Human Life Dissected

No, I am not a surgeon. I am an organizational not a clinical psychologist. What, you might wonder, then, gives me any authority on this subject. Having written probably thousands of words about it over the decades probably gives me sufficient cache. Readers, you be the judge of whether I have overstepped my limits at the end of this short article.

The Four Parts of Life: The Human Equation

I conceived the human equation decades ago. It could just be the most important non-mathematical equation in human life. Here is what it looks like:

Person + Context = Behavior and Consequences.

B.F. Skinner and My Equation

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) hardly needs an introduction. The American Psychological Association ranked him as the 20th century’s most eminent psychologist. I had to inhale his trailing fumes so to speak when I entered Indiana University (IU) in 1953 and majored in psychology. He had left there in 1948 as the Department Chair to go profess at Harvard. Did he ever leave an impact on the faculty who stayed! I was spoon-fed behaviorism, a form of psychological theory about which Skinner was very enthusiastic. His other passion spoon-fed me by his disciples was “operant conditioning.” We psychologists are prone to use big words, and Skinner was no exception. Operant conditioning in street, not tree talk, simply means the consequences of a person’s behavior influence the person’s future behavior in similar contexts, and the person might as well be an automaton, not represented in my human equation whatsoever.

Well, Ghost of Skinner, I want you to know that we humans rely on my equation daily without recognizing or verbalizing it at least in its entirety. Let me tell you how I use it in playing golf without visualizing the equation itself as I play. Let us say I am getting ready to play a short par three hole. As a person I bring my brain, or mind, and the rest of my body as an experienced golfer who has played this hole countless times but has never gotten a hole-in-one. The context includes the condition of my golf clubs and balls, the course and the weather, and the fact that my dad once made a hole-in-one on this exact hole and at the end of the year was invited to a banquet held in Indianapolis to honor all hole-in-one golfers in the State. Wanting to copy him is always in the back of my brain. My behavior will be swinging and hitting the ball. The consequence will be where the ball lands (it has never rolled into the hole).

Now, compare my explanation using all four parts of my equation with what I presume would be Skinner’s explanation. There would be no reference to me, the golfer. He would instead rely on his famous, or infamous, depending on one’s point of view, “Skinner Box” for an explanation. He invented it to manipulate the behavior of rats and pigeons in the lab and incredulously, to rear his infant daughter for two years in a temperature-controlled glass. In other words, he totally excluded any information about the “person” in explaining and/or manipulating the person’s (or rat or pigeon’s) behavior), and he would totally ignore me, the golfer, as the equation’s person in his explanation.

A quick note about that lab. Another undergrad, a geology major, and I would go to the top floor “rat” lab at around midnight, study and consume shrimp cocktail, crackers, and soda. IU psychologists back then loved rats I guess because they were not humans! The all-nighters paid off. I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and my friend became a geologist who found an undiscovered rock that was then named for him (this happened before new discoveries had to be named after their location).

In Closing: An Extreme Irony

I am going to end this short article by telling you about what I think is an extreme irony as a postscript to Professor Skinner’s time on the faculty of the “Department of Psychology” at IU. In 2005 this department was renamed the “Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.” First, note that “brain” is not subsumed as part of “psychological,” in deference to Skinner, no doubt. Second, if you go to this website: and then click on “history,” you will see a large statute, made from the area’s legendary limestone quarries, of a human brain, undeniably representing part of a person since the neck looks included, and being unveiled by three gentlemen in front of the department’s building with a ring of onlookers surrounding it. I wonder if the shaking head of Skinner’s ghost was there, upset that the word, “Psychological” had been included. Come to think of it, I also wonder whether he discounted the role of his own brain in forging a legendary career. And finally, think about yourself in having chosen to read this article. What role did your own brain, the rest of you and your context play in this process?

Gary Brumback, PhD, is a retired psychologist and Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. Read other articles by Gary.