Chapter 1: The Science of Psychology

Psychology, Human Potential and Self-Control

A recurring message of this book is that the discipline of psychology uniquely applies the scientific method to study and understand the human condition. It helps us understand why we, more than any other animal, dominate this planet. The human being shares many basic needs and drives with the rest of the animal kingdom and must adapt to its environment in order to survive individually and as a species. Yet the differences in our accomplishments appear do great as to suggest qualitative differences from even our closest DNA relatives. The following video introduces Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs to our consideration of human potential. We will consider the hierarchy in greater depth at the end of chapter 4 and refer to it frequently throughout this book.


Watch the following video for a description of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs:

In the not too distant future, it is likely that communication will occur with the remaining few cultures not significantly impacted upon by current technologies. This could cause us to forget that the biological natural selection process, which continues albeit slowly, evolved over millions of years in an environment that has been significantly altered by human beings. The few remaining indigenous cultures remind us that for almost all our time on earth our everyday needs and experiences were similar to those of other animals.

In the Preface of his book documenting research conducted in the Amazon between 1990 and 1996, Politis (2007) states that his study of the Nukak “probably represents one of the last opportunities to observe a hunter-gatherer society that still lives in a traditional way.” The Nukak, living day to day, have maintained a similar lifestyle for more than 10,000 years. They lack familiarity with government, property, or money. The Nukak do not have a concept of the future and their past history is limited to a few generations. For thousands of years, the Nukak have been adapting to the demands and resources of the Amazonian rainforest. If you or I had been born under such conditions, we would be very different from the way we are and vice versa for the Colombian young adult. Human potential is developed under enormously diverse environmental conditions. Psychology is the discipline which helps us understand how you became the unique individual you are and how you can conceptualize and achieve your potential.


Watch the following video of the Nukak tribe in the Colombian rainforest:

Determinism and Freedom in Psychology

The human condition, whether it takes place in the rain forest or a modern city, may be described as a series of choices. Moment by moment we are confronted by different possibilities. We all have the subjective experience of being free to choose as we wish, whether we are in the rain forest, desert, or modern city. How do we reconcile this feeling with the scientific understanding of the human condition implied by the assumption of determinism? implies that the subject matter of the discipline is lawful. Thus, through application of the scientific method we ought to be able to discover reliable relationships between hereditary and environmental variables and behavior. If determinism did not hold, none of the research findings described in this book would be possible. Clearly, the research findings support the applicability of the assumption of determinism to the study of psychology.

Choice and Self-Control with Pigeons

For the first of many research studies we will treat in depth, we will examine an experimental study conducted with pigeons with the surprising title “Commitment, choice and self-control” (Rachlin and Green, 1972). Do you think it is possible to scientifically study what are usually considered human characteristics such as choice, self-control, and commitment using pigeons as subjects? Do not the concerns for internal and external validity seem insurmountable? Rachlin and Green (1972) reported the findings of a study manipulating both magnitude and delay of food reward in an apparatus named a Skinner-box, after the scientist who developed it (see Figure 1.13). In a sense, they asked the proverbial question, “Which is worth more, a bird in the hand or two in the bush?” Actually, they asked which is worth more to a bird (pigeon), immediate access to 2-seconds of food or twice as much food after a 4-second delay (see bottom choice in Figure 1.14). The findings were unequivocal. Pigeons almost always chose the red (right) key associated with the small immediate reward rather than the green (left) key associated with the larger delayed reward.  Anthropomorphizing, the pigeons appeared “impulsive” rather than displaying “self-control” (i.e., choosing the larger delayed reward over the smaller immediate one).

File:Operant Conditioning Involves Choice.png - Wikimedia Commons








Figures 1.13 and 1.14  Procedures used to study the effect of magnitude and delay of reinforcement on choice (Adapted from Rachlin & Green, 1972). Pigeons behave “impulsively” (i.e., choose an immediate small reward rather than a larger delayed reward) when confronted with the bottom choice. However, when an initial choice response includes a delay (10 seconds in the example), pigeons are more likely to make a “commitment” (i.e., avoid temptation) to self-control (i.e., selecting the delayed larger reward).This finding, in and of itself, is interesting. However, Rachlin and Green went one step further by adding an initial choice. Pigeons were first confronted with two unlit keys (see left choice in Figure 1.9). Pecking the left key caused it to turn green after 10 seconds. At that point, the pigeon could only respond to the left (now green) key in order to receive 4 seconds of food after an additional 4-second delay. If instead, the pigeon pecked the right key, it was presented with the original choice between the left green and right red keys after the 10-second delay. The surprising finding was that the pigeons were twice as likely to press the left key as the right key.

