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Under Skinner's Skin

By Joy Horowitz

It has been said that no man is better than his worst ideas. And B.F. Skinner has come up with some real lulus, or so his critics (and they're abundant) claim. They are adjectives like "evil", "fantastic" and "dangerous" when describing him. Their machine gun attacks would probably render most men impotent. They say that his psychology is "vacuous," "unscientific," "irresponsible," "without a psyche" and that it "necessitates an atrophy of consciousness." And many of them are distinguished figures: Noam Chomsky, Thomas Szasz, Rollo May, Carl Rogers and Stephen Spender--to name a few.

Skinner's deterministic philosophy of radical behaviorism allows no room for free will, and that's downright threatening to most of us who adhere to the notion of an inner experience of choice. He insists that behavior is controlled by one's environment, particularly by, "contingencies of reinforcement" that bring about more of one kind of behavior and less of another. For Skinner, the autonomy of inner man is a myth. "There is no place," he writes, "in the scientific position for a self as a true originator or initiator of action." He sees emotion as a matter of the probability of engaging in certain kinds of behavior as defined by certain consequences: anger is a heightened probability of attack: fear is a heightened probability of running away; love is a heightened probability of positively reinforcing a loved person. Feelings are never an initiating cause of behavior.

But above all, the key to the Skinnerian doctrine is "operant conditioning," or the selection of behavior by its consequences. According to Skinner, behavior can be controlled by controlling the environment through behavioral technology--though it is not clear just who would control that technology. Survival, he says, is really the only value worth upholding.

But Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not, as his work or his opponents might imply, a cold-hearted man whose body bears the wings and feathers of the pigeons he has used in research. Rather, he is the writer who, during his senior year at Hamilton College, sent off his short stories to Robert Frost, who thought that Skinner's prose was the best he had read the whole year. He is the poet who composes love sonnets and witty verse. He is the actor who devotes time to his play-reading group. He is the educator who invented the teaching machine and programmed instruction. He is the father who only "positively reinforced" his two daughters after one of them explained to him that punishment did no good. He is the husband who is always dependable (according to his wife). B.F. Skinner is all of these. Yet how could such a humanistic man have developed ideas that are reprehensible to so many people?

Just as he would like us to believe, to understand Skinner is to understand his past history and reinforcement contingencies. Born in the railroad town of Susquehanna, pa., Fred Skinner was "taught to fear God, the police and what people will think." Skinner writes, "My mother was quick to take alarm if I showed any deviation from what was 'right'... I can easily recall the consternation in my family when in second grade I brought home a report card on which under 'Deportment,' the phrase 'Annoys others' had been checked. Many things which were not 'right' still haunt me."

Whether a direct result of his childhood experience or not, Skinner has undeniably developed his own sense of what is 'right' through his psychological epistemology. "I really don't think I'm particularly brilliant," he said last week on his 71st birthday. "I think I've been stubborn. I think I've held to a given point of view every doggedly--and that's paid off. I think it's right. I wouldn't be holding it if I didn't think so."

A casual analysis linking his past history and present behavior might seem unjustified. But Skinner himself writes, "perhaps I have answered my mother's question 'what will people think?' by proving that they do not think at all." In much the same way, Skinner says that behaviorism has helped him to "resolve [his] early fear of theological ghosts," which his grandmother instilled in him by equating the concept of hell with the glowing bed of coals in his parlor stove. One might, the young liberty bound-selling boy scout lay awake all night "in an agony of fear" after seeing a travelling magician's show that featured a devil "complete with horns and barbed tall." Perhaps as a result of this aversive conditioning, Skinner now views God as a "fraud" and "never would think of praying."

Of his father, he writes, "He was desperately hungry for praise, and many people thought him conceited; but he secretly--and bitterly-considered himself a failure."

Like his father, Skinner places a tremendous amount of emphasis on his own brand of praise--positive reinforcement. He may not have inherited his father's conceitedness, but he appears exceedingly arrogant to many of his critics. And whether or not this arrogance conceals his own secret sense of failure is something that only he can know.

