices for Ethology

James Brody
September 22nd, 2006, 04:00 PM
"Our current sophistication w ith respect to the design of experiments, statistically speaking, is a brilliant development of method without whch we would be much better off." Hebb.

Niko Tinbergen observed relatively small numbers of individuals: Grammer lamented in the ISHE Detroit Congress about the lack of that skill. I suspect that both Grammer and Tinbergen might agree with Hebb's remark, one that discovers a fence along the numbered paths found by Galton, Pearson, Fisher, & Wright.

Skinner seemed socially odd but, in odd ways, he fits lock and key with ethology. Skinner looked for order and pursued the behavior of one organism, not committees of them, and discovered environmental triggers and targets for that behavior. He acknowledged the importance of species differences but he also found more interesting things to explore. Skinner acknowledged the importance of brain mechanisms but found too many just-so stories in the physiological psychology of his era. And he listened to serendipity as he and a rat first moved into sync when they bargained over pay scales - one pellet per reponse or one-tenth for work in the box.

We frequently don't notice the immense influence of schedules of reinforcement in our daily lives. We cling to an aggravating and expensive fixed-interval for our morning commutes to work, philosophy majors use their free will to chase variable-ratio payoffs in phone banks as if a pigeon who works in a similar kind box, and cheer when Dilbert complains about his cube but loves for it as an escape from his boss.

Thirty years ago, Yoshiki Kuramoto gave us algebra to prove that similar oscillators, even if weakly connected, pull each other into synchrony (Strogatz, 2003). Pendulums, runners, and best friends imitate each other in staggering ways and the humans do so in ways that suggest an adaptation: fun to do, easily learned, difficult to suppress, and performed by nearly every normal individual. (Small wonder that Bandura and Walters set up their own approach to synchrony but without knowing it when they argued for imitation as an independent expression of learning!) And schedules of reinforcement establish characteristic synchronies with the organisms to engage them. Rat, pigeon, or Vassar nag...there are no functional differences!

There are some hints of Kuramoto's relevance in Grammer's reports at the Detroit meeting: newly introduced males and females sometimes move into sync in their frequency and order of simple body movements, a male observer reacts differently when he watches a dancing girl who is ovulating. It may be that ethology will someday find that fidgeting is not always an expression of displacement but is an honest signal of interest and fitness. scientist types are driven to find order, whether in our meadows, flyboxes, or operant chambers, whether in the environments that make us all act the same or those that account for peculiarities between species. And as of 2006, we face again the choices represented by Tinbergen or Pearson or, for that matter, Fred Skinner.

Flashback: in 1973, I sat on the step outside of my basement apartment while Charlie, the lawn-and-garden guy, sat on his third floor balcony, sipped a beer, and explained psychology to me.

"Jim, you can tell when a woman is interested in you. Count her words! Say something, almost anything, to her with a smile, and if she answers in the same number or a greater number of words, keep talking."
I could have told him, "That's pretty good. A guy named Kuramoto will explain it in another two years." I haven't seen Charlie for a quarter-century and he may still be on that balcony but I've never had a failure with Charlie's Law.

Ball P (2003) The Physical Modelling of Human Social Systems. Complexus. 1: 190-206. (Available on the Net in a .pdf).
Bandura A & Walters RH (1963) Social Learning & Personality Development. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Hebb, DO (1965) Alice in wonderland, or psychology among the biological sciences. In HH Harlow & CN Woolsey (Eds). Biological & Biochemical Bases of Behavior. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 451-467.
Skinner, B. F. (1966) The phylogeny and ontogeny of behavior. Science, 153: 1205-1213.
Strogatz, S. (2003) Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. NY: Hyperion.
Tinbergen, N. (1951/1974) The Study of Instinct. NY: Oxford University Press.

Copyright, James Brody, all rights reserved, 2006