Design: Behaviorism Has Its Place

Karl Kapp, Kapp Notes, Dec 21, 2006
Commentary by Stephen Downes

I questioned Karl Kapp's behaviorist leanings in a comment recently and this is his reply. "I think the best representation of the effectiveness of behaviorism is Las Vegas, if slots machines are not classic Stimulus-Response-Reward...then nothing is." Well, then, nothing is. It takes a great deal of work to convince people to invest money in what is known to be a losing proposition. That is why Vegas hired Randy Newman and Celine Dion, hosts professional boxing matches, hosts slick television series like CSI, and even popularized a slogan, "What happens in vegas, stays in Vegas." If Vegas replied simply on stiumulus-response, it would be broke by now. Kapp writes, "I think advertising agencies are hoping for stimulus-response." No. What they are hoping for is an association that has nothing to do with the product. Buyer sees beer, buyer thinks sexy woman, buyer buys beer. The 'sexy woman' bit in the middle is an association the marketer has promoted through repetitive associative advertising.

Kapp writes, "For mission critical items, we cannot write an objective like: The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will use a discovery method to explore possible options for stopping the meltdown... We really need something like: The nuclear technician, upon encountering a meltdown of the primary reactor will follow a defined set of steps to stop the meltdown." But this is not true, and the proof is this: if it were true, then the human performance could be replaced by a machine. If you are working simply on stimulus-response, then you are working on programmable behaviour. But we use humans in nuclear reactors (and elsewhere) just because we understand that 'knowing' involves a set of cognitive processes - like recognition, inference, association - between stimulus and response. The difficulty is, of course, convincing politicians, customers, and (apparently) instructional designers of this.
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