Rollo May once unknowingly pointed out a fundamental aspect of Skinner's personality by criticizing his work: "I have never found any place in Skinner's system for the rebel. Yet the capacity to rebel is of the essence in a constructive society." Skinner was something of a rebel during his college career and still is--perhaps a reason for his never starting a community along the lines of the one in his novel, Walden Two. After developing an aversion to Hamilton College("I was not good at sports and suffered acutely as...better players bounced basketballs off my cranium..."), he openly began to revolt as best he could.

"I don't know why I did it," he chuckles. We protested something, but not in an effective way. Today, we would be protesting what we were asked to do, what we were required to, what our teachers were not doing. But I pulled this Charlie Chaplin hoax my senior year and announced a lecture in the chapel by the famous comedian Charles Chaplin. The poster we made up announced that the lecture was arranged by this professor, the man we were gunning for, who was a great name-dropper in the field of theater. Hundreds of cars came. It was a mess and got totally out of hand. They said they would throw out the students who did it. I knew the dean very well and I told him I did it and he told me to keep my mouth shut."

"I was in charge of class day ceremonies and at that time I was painting in a studio," he remembers. "I did a lot of charcoal caricatures of the faculty. Well, we put those on the walls and had a fake commencement with a Chinese student giving the salutatory address in Chinese instead of Latin."

Skinner would probably attribute his need to revolt to environmental circumstances, but at least those circumstances gave him the freedom to revolt. If he hadn't had the chance to rebel, even in the most immature sense, who knows? The Skinner box, operant conditioning, behavior modification programs or the Aircrib (a large, glass-walled enclosure in which he raised one of his daughters for two and a half years and in which his two grand-children were raised) might just not exist. Maybe he would never have been attracted to the notions of John Watson, the father of behaviorism, and instead would have done the "right" thing--taken over his father's law practice just as his father had hoped he might do.

After receiving his Ph. D. in psychology from Harvard, Skinner spent five years doing postdoctoral research in a "subterranean laboratory" at the same time Frankling Roosevelt and his braintrust were advocating the New Deal. In 1936, Skinner married Yvonne Blue, an English major at the University of Chicago, who now says. "Fred told me he was a genius when we were first seeing each other. But I told him that he couldn't be a genius if he wanted to marry me."

Yvonne Skinner, a robust and affable woman from her rhinestone-studded glasses to her brand-new blue sneakers, is the main reason, Skinner says, that he never started a Walden Two of his own. "I don't like the idea of Walden Two," she says, "I like my privacy, I like collecting stuff, I like to travel, And I like my home."

"When we were first married, Fred used to always talk about his work and we'd get into arguments about it. Now, we never talk about his work at all. His ideas haven't changed much. After 38 years, you just don't keep talking about the same thing... When we were first married, he wanted me to act in a way that I couldn't. I thought it was artificial and unnatural although I'm sure he was right. I would get mad at the kids and show it and he didn't want me to"

Unhappy with his teaching experience at the University of Minnesota during the summer of 1945, Skinner wrote Walden Two, "a venture in self-therapy, in which I was struggling to reconcile two aspects of my own behavior represented by [the two main characters] Burris and Frazier. Now, of course, I'm a convinced Frazerian... Some of it was written with great emotion. The scene in Frazier's room, in which Frazier defends Walden Two while admitting that he himself is not a likeable person or fit for communal life.... I typed out in white heat."

Skinner's most important discovery while writing Walden Two is expressed through Frazier: "I remember the rage I used to feel when a prediction went awry. I could have shouted at the subjects of my experiments, 'Behave, damn you! Behave as you ought!' Eventually I realized that the subjects were always right. They always behaved as they should have behaved. It was I who was wrong. I had made a bad prediction...What a strange discovery for a would-be dictator that the only effective methods of control are positively reinforcing."

Skinner himself has adopted his behavior to his psychological theories. "I've learned a few tricks at self-management" he explains. "I apply my own analysis to my own behavior. I never assumed that I was not like my pigeons. I'm sure I am-- and very much more complicated, I hope. But as I designed an environment to get some behavior 0ut of my experimental organisms, so I work on the environment to get my own behavior out in ways that are reinforcing to me. That's all there is to it."

