Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Legend of the Leaning Behaviorist

I've heard this story orally a couple of times. I wonder if any of you know whether it's actually true. Let's call it the "The Legend of the Leaning Behaviorist".

Once upon a time, long ago and far away -- actually, circa 1960 at a prominent U.S. university -- there lived a behavioral psychologist, an expert in the shaping of animal behavior by means of reward and punishment. One semester, when he was teaching a large lecture course, his students tried an experiment on him. Without letting him know, they decided that when he was lecturing on the left of side of the room, they would smile and nod a bit more often than usual. Conversely, when was on the right, they would knit their brows and look away. Soon, all the lectures were delivered from the left. The students then altered their strategy. Whenever he moved to the left, they would smile and nod; whenever he moved to the right, they would knit their brows. The result was that he drifted ever more leftward, until by the end of the term, he was lecturing while leaning against the left wall. On the last day of class, one of the students asked him why he was lecturing from over there, and he said, "Oh, I don't know. It's close to the ashtray."


Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

I´m not acquainted with american college legends, but i wonder if the behaviourist was not Skinner.

It´s a laugh with hidden (serious) thoughts.

kvond said...

This story/myth is so prevelant I would be surprised that if it where not true of something that happened in the 60s, it has been carried in the world's classrooms 100s of times.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'll settle for a single confirmed instance! (B.F. Skinner would be too good to be true.)