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How to Think Like a Knowledge Worker

How to Think Like a Knowledge Worker

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Published by: William Patterson Sheridan on Apr 20, 2011
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What is behaviourism?

Behaviourism is an ontology (theory of reality) founded on the premise that what appears to
exist depends on how people are conditioned to behave and not behave. What about non-human
reality? The answer to that (according to the behaviourist perspective) is that any "reality" that
people experience depends on what and how they observe (a type of behaviour) and how and what
they understand (also a type of behaviour). So, according to this perspective, ALL reality, of
whatever type, depends on the content and pattern of human conditioning.

The response of some to this perspective is one of incredulity and scorn - these critics claim that
behaviourism implies that humans are little more than automatons. But the terminology of
behaviourism can be changed to alleviate most of these concerns. If we replace "conditioning"
with "learning" then this seems to "round-off" and "humanize" the perspective, BUT with largely
the same implications as with the original vocabulary.

How does behaviourism work?

In a basic sense, there are two types of conditioning: (1) Classical Conditioning was discovered
by Ivan Pavlov in the early part of the 20th

century; and (2)Operant Conditioning was discovered

by B.F. Skinner in the middle of the 20th


In classical conditioning of dogs, food was presented to a hungry animal and a bell was wrung
simultaneously, after which the dog salivated. Eventually through "habituation" the ringing of
the bell would produce salivation in the dog even without the presentation of food. Dogs could
be conditioned with a limited number of these routines - people could acquire greater numbers of
more elaborate behavioural routines than other animals, and this is what accounted for the
amazing human learning capacity. The results of culture in general, and teaching in particular,
were to condition people with all of the various habits and traditions humanity displays.

With operant conditioning, the organism's behaviour was observed and preferable instances of
performance were encouraged by positive reinforcement, while neutral performance was ignored,
and undesirable performance discouraged by aversive reinforcement. Through such conditioning
schedules of behaviour could be shaped into quite elaborate routines, and then through random
reinforcement the behaviour could be sustained indefinitely. In the case of operant conditioning,
humans were also capable of acquiring and retaining considerable more routines, of a more
elaborate nature than other animals. Between classical and operant conditioning, most, if not all
of human behaviour could be accounted for. Despite continuing criticism, this perspective is still
credible to those who accept its premises.


Stephen Ray Flora
SUNY Press, Albany, 2004


Copyright of this work is held completely, exclusively and in perpetuity by William Patterson Sheridan


This section on Ontology covers the three archetypes of being, namely Materialism, Idealism,
and Behaviourism. Having read through them first (each covered in a page), then try some of
the following suggestions (or do similar things that will also illustrate the desired points): Take
any one of the postulates and apply it to an issue of interest to you. The issue might occur in
a media story, in a book or magazine you read, in a conversation you have, in a presentation
you attend, or it might be something that just springs to mind.

In the case of Materialism, ask yourself “What are the units of analysis in the argument (or story,
or case history, or whatever)?” Is the claim that everything is composed of atoms, or atoms and
energies, or what (else)? Or is the argument that reality consists of “facts”. If so, what kinds of
facts (physico-chemical, biological, sociological, psychological, or what)? Whatever the
materialist unit of analysis in use, how are communication, observation, and concepts explained
in this analysis? And how does a materialist analysis explain the non-material assumptions in
materialist theories and explanations? Think of the many aspects of human and biological life
that a materialist account cannot explain (there are so many, and they are so obvious), and ask
yourself why anyone would want to rely on an ontology that leaves so much out. Then think
about the appropriate uses of materialism, and the inappropriate ones, and remember that.

In the case of Idealism, ask yourself “Can I eat ideas, or sit on them? Will they provide shelter
from the cold, or heat, or nosy eyes?” You get the idea. Ideas help you organize your activities,
but in most cases they cannot satisfy the needs of the body, either personal or social. So what is
their proper role? And why do we so often see their role in life blown out of proportion? Think
about how they relate to, and complement material considerations. For every idealist
explanation, think of some materialist aspect of the case as well. And for every materialist
explanation, think of some idealist aspect of the case as well. Never mind the “grand arguments”
but just ask yourself how long anyone would survive without both materialism and idealism
working together all the time.

In the case of Behaviourism, ask yourself “What about those aspects of reality that are not
susceptible to conditioning – such as gravity, or electricity, or entropy.” Behaviourism applies to
any organism, because they can all, to one extent or another, learn from interaction with their
environments – even plants bend towards the sunlight. But non-animate entities don’t learn, so
the concept of conditioning is moot in those cases. Since the total mass of the earth includes a far
larger non-animate proportion than animate proportion, Behaviourism has important but very
limited spheres of use. Examine peoples’ behaviour, and ask yourself these questions: To what
extent is their behaviour learned, and to what extent innate. Does everyone learn as easily [no],
or retain lessons to the same extent [no]. So, what schedules of conditioning produced the results
we see? How do ideas affect habits? How do material facts affect behaviour?

Next, take an issue and try all three ontologies on it. See how the “look and feel” changes as
each of the different ontologies is applied to it. What proportion of each of the ontologies is
involved in accounting for different instances of reality? It all depends on your perspective.


Copyright of this work is held completely, exclusively and in perpetuity by William Patterson Sheridan

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