The Breland and Breland Demonstration

Marion and Keller Breland worked with B. F. Skinner as students and later established a successful animal training business. They conditioned a variety of animals for circus acts, arcade displays, and movies. In an important paper (Breland & Breland, 1961), they documented occasional instances in which species-specific behavior interfered with operant responses. For example, when training a raccoon to deposit coins in a box, they noted:

The response concerned the manipulation of money by the raccoon (who has "hands" rather similar to those of primates). The contingency for reinforcement was picking up the coins and depositing them in a 5-inch metal box.

Raccoons condition readily, have good appetites, and this one was quite tame and an eager subject. We anticipated no trouble. Conditioning him to pick up the first coin was simple. We started out by reinforcing him for picking up a single coin. Then the metal container was introduced, with the requirement that he drop the coin into the container. Here we ran into the first bit of difficulty: he seemed to have a great deal of trouble letting go of the coin. He would rub it up against the inside of the container, pull it back out, and clutch it firmly for several seconds. However, he would finally turn it loose and receive his food reinforcement. Then the final contingency: we put him on a ratio of 2, requiring that he pick up both coins and put them in the container.

Now the raccoon really had problems (and so did we). Not only could he not let go of the coins, but he spent seconds, even minutes rubbing them together (in a most miserly fashion), and dipping them into the container. He carried on the behavior to such an extent that the practical demonstration we had in mind—a display featuring a raccoon putting money in a piggy bank—simply was not feasible. The rubbing behavior became worse and worse as time went on, in spite of non-reinforcement. (Breland & Breland, 1961, p. 682)

Breland and Breland documented similar instances of what they called instinctive drift in other species. Instinctive drift refers to species-characteristic behavior patterns that became progressively more invasive during training. The term instinctive drift is problematic because the concept suggests a conflict between nature (biology) and nurture (environment). Behavior is said to drift toward its biological roots. There is, however, no need to talk about behavior "drifting" toward some end. Behavior is appropriate to the operating contingencies. Recall that respondent procedures may be embedded in an operant contingency, and this seems to be the case for the Brelands' raccoon.

In the raccoon example, the coins were presented just before the animal was reinforced with food. For raccoons, food elicits rubbing and manipulating food items. Since the coins preceded food delivery, they became CSs that elicited the respondent behavior of rubbing and manipulating (coins). This interpretation is supported by the observation that the behavior increased as training progressed. As more and more reinforced trials occurred, there were necessarily more pairings of coins and food. Each pairing increased the strength of the CS(coin) ^ CR(rubbing) relationship, and the behavior became more and more prominent.

Respondent processes also occur as by-products of operant procedures with rats and kids. Rats will hold on to marbles longer than you might expect when they receive food pellets for depositing the marble in a hole. Kids will manipulate tokens or coins prior to banking or exchanging them. The point is that what the Brelands found is not that unusual or challenging to an operant account of behavior.

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