This result is certainly counter-intuitive. We know that when confronted with the red/green choice, the pigeons strongly preferred red. Why didn’t they initially go right, resulting in the opportunity to make that same choice? Or, why didn’t they initially go right and then press red when provided the original options? The surprising interpretation by Rachlin and Green (1972) is included in the title of their article. By pressing the left unlit key, the pigeons exhibited a “commitment” to a self-control response. By responding in this manner, they were not “tempted” by the red key that was likely to be followed by a response resulting in a small, immediate reward.

Why, one might ask, is the pigeon able to act less impulsively when provided with the choice between the two unlit keys than when presented with the choice between the red and green keys? They usually say that the devil is in the details. This is an instance where the opposite appears true. Something very beneficial is revealed in a detail of the procedures used by Rachlin and Green (1972). It is easy to overlook the 10-second delay that occurred no matter whether the pigeon responded to the left or right unlit key. At that point in time, the choice is not between 2 seconds of immediate food versus 4 seconds of food after a 4-second delay. It is between 2 seconds of food after a 10-second delay as opposed to 4 seconds of food after a 14 (10+4)-second delay. Apparently a 10-second delay is an eternity to a pigeon and the “psychological” difference in a delay of 10 versus 14 seconds is far less than the difference between immediacy and 4-seconds. Since there is a long delay (10 or 14 seconds) no matter the choice between the unlit keys, the pigeon is more influenced by the magnitude of the reward (4 rather than 2 seconds) at that point in time.

One of the objectives of this book, is to encourage the development of a scientific schema as a way of evaluating scientific (and many non-scientific) questions. All sciences use similar formats in research articles. They generally consist of: introductions placing the study within the context of prior research; method sections providing sufficient detail to replicate the procedures; reporting of results and statistical analyses; discussion of the conclusions, implications, and limitations of the research. In order to assess whether you understand the Rachlin and Green study (or any other research), you should ask yourself the following: What was the question being addressed by the investigator(s)? How did the procedures enable the question to be addressed? What were the results and conclusions regarding the question? In this instance you should be able to:


Describe the procedures, rationale, results, and implications of Rachlin and Green’s study demonstrating self-control and commitment in pigeons.

Choice and Self-Control with Humans

Rachlin and Green’s findings have been replicated many times, attesting to the internal validity of the findings. That is, we know that that there is a cause-effect relationship between delay of reward and choice behavior in pigeons. The question remains, however, whether these results relate to human behavior. Walter Mischel developed the “marshmallow test” to study impulsiveness and self-control in children (Mischel and Ebbesen, 1970; Mischel, Ebbesen, and Raskoff Zeiss, 1972; Mischel and Yates, 1979; Mischel, Shoda, and Peake, 1988; Mischel, Shoda, and Rodriguez, 1989; Shoda, Mischel, and Peake, 1990). An adult placed a single marshmallow in front of a child with the instruction that it could be eaten immediately or if the child waited a certain amount of time (e.g., 20 minutes), a second one would be provided. There are many amusing and interesting You Tube videos of children undergoing the marshmallow test and implementing strategies to avoid giving in to temptation. Children who distracted themselves (e.g., by playing with a toy) were more successful than children who focused upon the marshmallow. Importantly, Mischel and his colleagues found the ability to delay gratification by 4-year olds to be significantly related to their later success in life as indicated by such measures as school performance, SAT scores, completion of college, and interpersonal competence.


