The Psychology of Communication



-- so much more language sophistication comes out of a child than goes in, that you have to conclude that they were born with blueprints, plans, software - whatever you want to call it - that enables them to learn as fast as they do.

Jay Ingram
Talk, Talk, Talk, Pages 185-186

Interactionism could be viewed as a synthesis of the behavioristic thesis, as presented in Chapter 2, and the humanistic antithesis, as presented in Chapter 3. The behavioristic concept of the person was presented as a system of five propositions, and the humanistic concept of the person was presented as a system of five propositions, which contradicted the corresponding propositions of behaviorism. Let us look, in turn, at each pair of opposing propositions to suggest how the interactionist concept of the person resolves those dichotomies.

4.1 Intrinsic And Extrinsic Needs

The basic proposition of behaviorism is The person has only extrinsic needs, whereas the basic proposition of humanism is The person has intrinsic needs. This distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic needs is thus the basic difference between the behavioristic thesis and the humanistic antithesis. It is also the basic difference between a mechanism and an organism. Behaviorists, aspiring to be rigorous scientists like physicists, considered the person as a mechanism. A mechanism will remain at rest unless acted on by some external force. Thus the person is seen as being pushed and pulled by rewards and punishments. Interactionists agreed with humanists that the organism is intrinsically motivated. The person moves from the inside. Any mother of a 4-year-old child will tell you that the child will explore and manipulate the world without rewards and despite punishments.

E. L. Deci reviews a number of experiments demonstrating that extrinsic motivation destroys intrinsic motivation [DECI]. For example, children lose interest in certain toys when rewarded for playing with them. One explanation for needs beyond mere survival, presented in the previous chapter, is that the needs for stimulation and consistency were originally designed by nature for survival but became functionally autonomous. They were means to an end which became ends in themselves. We fished to survive but, as pressure for survival eased up, we fished to fish. Traditional schooling reverses this process. Knowing and understanding the world is an end in itself, but schools turn it into a means to the end of earning prizes. Many parents, confronted with a listless High School child, ask what happened to that keen child who went eagerly off to kindergarten. The answer: The child went to school.

The traditional educational system, based on the behavioristic concept of the person, does not take into account the intrinsic needs for stimulation and consistency which are the organic bases for knowing and understanding. If students have their own "motors" inside, there seems little point in pushing and pulling them around from the outside. It would appear superficially that this outside "help" could do no harm and might even save some wear and tear on the engine. However, there is considerable evidence that extrinsic motivation does not add to the pre-existing intrinsic motivation but destroys it. The student, unlike the car (being an organism rather than a mechanism), tends to switch off the motor.

1   Anyone who has squeezed what they thought was a blackhead out of their pubic hairs and seen it scurry away knows that an organism is intrinsically motivated. My apologies for such a rude example. However, you will always remember this. The sacrifices I make for pedagogy!