What do we value in other people’s actions and behaviors?  What are we particularly impressed with, and what do we feel is not worth our attention – and not just our attention, but our praise, our validation? This is the kind of thing we generally take for granted, or assume is universal truth – it just is.  It’s interesting to try to further understand the (often) unspoken rules we apply to human interactions like this.  In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (which, to be fair, seems to be reasonably controversial), B.F. Skinner makes just such an attempt:


First, why do we give credit at all?

To give a person credit for winning a game is to emphasize the fact that the victory was contingent on something he did, and the victory may then become more reinforcing to him.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 45)

Once we’re giving credit, what are the determining factors in whether, and how much we give?

The amount of credit a person receives is related in a curious way to the visibility of the causes of his behavior. We withhold credit when the causes are conspicuous. We do not, for example, ordinarily commend a person for responding reflexly: we do not give him credit for coughing, sneezing, or vomiting even though the result may be valuable.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 45)

In other words: how much autonomy has the person shown in taking whatever action they took?  If we can clearly see why they took the action, and it’s an action anyone would have taken, we tend to not give credit.  But if the action had value, and it’s clear that the person was not coerced into doing it – in fact, maybe we can’t see why they did it, we tend to give more credit.

The extent of the credit varies with the magnitude of the opposing conditions. We commend loyalty in proportion to the intensity of the persecution, generosity in proportion to the sacrifices entailed, and celibacy in proportion to a person’s inclination to engage in sexual behavior. As La Rochefoucauld observed, “No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked. All other goodness is generally nothing but indolence or impotence of will.”

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity  (p. 47)

“No man deserves to be praised for his goodness unless he has strength of character to be wicked.” We’re not impressed by people doing things (or not doing things) that we know they don’t really have the guts to do anyway.  To receive credit, the person has to actually have made a choice.  This is an interesting philosophical question of its own, and it reminded me of this question from A Clockwork Orange:

Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange (p. 71)


We give … maximal credit if he has discovered how to operate it without help, since he then owes nothing to any instructor at any time; his behavior has been shaped wholly by the relatively inconspicuous contingencies arranged by the equipment, and these are now past history.

Skinner, B.F. Beyond Freedom and Dignity (p. 48)

The less obvious it is how someone arrived somewhere, with some ability, or knowledge, or idea, the more prone we are to give credit for it.

We love magic.


Leave a Reply