Watch this PBS Newshour report about the Marshmallow test:

It has been demonstrated that self-control can be learned. Mazur and Logue (1978) first trained pigeons to choose a large delayed reward over a small delayed reward (which is obviously easy to do). Over the course of a year the pigeons were taught to gradually adapt to increasingly shorter delays of the smaller reward. When tested a year later, the pigeons continued to exhibit a preference for large delayed rewards over small immediate ones (Logue and Mazur, 1981). These same findings were obtained with children provided similar training (Schweitzer and Sulzer-Azaroff, 1988). Given the documented importance of self-control to success later in life, it would appear prudent to incorporate such training as early in life as practicable for all children. Logue (1995) has written an excellent review of the self-control literature including applications to eating disorders, substance abuse, money management, studying, and interpersonal relations.

Many human problems occur as the result of choosing immediate small rewards rather than delayed, but more significant rewards. Examples include: eating an ice-cream sundae despite trying to lose weight; excessive drinking, threatening one’s (and others’) safety; smoking a cigarette (“slow-motion suicide” according to one Secretary of Health); hitting one’s spouse or a child because it immediately stops them from bothering you even though it creates much larger, delayed family problems; or, horror of horrors, checking out Facebook or playing video games instead of reading this book! Rachlin and Green’s (1972) results suggest that each of these problems may be addressed by committing oneself to a course of action in advance. For example: shop from a list including only nutritious, non-fattening foods; don’t drive past the ice-cream store; don’t go to the bar, or make sure you have a “designated driver”; stay away from places or events where you are likely to smoke; imagine the behaviors that upset you and rehearse a better coping strategy; use a daily planner for time-management and write the title of this book all over the pages (only kidding).

There is a substantial research literature attesting to the importance of self-control skills. It has been demonstrated that 8th-graders’self-discipline scores were more predictive than IQ for school attendance, homework time, and final grades (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005, 2006). Wills and his co-workers have documented that self-control skills reduce the risk of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana abuse in 9-year-olds, middle-, and high-school students (Wills, Ainette, Stoolmiller, Gibbons, and Shinar, 2008; Wills, Ainette, Mendoza, Gibbons, and Brody, 2007; Wills, Walker, Mendoza, and Ainette, 2006; Wills and Stoolmiller, 2002). College students who avoid and seek alternatives to situations associated with heavy drinking have been shown to consume less alcohol (Sugarman and Carey, 2007). Thus, to a large extent, success in life appears related to the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to achieve long-term goals.

Different parenting styles will be described in Chapter 8. Mothers’ manner of instruction and level of emotional support for their preschoolers were shown to later relate to their children’s behavioral control and task persistence in school (Neitzel and Stright, 2003). Religiosity as well as the quality of parent-adolescent communication has been shown to relate to substance abuse and sexual behaviors in African American adolescents (Wills, Gibbons, Gerrard, Murry, and Brody, 2003). A major review article addressed the relationship of religiosity to self-control. It was suggested that religion promotes self-control by encouraging self-monitoring and attainment of behavioral goals (McCollough and Willoughby, 2009).


Describe examples of common self-control problems showing how prior commitment can facilitate the selection of long-term large rewards rather than short-term small rewards).

Despite the fact that we and the Nukak experience very different human conditions, there is no reason to suspect that they feel less “free” than we do in striving to reach their goals and realize their potential. From our perspective, however, we might question whether this is true. Do not the constraints of the rain forest as well as the limitations of their educational experiences result in our being able to think about things, feel things, and act in ways that they cannot? And, is not the reverse also true since we have such limited experience in the rainforest in comparison to them? Is it not true that none of us is “free” to do whatever we wish, live however we want, or become whomever we choose? Psychology provides a lens through which we may ponder the potential of the human condition from the perspective of individuals and our species.

What should I do, how should I live, and who should I become? These are the questions Haidt (2006) considered fundamental to human happiness. In a sense, one becomes freer by accepting that you are a lawful part of nature. It means that you can apply the principles of psychology to yourself in order to accomplish your own objectives. This places you more in control of your life. Is that not what we mean by freedom?


Relate the possibility of self-control to the issue of determinism within psychology.

The importance of the “self” in self-control must be recognized. That is, “goals” are subjective and must be defined by each individual for her/himself. This thought is recognized in the most famous quote from The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” You have the ability to apply self-control techniques to influence what you do, how you live, and ultimately who and how happy you become.

