Having gone to Western Michigan University during my bachelor’s program and graduating with a minor in Psychology, I thought I owned the world. Our Psych program was based on BF Skinner, who was a behavioral psychologist and I became the best student in my class at teaching rats to drink from a straw utilizing the Skinner focus of positive reinforcement. And I still even have my rat trophy to prove it…NOT!
In Skinner’s book, About Behaviorism, the author explained that he considered free will an illusion and human action dependent on consequences of previous actions. If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. Skinner called this the principle of reinforcement. Although I never agreed fully with Skinner in all ways, I did learn some powerful lessons that I have utilized throughout my life – especially when it came to raising kids. And I have truly valued my training in behavioral psychology and positive reinforcement.
Walt Disney once said: “A child’s mind is a blank book. During the first years of his life, much will be written on the pages. The quality of that writing will affect his life profoundly.” To be honest, I have respected this philosophy throughout my life and have raised my kids with the focus that ‘they are leaders and they need to reach out to others who are hurting, because of who they are as leaders’. So, when my kids questioned right from wrong, I would direct them to “go straighten your crown and live life as the son/daughter of our amazing King…while serving others on your journey.” I now have two amazing doctor sons, one successful medical sales rep daughter, and another daughter who serves as a counselor to broken individuals. Does positive reinforcement work? I believe in it!
So, along comes Steven Pinker, a prominent Canadian-American experimental and cognitive psychologist, throwing a wrench in the machine…literally! In The Blank Slate, the author states that our brains are hard-wired machines, already set up with genetic information, which governs our responses in life. Free choice and moral responsibility don’t actually exist in Pinker’s reasoning, except that he adds, “Nothing prevents the godless and amoral process of natural selection from evolving a big-brained social species equipped with an elaborate moral sense” – even too much moral sense, notes Pinker.
Pinker states the notion of the tabula rasa, ‘the blank slate’, is utterly wrong. Human nature is not ‘unbelievably malleable’, but contains a set of inherited neurological instructions that direct us to seek status, to fight and to make peace, to make weapons and tools, to acquire a spoken language, to gossip, to use common facial expressions, to admire generosity, to adorn our bodies, and to worry about the weather. My belief contradicts Pinker, as I believe we have so much to learn from the moment we are born – and we learn through our experiences, our beliefs, and our ability to learn from and through others.
As Albert Einstein once said: “The only source of knowledge is experience.” (Well, that…and the guidance of our Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit!) And, that’s a wrap. Blessings, my friends!
 B.F. Skinner, About Behaviorism (New York, Random House, 1974).
 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York [etc.: Penguin Books, 2003).
 Pinker, The Blank Slate.