The Limitations of the 4-Quadrants

“To be observed, a response [behaviour] must affect the environment – it must have an effect upon an observer or upon an instrument which in turn can affect the observer. This is as true as the contraction of a small group of muscle fibers as of pressing a lever or pacing a figure 8.” Skinner 1969

This fits so nicely with what I have been saying recently in a number of FB groups about the 4 quadrants of operant conditioning; they are not designed to describe the emotional state of the organism, they are designed to describe the behaviour. No more and no less.

We seem to insist on adding more and more meaning to the 4 quadrants and I see time and again where emotions are being inferred from the nomenclature that was only ever designed to describe physical behaviour. e.g. pressure does not equal aversive. Pressure is a physical descriptor which has “an effect upon an observer or upon an instrument which in turn can affect the observer”, aversive is an emotional descriptor.

That is not to say we should ignore the emotions of the organism. We must acknowledge the emotions of the organism, but that is not done using the 4 quadrants.


One comment

  1. Thank-you. Just… thank-you. I’ve spent many years virtually begging people to consider the quadrants within a much larger contex. I believe that so much arguing and debating around the quadrants distracts from more important discussions and exploration around what *else* is crucial to the learning, memory, motivation, and especially well-being of the human/horse/dog/bird, etc. I’m quite encouraged to see many +R trainers paying attention to Panksepp, though. That seems like an excellent start in helping people look *beyond* behaviorism. (Not to leave behaviorism behind, of course, but to have it situated within a much more interesting, diverse, exciting, fabulous toolbox.)


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