Practicing Self-Control

I describe psychology as a discipline enabling humans to achieve their potential as individuals and as a species. That is clearly a bold and ambitious claim. At the end of many chapters, I will suggest you test this claim by engaging in a self-control project. As a by-product, I hope you acquire knowledge and skills which facilitate your transition to college and serve you well throughout your life. You will be asked to act like a professional psychologist. Your initial reaction might be “Is that ethical?” The answer would be “yes” if you are not only the “psychologist” but also the “client.” For years, I have been assigning self-modification projects in some of my classes. These are not only do-it-yourself projects, but also do-it-to-yourself projects. It is an instructive assignment requiring the student to observe her/his own behavior, develop a plan to change in a desired way, and assess progress. In addition to the instructional benefit, a very high percentage of the projects are successful. This is exactly what one would expect if psychology as a science was successful in discovering reliable ways of changing behavior. Note the advantage you have when you are both “client” and “psychologist.” It is logistically problematic, if not impossible, for someone else to monitor your every waking moment. It is absolutely impossible for someone else to monitor your at all. Despite your friend’s belief that she/he “feels your pain” or can “read your mind”, only you have direct access to your feelings and thoughts. The best your friend can do is to make inferences about your feelings and thoughts based upon how you overtly behave. You have a distinct advantage over anyone else in influencing how you feel, think, or behave.

Defining and Measuring Your Goals

Often, individuals fail to identify circumstances as requiring self-control and thereby fail to act in their long-term self-interest (Myrseth and Fishbach, 2009). Within the context of self-control, this means you would like to change the way you behave, feel, or think under specific circumstances.

The first step in self-control is to objectively describe your current and desired behaviors. Vague descriptions such as I want to be in better shape, be neater, or control my anger, etc., are not sufficient. As described earlier, psychology relies upon observable and measurable observations of behavior. Response measures typically consist of the frequency, amount, or duration of the target behavior. Following is an alphabetical listing of self-modification project response measures recently submitted by my students:

Behavior Response Measure(s) Type
Anger instances/week Frequency
Anxiety subjective units of distress Amount
Cigarette smoking number/day Frequnecy
Cleaning room minutes/week Duration
Clutter reduction items on desk Amount
Coffee consumption ounces/day Amount
Credit card spending dollars/week Amount
Drawing minutes/day Duration
Exercise minutes/day Duration
Exercise repetitions Frequency
Knuckle cracking times/day Frequnecy
Measurements inches Amount
Meditation time minutes/day Duration
Nail & cuticle biting length of nails Amount
Piano playing minutes/day Duration
Punctuality minutes late/instance Duration
Reading pages/week Amount
Sleep hours/night Duration
Smoking cigarettes/day Frequency
Social Avoidance (shyness) subjective units of distress Amount
Social network use times/day Frequency
Social network use hours/day Duration
Soda consumption ounces/day Amount
Studying minutes/day Duration
Task completion number/day Requency
Television viewing hours/day Duration
Time management percentage/tasks completed Amount
Video game use hours/day Duration
Weight pounds Amount
Worrying instances/week Frequency
Writing pages/day Amount

Collecting Baseline and Intervention Data

Once response measures have been decided, it is possible to start data collection. Fulfilling the objective of a self-control project requires being able to determine whether an intervention is working. One must therefore collect baseline and intervention data. Unlike the Small-N designs described previously, there is no need to determine cause and effect. It is not necessary to include a reversal phase or a multiple baseline. It is only necessary to demonstrate an improvement in the target behavior. The only instance where a baseline is unnecessary is when the behavior does not occur at all. For example, some students report never exercising before starting their self-control project. Recall that a good baseline is either stable or moving in the wrong direction. Once that is attained, improvement (or lack thereof) will become apparent when graphing the intervention data. Sometimes, just the act of assessing and graphing baseline data leads to improvement (Maletsky, 1974). Often my students reported that the requirement to record instances of their problem behavior focused their attention in such a manner that their behavior changed. You might recall that this would be an example of reactivity. Several experimentally verified intervention procedures will be described in Chapter 5 (Direct Learning). You might be able to derive your own procedures based upon the Rachlin and Green (1972) findings or by consulting the extensive empirical self-control literature. There will be additional suggestions concerning possible self-control projects in subsequent chapters.



Figure 1.13 “Skinner box” by Mark Bouton is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0




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Psychology by Jeffrey C. Levy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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