Calling Up The Reinforcements

A Walden Two Experiment by Kathleen Kinkade William Morrow, $7.95,271 pp.

THIS CHRONICLE of the inception and growth of an experimental community named Twin Oaks will undoubtedly disappoint corporatist radicals and behavior-modification devotees alike. Given the circumstances, however, the disappointment is edifying. The society fashioned in front of the reader's eyes is an object lesson, inadvertantly so--encouraging not its emulation, but critical examination of a theory of human behavior both untenable in itself and thoroughly at odds with any revolutionary program.

Kathleen Kinkade emphasizes throughout that the revolution her group is interested in making is a relatively modest one--there is no room for "dreamers," nature freaks, or ideologists in Twin Oaks. The 40 community members face up to "responsibility," embrace technology and efficiency, and pursue their dreams and pleasures privately. But Kinkade spices this somewhat bland concoction with bits of B.F. Skinner. What we are really trying to do, she says, is create a community following the instructions set down in Walden Two: first, shape the individual's desires and behavior by use of controlled reinforcements (that is, utilize reward and punishment) in order to create the ideal man: "productive, openminded, noncompetitive"; second, in order to give him happiness and a sense of freedom, rely only on positive reinforcement, not punishment.

And there are a great many philosophical points of similarity between Walden Two and Twin Oaks. Skinner says "the Good Life means relaxation and rest"; at Twin Oaks, the prime aim is to finish one's work in four hours or less, so as to have "more time for swimming, listening to music, making love, or doing yoga." In both societies, the family occupies an ambiguous position: monogamous marriage is perfectly acceptable, but so is adultery; children in any event are kept out of the way. (In fact, no children are as yet allowed in Twin Oaks, five years after its establishment).

THE TWIN OAKS folk, perhaps unaccustomed to such "freedom" desperately insist on their straightness, even though one of the announced goals of the community is a good conscience for all. In this respect they are more human than the satisfaction-maximizing fictions of Walden Two. Thus, drugs are prohibited, material order and punctuality demanded, runaways promptly returned to the police, and, in general, "mixed-up people looking for shelter" are kept out of the community, in favor of "normal people looking for something significant to do with themselves." The normal people have also decided that the "mentally ill" have no place in Twin Oaks--they would, presumably, sully the healthy atmosphere of the "sane society."

These seemingly diffuse attitudes find their unity in bourgeois fantasy life, which is perhaps the point. Skinner is in many ways a bourgeois moralist. The excitement of Kinkade and her friends upon reading about Walden Two (it was "everything I had ever wanted," she gushes) can best be understood by viewing it as a garden of forbidden delights, but in which the institutions whose repressions create the fantasy remain intact. One can go about pleasing the senses only after he has felt the satisfaction of work well done. The titillations of adultery and free sex induce a dizziness curable in the stability of the marriage contract, which stipulates a spouse to whom one can come home, and confess. External order, the ordering of artifacts and bodies, counterbalances internal confusion. The bourgeois rebels are "normal" after all. Skinner provides hands to catch the falling sinner.

This underlying system of attitudes is more manifestly at work in the Twin Oaks community than in Walden Two, because the former lacks much of the scientistic veneer which cloaks these attitudes in Skinner's work. Behaviorism is, in this context, a vehicle by which Skinner advances the prejudices of an age in the imposing guise of "objective understanding."

BUT THIS IS NOT the case with Kinkade and her friends. Despite their avowed intention to fashion a utopia according to behaviorist principles, there are only a few examples in the book of attempts at conditioning behavior or even defining problems in Skinnerian terms. And these few are, invariably, embarrassing to the cause.

Kinkade mentions, for instance, the practice of graphing the number of times one commits a specific behavioral flaw on a chart each day in order to reduce its incidence. But only a few people are interested in this practice, she says, "because most people don't care enough about it to be reinforced by it." A major criticism of Skinner's theory of human behavior is that it represents, in the words of Arthur Koestler, "question-begging on a heroic scale," and here is a perfect example. If people have to be interested in something before they can be reinforced by it, then reinforcement obviously presumes the very thing it is supposed to create: an inclination to perform the action in question.

Or, how does the community "condition" recalcitrant members to do their work in this "non-competitive" system? If worse comes to worse, "we ask him to leave," but hopefully an appeal can be made to his conscience--a member's refusal to do work makes the burden heavier on all the rest. The first position is a frank admission of failure, the second an instance of multiple question-begging--it presumes a socialized conscience and a willingness to work if guilt can be evoked, both of which are theoretically the results, not the requisites, of proper reinforcement.

These examples, and numerous others, point to a conceptual fallacy, not just a problem of implementation. Skinnerian terms may have relevance in an animal laboratory, but when used to describe or comprehend human situations they are not only incorrect, but actually distort the meaning of those situations. For example, the community decided against children after problems involving disputes over ultimate responsibility for existing children, and lack of community interest in devoting its time to child care. From this experience Kinkade concludes that a "controlled environment" is necessary to "arrange" the proper type of child. But this solution, which deals with none of the real problems involved, does not follow from the situation as described; rather, it is the result of analyzing the situation strictly in terms of behavioral engineering.

THE MEMBERS OF Twin Oaks place a great deal of stress on "competence" in performing the various chores which must be done for the benefit of all. In this guise, the competitiveness Kinkade believes they have banished is actually resurrected; this is a new form of amour propre: the desire to outdo the other in altruism. The person who works the hardest creates the greatest amount of leisure time for everyone; each member is driven by public opinion to attain this ideal and in turn forces it upon the others, for no one wants to be the object of community disapproval or ostracism.

The keystone of this system is, of course, the desire for fun and relaxation; otherwise, there would be no competitive pressures toward altruistic work, and no motive for escaping community opprobrium or banishment. But can a society survive on such a pleasure principle? If one looks closely, it is apparent that the Twin Oaks community has not even tested the principle yet. Skinner's claim in the foreward to the book that Twin Oaks "is the world in miniature" is simply untrue. It is an artificial community: its population is very small and, as the author admits, homogenous due to its selective admissions policy; it buys the technological means to its pleasure from the outside world; its many visitors and guests are required to do the menial but necessary work no one in the community wants to do.

If there is any hope at all for Twin Oaks, and any redeeming feature of its concept, it is to be found in the basic good faith of its members (sometimes a naivete), which often makes for a certain easy trust, sympathy, nay, love. But then again, as the protagonist admits in Walden Two, "What is love, except another name for the use of positive reinforcement?"

Recommended Articles