So he's established some basic rules for himself: Always have one place where you write. Never do anything else there except write. Never do anything else there except write. Write at the same time of the day. "It gets so you can't do anything except think and write in that place," he says. "It has complete control over you." Essentially, Skinner controls himself by living "according to routine. It's easier for me than to be making decisions all the time."


As the elevator doors close behind you on the seventh floor of William James Hall, the stink of pigeon droppings consume the air. To your right is a laboratory filled with behavioral science's elite corps of experimental organisms. There they coo and peek in their numbered lofts, the proud and nameless pigeon menagerie that once controlled and were controlled by B.F. Skinner. At one time, some of these birds played ping pong in Skinner boxes. Some spend time dancing together--also in boxes. Some were conditioned to hobble around in figure eights. Others were lucky enough to get out of the smelly lab and travel in what seemed to be outer space. During World War II, Skinner trained them to guide missles to a target for Project Pigeon, a research project financed by the Navy but never employed.

Across the hall from these unusually accomplished birds, some of whom are older than most Harvard undergraduates, is Skinner's office. What was once the headquarters of behavioristic efficiency, busy with the chatter of graduate students and colleagues, now remains quiet most of the day. The phone doesn't ring as often as it used to. And the incessant clatter of typewriter keys from the adjoining secretary's office has dwindled to ten hours a week. Pictures of smiling grand-children that adorn the filing cabinet are heavy with dust. Even the crusted rug in his office looks old and tired.

B.F. Skinner is officially retired now. The professor emeritus hasn't conducted research for at least ten years, nor does he follow current research. "I don't try to keep up with research now," he admits. "I look at the journals and read the abstracts but don't read the papers. And I can't understand much of it."

His days are scheduled: Up at 5 a.m. Break-fast at 7. Three hours of work on his autobiography. A two-mile walk to the office. Meetings with people and correspondence work. Lunch at noon. Nap. Light reading or mechanical work in his workshop. Cocktail (vodka and tonic). Television. Dinner and sleep by 9:30.

He no longer lectures, nor does he play the piano or harpsichord: his eyes are giving him too much trouble these days. Instead, he listens to the Romantics--Bruckner, Wagner, Beethoven. And he says that he follows the Greek practice of eutrapelia: the productive use of leisure.

At age 71, he's slowed down considerably. He's reached the stage in life that Erik Erikson has termed "the eighth crisis in the life cycle--the crisis of ego integrity." Its basic clash is between despair. "the feeling that time is too short," and the "acceptance of one's one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that by necessity, permitted of no substitutions." Skinner has met this crisis head on and says that he "enjoys life. That's the main thing." His psychic strength (words he might object to) and determination to keep going are very much intact.

Still, he is bothered. "My circles have given me a pretty rough time. Some of the reviews [of About Behaviorism] are really vicious. But I don't read most of them... As one of my colleagues said, I've had 'the worst press since Darwin.' I'd have to say Freud would be a near runner-up on that. I get fantastic name-calling. I just don't understand why anyone would do it. A review of my book came out just a couple of weeks ago by a disturbed psychiatrist named Szasz: I'm a 'murderer, a megalomaniac and a liar.' I mean, what gives? What's eating them? Fortunately, I don't lie awake nights writhing in anger over it all. I don't suffer any destructive emotions."

He may not be plagued by "destructive emotions," but judging from his behavior, Skinner is still deeply concerned by "what people will think." His most recent book, About Behaviorism, is not only a behaviorist primer for non-professionals, it is also a direct answer to several years of criticism--criticism which negatively reinforced him to write such a book.

The point is that B.F. Skinner is not the thick-skinned man he tends to portray. According to his own principles, he is the man he was reinforced to be--a man who so desperately tried to control what was "right" for himself that he rejected criticism and avoided understanding why others thought him wrong. But as he writes his autobiography in the early hours of the morning--going over his notebooks and immersing himself in his past--Skinner will either have to fight again all the old battles, or else begin to re-evaluate his ideas and himself in relative to others.

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